Imagining war

Posted on: 22 May 2020, by :

Our series on big tunes, big sounds must include one of the most emphatic tunes and most massive sounds of any devised before the age of amplification and electronics: the first movement, ‘Mars: the Bringer of War’, of The Planets, the ‘Suite for Large Orchestra’ by Gustav Holst.

In its awesome beauty, this music makes us imagine the terrifying power and consequences of war: it is, after all, a relentless march in distorted metre (five beats per bar, the antithesis of regular order), with brutal harmonies that swarm at us, competing military fanfares and some lyrical moments that seem to echo the contrived optimism of jingoism. You’d be forgiven for assuming that ‘Mars’ is all about the terrors and tragedies of the Great War that was not yet over when it was first performed (September 1918). Or you might assume that the whole of The Planets suite, composed in 1914-16, is visionary: a grand allegory for both the ills and the great promises of the world of the early twentieth century.

Holst feared that we would make such assumptions and warned against them. ‘These pieces,’ he wrote in 1920, ‘were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets; there is no programme music in them, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names.’

The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, conducted by Edward Gardner, in the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 6 August 2016. Holst composed the music at first for two pianos before orchestrating it later. The two-piano version of ‘Mars’ is here.

It seems that The Planets suite is all about astrology, a fascination and hobby of Holst’s at that time: it’s not about astronomy and apparently nothing tangibly to do with current affairs or the state of the world. ‘Mars’ was in fact completed early in the summer of 1914, before the First World War broke out. Many years later, after the devastation of industrialized warfare in two worldwide conflicts had happened, Holst’s daughter Imogen observed that her father ‘had never heard a machine gun when he wrote it, and the tank had not yet been invented’. Even so, it’s very hard to believe that Holst, in his careful thinking about agency — the ‘bringer’ of war and the trajectories of our neighbouring planets — was impervious to the significant tensions building in the early 1910s, caused by an aggressive German empire and the trajectories of the other great powers of Europe who were drifting into threatening constellations.

In the end, we each hear what we hear: non-vocal music has the capacity to create imagined meaning that is very different from the original imagining of its composer — especially because, after the passage of time, hindsight and our awareness of intervening history alter the parameters in which we receive and interpret the music. These days we are encouraged to imagine war. We are in a war against the virus, so we are have been told by national leaders attempting to channel the spirit of Churchill or Roosevelt. By now, in late May, we have reached a perilous stage in our world war, not unlike that of 1916-17, when the enemy is still winning and inflicting defeats, when there is not yet any end in sight nor any super-weapon to deploy, when earlier offensive plans need to be replaced, when disillusionment is setting in within some sections of society, when mutiny is beginning to occur, and when some leaders, having proved ineffectual so far, resort increasingly to scapegoating, information-suppression and other propaganda. We might think: this music fits.

Or instead we flick off that switch in our minds and enjoy such marvellous music purely for its own brilliance and for the thrills of a fine live performance.