Holst’s The Planets

with the NAC Orchestra

2023-05-18 20:00 2023-05-19 22:00 60 Canada/Eastern 🎟 NAC: Holst’s The Planets


In-person event

Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s Catamorphosis is a living, breathing orchestral work inspired by “the fragile relationship we have to our planet.” As Thorvaldsdóttir explains, this swirling, textured world of musical ideas revolves around “a distinct sense of urgency, driven by the shift and pull between…power and fragility, hope and despair, preservation and destruction.” It is impossible to experience Catamorphosis and come away unmoved.  ...

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Southam Hall,1 Elgin Street,Ottawa,Canada
May 18 - 19, 2023

≈ 1h 50mn · With intermission


Last updated: May 11, 2023

LILI BOULANGER D’un matin de printemps (10 min)

ANNA THORVALDSDÓTTIR Catamorphosis* (20 min)


GUSTAV HOLST The Planets, Op. 32 (48 min)

I. Mars, the Bringer of War
II. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
III. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
IV. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
V. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
VI. Uranus, the Magician
VII. Neptune, the Mystic

*Canadian Premiere


Lili Boulanger

D’un matin du printemps

French composer Lili Boulanger (1893–1918) was an immense musical talent from a young age. Despite suffering chronic illness, she composed prolifically, creating substantial, potently expressive works for choir, voice, piano, chamber ensemble, and orchestra, and was at work on an opera when intestinal tuberculosis claimed her life at only 24 years old. In 1913, she became the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome. Her distinctive style bears qualities typical of early 20th century French music, influenced, notably, by Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy in her synthesis of tonal and modal harmony, combined with her imaginative use of instrumental colour and layered textures.

In 1917, Lili composed two pieces, D’un soir triste (Of a Sad Evening) and D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning). She conceived each of them in three versions for different instrumentation and forces: duos for violin (or cello) and piano for D’un soir triste, violin (or flute) and piano for D’un matin de printemps; and for both works, settings for piano trio and for orchestra. At this time, Lili’s health was in evident decline, and though these works were reportedly the last that she was able to write in her own hand, surviving manuscripts of the orchestral versions, which were completed in January 1918, are notated by her sister Nadia.

To the extent that they’re based on the same musical theme, D’un soir triste and D’un matin de printemps are companion pieces but they can be performed individually. The latter was premiered almost exactly three years after Lili’s death, on March 13, 1921, by the Concerts Pasdeloup orchestra conducted by Rhené-Baton at the Paris Conservatoire.

Energetic and full of vibrant orchestral colour, D’un matin de printemps is a striking and optimistic work. A steady pattern of short notes in the upper strings, tinged with glints of triangle and celesta, form a propulsive backdrop over which solo flute plays the spirited main theme. These materials are passed around the orchestra—the woodwinds are particularly prominent (a characteristically French feature), with their bright and delicate timbres contrasting the lushly smooth strings. After blossoming into a decisive horn call and a snare drum flourish, the music sinks into murkiness (marked “mysterious” in the score) with winding lines in the lower registers of the woodwinds. Out of this, a dreamlike passage featuring divided strings emerges and blooms into a sumptuous romantic episode. Thereafter, the music shifts back and forth between the sound realms of the opening—lively, alert, pointillistic—and the hazy ethereality of the dreamscape, including a duet between muted violins of fairy-like nimbleness, and an easy-going melody in the cellos. Eventually, the original energy returns and builds to a brilliant statement of the main theme, after which the work finishes with a spectacular descending harp glissando and a final orchestral punch.


Catamorphosis (Canadian Premiere)

“One of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music” (NPR), Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir (b. 1977) is known for her highly atmospheric and texturally imaginative works. Her “detailed and powerful” (The Guardian) orchestral writing has garnered her awards from the New York Philharmonic, Lincoln Center, the Nordic Council, and the UK’s Ivors Academy, as well as commissions and performances by many of the world’s leading orchestras, ensembles, and arts organizations. She is currently Composer-in-Residence with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, and this year, she will also be in residence at the Aldeburgh Festival and at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. She holds a PhD from the University of California in San Diego.

