Arts critic’s notebook

Holst’s The Planets Suite VII: Neptune Shines for its Mysterious Nature

A one-of-a-kind piece

Hello! This is Critic’s Notebook, a column that features essays on great works in the arts. The purpose of Critic’s Notebook is to not only explain what makes these works significant, but also analyze them on a deeper level. 

As someone who has been to Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts more than 20 times to date, I have heard many pieces by various composers, from Mozart to Ives. While all of them are excellent for their own reasons, I will never forget listening to “Neptune: the Mystic,” the last movement in Gustav Holst’s The Planets suite. The suite is divided into seven movements, one for each planet. 

Iconic for its exquisite use of tone painting, the suite captures each of the planets’ distinctive personalities, which are based on the Roman deities. What makes this work a masterpiece are the diverse musical elements in each movement, whether it is the harmonious polyphony in “Venus” or the amusing syncopation in “Mercury.” Although The Planets are most known for the militant “Mars” movement and the uplifting “Jupiter” movement, “Neptune” is my favorite one because the movement makes listeners enter an unparalleled state of wonder. 

To begin with, what is special about “Neptune” is how mysterious and ethereal the piece feels. The movement begins with the flute and piccolo playing a chromatic, atonal melody in a high note range. The dissonance makes the piece feel unresolved, giving in to this quiet tension and eeriness that pervades the piece. In other words, listening to this piece conjures images of a faraway planet where things have yet to be explored.

Besides the notable melody, the special instrumentation adds richness to this piece. The harp adds a glimmer of brightness to the mellow sound of the woodwinds, whereas the glockenspiel and celesta contribute crystal-clear sounds. Despite their subtle differences, both instruments evoke visuals of the celestial body. On the other hand, the repeating melody of ascending and descending notes, as well as the quasi trillo (rapid bow movements of the same note) in the violin, contribute to an uncertain mood. 

Later, there is an interesting contrast between the two melodies, one being dissonant and the other being consonant. This push-and-pull effect results in the piece swaying between apprehension and awe. While these emotions may sound contradictory, they perfectly convey the fascination and fear of the unknown at the same time. 

The most captivating part of this movement, however, is the last section of the movement in which the offstage female chorus joins in. The chorus sings a high-pitched melody with an airy and light timbre, making their voices sound like they are floating and drifting off into space. The chorus has its defining characteristics, yet their voices closely resemble the sounds of other instruments. To put it simply, the chorus achieves a heavenly sound that defies expectations, as it is rare for voices to achieve that type of effect. 

As the piece reaches its conclusion, the diminuendo in the chorus is very gradual, so gradual that it demands listening to the chorus with great focus until no more voices can be heard. Although the sheet music says pianissimo for the start of the chorus, one can still notice subtle changes in the dynamics over time that are akin to something vanishing into thin air. Not only that, but the repeating motif at the end brings about an echo-like effect, which makes the whole movement even more mystifying. 

In conclusion, “Neptune: the Mystic” is a piece that I highly recommend because of the complex sounds that make the listening experience not only mysterious but also surreal. If you have the chance to attend a performance of The Planets suite, seize the opportunity; listening to this piece live takes on a whole new dimension, something that recordings can’t encapsulate.