23. The Bringer of Jollity and Orchestral “Shimmer”

Basics, voicing

In the previous post we reviewed symphonic works by Arnold Bax, Maurice Ravel and Sergei Rachmaninoff. The focus was specifically on some of the less frequently written and, therefore, less frequently heard pairings of instruments and/or sections for melodic lines. In this post the examination will be solely on the fourth movement (the center of this near hour-long work) of Gustav Holst’s The Planets entitled Jupiter – The Bringer of Jollity. After not listening to the movement in quite some time, revisiting it was a pleasant surprise. Given the wealth of compositional styles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it’s easier to lump together all of the British composers of the time than to define each one’s unique contributions to the repertoire. But the range of your appreciation for music would be poorer for it.

Gustav Holst came from a family of musicians. He began composing some movements of the suite of pieces called The Planets around the beginning of World War I. Holst states that it is written for a large orchestra. Although this and a few other movements were written in 1914, the work did not have its premiere until 1920. When listening to the examples, especially if you are not familiar with the work, consider the era. It was written when many composers were attempting to straddle the discontinuities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many of the old guard were still active, but some were gripping onto the old while others were embracing the new. To put this into perspective look at a list of some of these masters and think of their contributions to the canon. Among others active during the second decade of the century were Fauré, Berg, Respighi, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Puccini, Mahler, Debussy, Delius, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Nielsen, Strauss, Bartok and Prokofiev.

An Orchestral Tremolo

The opening of the movement begins with what is essentially a pentatonic scale. In pop music it might be written as a C9/6 chord, that is a C major triad with the sixth (A) and the ninth (D) added. The magic that Holst creates in just a few seconds, by the fourth measure, is accomplished by dividing the first and second violin sections with each playing just three of the notes contained in two octaves from one-line E to three-line D. What’s so cool in addition to the way he starts with the second violins is how adding the firsts creates a spacial dynamic that compounds the pentatonic nature of the cluster. Quickly dividing each section contributes to its impact. Once all the violins have entered they are playing a virtual tremolo of this pentatonic chord.

Example 1. Gustav Holst: The Planets: “Jupiter – The Bringer of Jollity” (Measures 1-13)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London

One more item with a reference to the old adage “Less is More” is that Holst, even writing for a very large orchestra, opts not to use any additional gear to create this shimmering effect. Later in the work he does use percussion as well as woodwinds, but for this initial enchanting effect, it’s just the violins. (With a large orchestra [4444 and 6432, that is, including doubles: 4 flutes, 4 oboes, 4 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones and 2 tubas], one would expect to have a string section of sixty players of which about half are violins.) A composer or orchestrator less confident in his or her technique might add tambourine, a cymbal roll, wind chimes, celeste, finger cymbals or even harp glissandos. Instead, Holst knows this string tremolo works.

Once the violins have the pattern established after just a few measures the horns, violas, and cellos enter with the first theme in unison. In this large orchestra that’s six horns, twelve violas and ten cellos, quite enough to ensure that the tune will be heard. Of course, said melody was constructed – at least in part – because of its ability to be played on timpani. This will be discussed later in the post. For now it’s important to note that for the majority of this first theme the melody remains below the business in the violins. This is always wise when you want a melody to be clearly heard.

Listen to the note hit on the second beat of measure twelve. Most of the orchestra plays this note staccato and forte. Holst uses this for two purposes, one is for the effect and the other has a utilitarian purpose. First, the trumpets enter and sustain the third (C-E). These are the first sustained notes heard so far in the work. Holst has the orchestra hit the note, but only the trumpets sustain this third, changing the sound with dramatic effect. It’s as though he’s daring the audience not to continue to be interested and to keep listening.

The other functional usage is that it permits him to change the make-up of the orchestral tremolo. In fact, it is right on that chord that the violas and cells begin to play the sixteenth note pattern as the first and second violins play the top two parts in unison. It makes the transition almost seamless, more so because of the sustained trumpet chord.

This technique of using a sound that overlaps with a new one on a downbeat is one that we’ll listen to later in the piece. In fact, several months ago I used an example from the movement entitled Venus from this same work in which Holst does the same thing, but very slowly. (See Example 1 from my blog post number 8 entitled “Blind Dates and other Pairings 2,” posted on December 23, 2013.) In that example four flutes and three oboes move to the downbeat of a measure; the flutes hit the note and immediately drop out with only the oboes sustaining the chord. It takes the ears a moment to realize the sound has changed, unlike the trumpet entrance in this example.


In Example 2, we move several minutes later in this work as Holst introduces a new theme in triple meter. As before he uses all six horns for the melody, but this time he has the entire string section save for the double basses play the same melody in unison with the horns. The clarinets and bassoons have chords on one and three to establish the rhythm, at least for the first half-dozen measures. Adding to the rhythmic harmonies are the two harps and the double basses duplicating the clarinets and bassoons.