Anna says her music is “written as an ecosystem of sounds, where all materials continuously grow in and out of each other, transforming in the process”; it’s also often “inspired in an important way by nature and its many qualities, in particular structural ones, like proportion and flow.” Her piece Catamorphosis, composed in 2020, features these signature qualities of her compositional style, taken to a new intensity. The Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko performed the world premiere in January 2021; tonight, the National Arts Centre Orchestra gives the work’s Canadian premiere.

“The core inspiration behind Catamorphosis,” Anna describes, “is the fragile relationship we have to our planet. The aura of the piece is characterized by the orbiting vortex of emotions and the intensity that comes with the fact that if things do not change it is going to be too late, risking utter destruction—catastrophe. The core of the work revolves around a distinct sense of urgency, driven by the shift and pull between various polar forces—power and fragility, hope and despair, preservation and destruction.”

“Catamorphosis, she continues, “is quite a dramatic piece, but it is also full of hope—perhaps somewhere between the natural and the unnatural, between utopia and dystopia, we can gain perspective and find balance within and with the world around us.”

Structurally, Catamorphosis unfolds as a single movement with seven “atmospheric sub-sections”—Origin, Emergence, Polarity, Hope, Requiem, Potentia, and Evaporation—that trace a compelling organic arc. In an interview for the Berlin Philharmonic, Anna notes that the main musical characteristics of the piece include a “fundamental harmony that carries the structure from relatively early on in the music until the end.” This is paired with various textural elements, of “nuanced sounds” also used throughout. Origin begins with the emerging of non-pitch-based sounds, and these textural materials (such as “airy sounds, percussive attacks”) and the more “traditionally lyrical material” morph in and out of each other to create the musical structure.

The three sections Polarity, Hope, and Requiem form the work’s core—each are almost equal in length and all together comprise about 15 minutes of this 20-minute piece. Polarity begins with forceful statements in the trombones; the section has an ominous, threatening character, out of which a slow-moving melody, full of longing, materializes. Later, tension mounts further but eventually melts into an E-flat major chord, which leads into the Hope section. Here, the harmony slowly oscillates between major and minor, as rhythmically brushed sounds propel the music forward, and violins play upward-reaching flourishes. Near the end of this section, the harmony makes a tectonic-like shift down to D major, then finally settles in C major. Percussive sounds mark the beginning of the Requiem and the energy picks up slightly; the lower strings, later joined by the violins sing a solemn melody. What starts in deep melancholy seems to move toward consolation, reaching peace on the E-flat major sonority, before moving on to Potentia (featuring slowly sliding notes), then the dissipation of sound at the close of Evaporation.

Gustav Holst

The Planets, Op. 32

I. Mars, the Bringer of War
II. Venus, the Bringer of Peace
III. Mercury, the Winged Messenger
IV. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
V. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
VI. Uranus, the Magician
VII. Neptune, the Mystic

Gustav Holst (1874–1934) is considered to be one of English music’s truly idiosyncratic voices of the 20th century. Although he created many distinctive works, he’s best known for one piece in particular: The Planets. He started composing it around 1914, completing the full score three years later. A private performance of it (gifted to him by his friend Henry Balfour Gardiner) was given by the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra under conductor Adrian Boult on September 29, 1918, with the first public performance occurring on November 15, 1920, in London led by Albert Coates. Holst himself conducted the London Symphony Orchestra for two recordings of it, in 1922–23, and in 1926.

