This year marks the centenary of the first performance of Holsts’ epic symphony, ‘The Planets’, and a few Saturday’s ago I was lucky enough to enjoy a celebratory performance at the London Barbican. It was magical experience, giving this amazing work new life and, courtesy of Professor Brian Cox’s enthusiastic presence, introducing the latest scientific thinking to a piece of music whose creation owed more to astrology than astronomy.
I mostly write about music on this blog and am enthusiastically in favour of all of its forms, but it would be an exaggeration to say I am a classical music fan. I do sometimes pop a bit of Mozart on the turntable of a Sunday morning, before Cerys Matthews has got started on Radio 6, but I have also struggled to stay awake during concerts by many of the world’s greatest orchestras. Opera I love, but take away the singing and the gauche costumes and my mind wanders. I doubt a month has passed, however, at least since the invention of Spotify, that I haven’t listened to Holst’s ‘The Planets’. This one piece of classical music never fails to inspire me and, thanks to Prof Cox, it will now do so in altogether new ways.
Writing with the First World War as a backdrop and newly introduced to astrology, Gustav Holst created a symphony that imbued our solar system neighbours with a mix of mythological characteristics and contemporary connotations, as he despaired about the capacity of humanity to destroy itself. Holst, a socialist, intended the work as a critique of industrial capitalism and the killing machines it had created, making war a simultaneous global tragedy for the first time.
Listen to ‘Mars’, for example, and the ‘bringer of war’ enters the room. Venus, in contrast, is clearly the ‘bringer of peace’, reflecting both star-sign nonsense and the best scientific conjecture of the early twentieth century, which theorised that a calm, tropical world might exist beneath the Evening Star’s impenetrable clouds. Sadly, we now know that Venus is instead a harbinger of what climate change can do, a twist in the chemical composition of its atmosphere billions of years ago having rendered the entire planet a cauldron of heat, with pressures so high that any human visitor would be ripped apart in nano-seconds if the chemical rain had failed to burn them to death first.
At a normal performance of Holst’s short symphony one planet follows another without pause (albeit not in the usual order of distance from the Sun and omitting Earth, as it is not represented in astrology). For the centenary, however, we were treated to Brian Cox bouncing onto stage in between each planet to explain Holst’s vision and bring us up to date on what science can now tell us about the bright dots that wander across the constellations in our night sky.
Thus we learned that Saturn’s beautiful rings may be a relatively recent phenomenon, perhaps less than 100 million years old, so the dinosaurs could have watched them being formed if they’d bothered to build telescopes. If I understood it correctly, it is even possible that the rings were formed by ejections of water from thermal vents on one of Saturn’s moons that got trapped into geo-stationary orbit around their mother planet and rapidly cooled into ice particles. If we conquer climate change, will some future entrepreneur have a go at creating rings around the Earth to boost space tourism?
Planets change slowly, but human understanding of them is evolving fast. When Holst was composing, eminent scientists thought it probable that there was sentient life on Mars. Evidence of contemporary canal building was confidently catalogued, explaining why people were so ready to believe H.G. Wells’ fictional threat of Martian invasion.
Space probes in the 1980s comprehensively burst that bubble, but Prof. Cox made an argument that I had not previously heard, that the realisation that there isn’t life on Mars had a profound effect on human psychology at the end of the 20th century. It was the moment when all available evidence suggested we are alone, although sadly it seems to have convinced many humans that we are masters of the universe, rather than that we need to be more careful stewards of the fragile eco-system that permits our unique form of life to survive and thrive.
Cox noted that we know almost nothing of the billions of other stars in our galaxy, let alone about the unimaginable number of other solar systems in the trillions of stars in hundreds of billions of other galaxies. There might not be evidence of life elsewhere, but the balance of probabilities suggests it must exist, or have existed.
But what if all life is as stupid as humanity and can grow only to the point that it discovers the means of destroying itself? This month’s report by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change showed just how close we are to wiping ourselves out. While one outlet for human ingenuity – space probes sent to scurry around on Mars – are finding strong evidence of part of the life formula – water – on another planet, far too many clever people on Earth are wasting their brains working out how to extract and burn even more fossil fuels, risking turning Earth into another Venus.
Maybe it is time for a modern Holst to create a new Planets for the Anthropocene? That would at least give me two pieces of classical music to stay awake to, and provide more inspiration to work with the growing minority of humanity who can see that we need to change the way we live in order to survive and thrive into another century.
* Holst’s ‘The Planets’ with Professor Brian Cox is available to listen to on the BBC i-player, for those lucky enough to have access to British public service broadcasting, probably my country’s finest achievement after the NHS and Marmite.