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Tone poems and celestial bodies

The tone poem Egdon Heath was composed in 1927 as a tribute to Thomas Hardy. The tone poem, a symphonic work with not much dependence formal structure, had emerged in the late Romantic era as a popular form for orchestral work, as composers like Wagner and Debussy sought not just to dismantle the harmonic framework of music, but to also dissolve the formal framework that had governed music, and in a way restricted the emotional output.

Egdon Heath was inspired by Hardy's The Return of the Native; the heath, a somewhat fictional version of Salisbury Plain, was described in the book as "a place perfectly accordant with man's nature - neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly: neither commonplace, unmeaning, nor tame; but like man, slighted and enduring, and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony."

This impression of the heath was the one that the composer Gustav Holst chose to evoke. The melody is first heard in the double basses, their low register conveying a sense of seriousness before it is passed on to the rest of the strings. The other elements of the heath are represented by the brass and woodwind instruments playing a somewhat nostalgic theme, as well as an energetic theme in the strings and oboe, as if to represent the heath in different guises, in the light of day, and the shadows of night as the moonlight falls on it, and the transitions in between. The work has been described as dark and evocative, and perhaps its premiere in London left the audience somewhat uncertain as it finished quietly with a slight sense of inconclusion.

Holst, however, believed it to be his finest work. Had it not been for Egdon Heath, and perhaps to a lesser extent St Paul's Suite, the composer, whose grandfather and great-grandparents had emigrated to England, might have joined the club of Classical one-hit wonders by virtue of the overwhelming success of his other work. Which other work? You know ... The Planets.

If you are unfamiliar with the title of the work, you will almost have certainly heard elements of it before. The Planets has seven movements representing the seven planets other than Earth. Jupiter is the probably the most familiar of them all; it is the source of the hymn I vow to thee my country and if you've ever watched Last Night of the Proms you will probably have come across it.

But it is not just the direct quotation from Jupiter that evokes familiarity. Listening to Mars, the Bringer of War, you might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Holst wrote the music for the film Star Wars instead of John Williams, as the styles are very similar. Mars could very well have accompanied the scenes of X-wings and TIE-fighters battling it out in space.

And what about the planet Pluto? Discovered in 1930, but then downgraded in 1992 from its status as the ninth planet after the discovery of larger objects in the Kuiper belt (such as the dwarf planet Eris), it was unknown at the time Holst finished the score in 1916. If a movement had been written for Pluto, it might have been a bit odd if current orchestras either dropped the movement in performance for scientific accuracy, or played it as a complete work regardless of its declassification.

It all worked out nicely. Perhaps it was written in the stars.

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