The success of The Planets with audiences is due to its communicative power, an aspect of music Holst himself felt strongly about. It’s otherwise a rather unusual orchestral piece for its time because it’s neither a symphony nor a tone poem, but a suite, though one of Holst’s likely models for it was Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra from 1909; his own working title for The Planets was “Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra”. The subject matter arose from the composer’s burgeoning interest in astrology (he frequently casted horoscopes for his friends), which he notably clarified in his own program note for the 1920 premiere: “These pieces were suggested by the astrological significance of the planets; there is no programme music, neither have they any connection with the deities of classical mythology bearing the same names.” With regards to The Planets not being “programme music”, Holst meant the movements didn’t explicitly convey a narrative, or even characterizations of Greek or Roman gods, but rather, are a series of “mood pictures” that complement one another. Moreover, as Richard Greene pointed out in his comprehensive study of the work, in emphasizing the planets’ “astrological significance”, Holst, who was then reading Alan Leo’s What Is a Horoscope and How Is It Cast?, was implying that these “mood pictures” are about the various facets of human character and how they may be shaped by planetary influence.

The order of The Planets’ individual movements suggests an outward journey (i.e., away from the sun), that, in Greene’s view, parallels a psychological journey that moves from the “physical world to the metaphysical.” Within them, Holst takes some artistic liberties, such as having Mars as the first movement instead of Mercury, probably because it made a more compelling opening. With its persistent 5/4 rhythmic ostinato, “Mars, the Bringer of War” is aggressive and relentless. It evokes our primal tendency to ambition so compellingly that you can’t help but be swept up in it, but the result is chaos (listen to the cacophony of dissonances overcome the “march”), culminating in a brutal end. (1920 audiences would have heard this with the horrors of the First World War in mind but Holst completed the movement in early 1914 before hostilities broke out.)

In stark contrast, “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” soothes from the first horn solo, while gently oscillating harmonies project a sense of serenity. Later, the atmosphere becomes more sensuous, when solo violin, then with the rest of the violins, sing a yearning melodic line. After successive variations on this theme, the original mood returns, and sparkling timbres of celesta and harp eventually bring this movement to an ethereal close.

Holst described Mercury as “the symbol of the mind”, perhaps in reference to Leo’s description of Mercury giving “adaptability, fertility of resource, and the ability to use the mind in various ways.” This movement, which Holst completed last of the seven, is a much-admired example of his orchestration skill, with dovetailing quicksilver passages passed around the instruments, as us listeners try to follow the racing “thought threads”.

Jupiter is, in Holst’s words, “the musical embodiment of ceremonial jollity,” which correlate with Leo’s description that “those born under [the planet’s] influence are cheery and hopeful in disposition, and possess a noble and generous spirit.” These aspects are revealed in the movement’s various themes—starting with flickering waves and invigorating syncopated motifs in the horns, to a spirited tune intoned by horns and strings, then a rustic dance piped by the horns that becomes increasingly wild. At the heart of the movement is a majestic melody “of noble and generous spirit”, carried by the horns and strings.

“Saturn brings not only physical decay,” said Holst, “but also a vision of fulfillment.” The former is musically translated as alternating chords that pervade throughout the movement, like a ticking clock, or the plodding tread of someone of “old age”. Tenor trombone intones a melancholy theme that warms when the strings pick it up; this is followed by a mysterious four-flute chorale, which becomes more determined as it progresses. It reaches a clangorous climax, the tolling of bells sounding like a death knell, after which a haunting double bass solo transports us to the beyond, and the cascading texture of harps lull us to peaceful acceptance.

With “Uranus, the Magician”, we enter the metaphysical realm of the piece. Leo notes that “when leaning toward the adverse and material side of this influence, persons will be eccentric, strange, and erratic”, and it seems it’s these aspects that Holst highlights in this movement. The music veers suddenly from ominous and ponderous to comic, even mocking, and back, like a magician madly conjuring. (Several critics at the time pointed out this movement’s similarities to Paul Dukas’s popular 1897 orchestral piece, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.)