Example 2. Gustav Holst: The Planets: “Jupiter – The Bringer of Jollity” (Measures 193-210)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London

These harmonies are traditional as most other works from British composers of the era, quite unlike the opening pentatonic harmony. In a similar way the unison melody performed by more than fifty instrumentalists sounds familiar even though it’s the first introduction of it in the work.

Timpani Melody

The opening shimmer as well as the melody to which it belongs returns later in the work. This time it begins as a true tremolo in the strings, as the upper winds enter with the sixteenth note “shimmer.” Listen to Example 3 and compare it to the opening. Once the actual string tremolos end in measure 259, Holst takes a more traditional approach to the shimmer.

Example 3. Gustav Holst: The Planets: “Jupiter – The Bringer of Jollity” (Measures 253-267)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London

For now he employs the cymbal and a triangle roll (or trill) to add the metallic sound to the chord played by English horn, horns, trumpets and cellos. Once the new shimmer is established the syncopated melody is repeated in the lower winds, lower strings and the timpani. Here is an example of this melody performed by two players on possibly a half-dozen or more timpani. The timpanists even remain on this melody into the upward runs beginning in measure 266. It’s a unique effect when the timpani drop out in measure 267, reminiscent of a build-up that stops momentarily before the climax.

Dramatic Break

Not much further into the work Holst again has the shimmer at work in the upper winds with the strings playing an actual tremolo (Example 4). At the end of this pattern he writes a luftpause for the orchestra. The last note before the pause has the trumpets that had been unison, play a triad, duplicated at the octave by the strings. With the snare drum accenting this note followed by a silence, it’s almost assured that the audience’s collective ear will be teased by this. In this performance the ensuing horn and (unison) string melody begins tentatively before hitting its stride after a few measures. The tuba and double basses have the downbeats in a walking bass pattern (with a two octave descending line beginning in measure 309) while the trombones, for a change of pace, have the offbeats. It’s economical writing, but it works.

Example 4. Gustav Holst: The Planets: “Jupiter – The Bringer of Jollity” (Measures 302-316)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London

In my previous post (“Successful, Albeit Temporary, Unions” of April 22, 2014) there was an example of a melody in the third movement of the Rachmaninoff second piano concerto played by one oboe and the viola section. There was one measure that went too low for the oboe, but I mentioned that the composer chose to stay with the melody and to simply omit the few melody notes for the double reed. Note that in Example 4 the end of the melody line played by the horns and strings goes out of the range of the violins in measures 315 and 316. As in the previously mentioned example, there’s no need to worry about continuity here either. The horns and the lower strings have no trouble continuing the line for the additional two bars and the line does not suffer.

Timbre of Elimination

The last example in this post is the final dozen or so measures of the work. In some ways it’s similar to the opening. The focus of the upper strings and woodwinds is on these two sets of ascending fourths, C – F – B-flat and D – G – C. As in the opening, these are played in a syncopated pattern with groups of three against the four sixteenth notes. Unlike the opening, Holst deploys some percussion including the glockenspiel playing a three/two pattern of descending quarter notes (B-flat – G – C).

Example 5. Gustav Holst: The Planets: “Jupiter – The Bringer of Jollity” (Measures 396-412)
Adrian Boult, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London

After Holst has set up the rhythm he uses one trumpet, three trombones, both timpanists, and the string basses to play a syncopated fanfare (Measures 400-403). The final note of the fanfare is a virtual pick-up to the Cs played on the downbeat of the next measure by the horns, trumpets and euphonium (tenor tuba).

This is very effective writing. Note that Holst has nothing to support this downbeat other than these 10 or so musician splaying the C half note. There’s no cymbal crash, no bass drum hit nor even a timpani on the downbeat. It’s just the upper brass playing the C – F – B-flat in half notes as the remainder of the orchestra continues its shimmer.

Holst performs one more little bit of magic after the three-beat long B-flat. On the second beat of measure 408 the brass have a quarter note D that in some ways in similar to the eighth note upbeat at the end of measure 403. It acts as a pick-up to the final sustained chord in measures 408 and 409. And note that on the downbeat of 408, the upper winds and violins hit an eighth note and the cymbals crash. The only sound remaining is the trumpets, trombones and tenor tuba. But the chord sounds so different than the previous chords for one other reason: The six horns that have joined the rest of the brass for the last few measures also hit the downbeat of 408 but do not sustain the chord. The chord sounds so much more “brassy” with only this group. It’s a surprising effect that is not used often in orchestral writing.

Just about everyone joins in for the final chord in the last measure including four-note C chords from all the strings except the double basses and the bass drum.

Next Sounds

I hope this post’s examples have been illuminating. In addition to the often lush sound of Holst’s writing it is useful to listen to his works for some alternative Impressionist views. In fact, it is in this light that we’ll return to a little more of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the next post.

Please let me know if you have questions.


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