Pluto Busted to “Dwarf Planet”; Holst Vindicated

Richard Wattenbarger

Although I'm no fan of Holst's The Planets (1914-1916, premiered 1920), I must confess to a certain amount of glee to learn that the International Astronomical Union has revoked Pluto's planetary status, thus restoring (at least temporarily) the seven movements of the suite to something corresponding to the real solar system. And, yes, I know that Pluto hadn't been discovered when Holst composed the piece.

Does it matter that no one knew of Pluto in the 1910s? At one point, I would have answered, "No."  Yet around 2000, Kent Nagano and the Hallé Orchestra commissioned Colin Matthews to compose a "Pluto" movement.  The movement, entitled "Pluto, the Renewer,"  (a recording of which has been available on the Naxos label) is a pretty good piece, not least because Matthews wisely eschewed any attempt to emulate Holst's style.

Still, I must confess a certain amount of ambivalence about Nagano's, Hallé's, and Matthews's venture.  Does "completing" The Planets dehistoricize the piece?  I'm not convinced that what Matthews has done is in the same category as, for example, Luciano Berio's Rendering, his realization of Schubert's sketches for an unfinished ninth symphony, or Berio's endings for Turandot and the unfinished Contrapunctus from Kunst der Fuge.  It may be that Berio's efforts force us to grapple with some of the historical problems surrounding these pieces in a way that Matthews's doesn't.  I don't know.  I'm going to have to give this more thought.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Pluto Busted to “Dwarf Planet”; Holst Vindicated

  1. Rinaldo says:

    I don’t know; Pluto has been a planet all my life, so its demotion feels as if part of my life experience has been removed. I enjoy finding out about astronomical minutiae, and splitting hairs about them, but I guess I can’t be objective about Pluto.
    And as for me, I AM a fan of The Planets; I think it gets underrated as a really well-crafted piece of its type. The absence of Pluto never caused me any problems (I don’t bother with the Matthews addendum), because it didn’t exist at the time of composition — but more crucially because the movements are more about astrological associations than physical objects, and Pluto never really built up any aura of that kind.

  2. Michael O'Connor says:

    I love The Planets too. As a euphonium player how can I not love it? Holst, however, was never terribly satisfied with the work and most analyses agree that it probably needed a revision before its ossification.

  3. Charles Freeman says:

    There is probably one salutary side effect of Pluto’s de-planetization. Had the IAU gone the other way and preserved Pluto’s status, there were at least three other bodies (and possibly many more) likely to be added to the planet list. How long do you think it would have taken for some orchestra to commission some composer to write “Charon” or “Ceres” or “Sedla” or, most likely, “Xena” to “complete” the suite?

  4. hermes501 says:

    Even though Holst’s piece is obviously held together by the concept of the actual planets of our solar system as he understood them, it has always seemed to me to be much more about Roman mythology, which we can see from titles like “Mercury, The Winged Messenger.” I just pulled out a few movements of this piece for my music appreciation class yesterday, mentioning the timely news about Pluto and its implications for Holst’s piece, but concentrating more on The Planets as program music and how knowing the titles and a bit about Roman mythology helps us to approach the music, whereas a knowledge of the physical planets wouldn’t be nearly so helpful.
    Your historical accuracy question is an interesting one to ponder as well. Unlike Puccini’s Turandot or other works that were actually unfinished, Holst did complete his composition, and it is only our knowledge of the solar system that came after the piece was completed that makes us see it as unfinished. To impose “completion” onto it that matches our own perspective and not Holst’s perspective or aesthetic is, I think, to do it a slight injustice (though I still want to hear the Pluto movement, now that I know about it).

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