For “Neptune, the Mystic”, Holst creates a shimmering “sound cloud” of piquant harmonies and fast-moving textures, such as rapid arpeggios in the celesta, harps, and violins, over long sustained notes in other instruments. This sense of “static vibration” is perhaps conveying Leo’s notion that under Neptune’s influence, the psychic tendencies of mediums will develop and become more sensitive to the “vibrations” of others. An invisible chorus of women joins in mid-way through, luring us wordlessly further into the unknown, then finally dissolving into the ether.

Program notes by Hannah Chan-Hartley, PhD


  • Alexander Shelley ©Curtis Perry
    Conductor Alexander Shelley
  •  ©
    Featuring Ewashko Singers
  •  ©
    Featuring NAC Orchestra


NAC Orchestra

First Violins
Yosuke Kawasaki (concertmaster)
Jessica Linnebach (associate concertmaster)
Noémi Racine Gaudreault (assistant concertmaster)
Emily Kruspe
Marjolaine Lambert
Carissa Klopoushak
Zhengdong Liang
**Frédéric Moisan
*Martine Dubé
*Erica Miller
*Andréa Armijo Fortin
°Yu Kai Sun
°Delia Li
°Sienna MinKyong Cho
°Kimberly Durflinger
°Daniel Fuchs
°Yan Li

Second violins
Mintje van Lier (principal)
Winston Webber (assistant principal)
Jeremy Mastrangelo
Leah Roseman
Emily Westell
Manuela Milani
Mark Friedman
**Karoly Sziladi
**Edvard Skerjanc
*Renée London
*Oleg Chelpanov
*Heather Schnarr
*Marc Djokic
°Patrick Paradine
°Austin Wu
°Lindsey Herle

Jethro Marks (principal)
David Marks (associate principal)
David Goldblatt (assistant principal)
David Thies-Thompson
Paul Casey
*Sonya Probst
°Marie Vivies
°Ellis Yuen-Rapati
°Christoph Chung
°Rebecca Miller

Rachel Mercer (principal)
**Julia MacLaine (assistant principal)
Marc-André Riberdy
Timothy McCoy
Leah Wyber
*Karen Kang
*Desiree Abbey
°Justine Lefebvre
°Juliette Leclerc
°Evelyne Méthot
°Aidan Fleet

Double Basses
Max Cardilli (assistant principal)
Vincent Gendron
Marjolaine Fournier
**Hilda Cowie
*Paul Mach
°Jacob Diaz
°Logan Nelson
°Patrick Bigelow

Joanna G'froerer (principal)
Stephanie Morin
°Aram Mun
°Félicia Lévesque

Charles Hamann (principal)
Anna Petersen
°Katherine Eaton
*John Symer

English Horn
Anna Petersen

Kimball Sykes (principal)
Sean Rice
°Xhovan Dimo
°Yanqing Zhang

Darren Hicks (principal)
Vincent Parizeau
°Nadia Ingalls
*Nicolas Richard

Lawrence Vine (principal)
Julie Fauteux (associate principal)
Elizabeth Simpson
Lauren Anker
Louis-Pierre Bergeron
°August Haller
°Chia-ying Lin
°Rachel O'Connor
°Taran Plamondon

Karen Donnelly (principal)
Steven van Gulik
°Luis Cardenas Casillas
°Matheus Moraes
*Michael Fedyshyn

*Steve Dyer (guest principal)
Colin Traquair
°Léonard Pineault Deault

Bass Trombones
*Zachary Bond
°Alexander Mullins

*Vanessa Fralick

Chris Lee (principal)
°Brandon Figueroa

*Michael Kemp (guest principal)
°Hamza Able

Jonathan Wade
*Andrew Johnson
°Alec Joly Pavelich
°Leigh Wilson

*Angela Schwarzkopf
°Anna Dunlap

*Thomas Annand

*Olga Gross

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Nancy Elbeck

Assistant Librarian
Corey Rempel

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Laurie Shannon

*Additional musicians
**On leave
°Participants of the NAC Orchestra Mentorship Program