Atmosphere

April 3, 2019

In early 1914, Holst heard a performance of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. This seminal experience along with a suggestion from a friend led Holst to begin composing his famous suite for large orchestra, The Planets. However, many don't know that he first composed the work for 2 pianos, 4 hands, but likely with the ambition of scoring the work later for orchestra. The 2 piano version did not surface publicly until 1949 and is still protected by copyright.

 

I have always loved the piece – especially the more atmospheric movements (Venus, Saturn, & Neptune).

 

Perhaps it’s heresy to say so, but I don’t think Holst was a particularly creative orchestrator. His orchestration is solid and functional, but certainly nothing to write home about. Having said that, I’d like to focus on a single passage from Saturn where Holst took a rather simple idea from his piano score and creatively added to the atmosphere in his orchestration.

This is from the 2 piano version of Saturn - we're focusing on the measures starting at rehearsal VI:

The right hand elements in the piano score above starting at rehearsal VI were scored verbatim for the section of six horns, with strings, organ, and contra bassoon playing the slow moving melody in the left hand(s).

A couple of things worth noting:

 

1)  Though Holst scored The Planets for 6 horns, there are only a few instances in the entire score where he writes 6 independent horn voices; it is often only 3 voices doubled, I think we can safely assume for balance. Rehearsal VI is one such instance where all 6 horns are used independently.
 

2)  Throughout the entire suite, units of 5 surface frequently starting with the meter of Mars. Here on Saturn there are overlapping instances of 5 – metric units of 5 beats overlapping in the horns (above) and the non-overlapping metric units of 5 in the flutes, all against a 6/4 meter. I point this out because, in a moment, I'm going to wreck it.

The bells once they enter are also a repeating metric unit of 5 beats.

The harmonic texture here is all C6 chord – 16 measures of it. The original piano version is pretty bland, but Holst would have a large orchestra at his disposal and wrote the chord as harmonic filigree in the flutes and harps, which adds significantly to the atmosphere.

Here’s where the rubber hits the road – when transcribing orchestral music for brass, it is far more important (and in this case, musically necessary) to determine the composer’s intent than it is to make a literal attempt to capture the notes on the page. Frankly, the notes in the flute transcribed literally for brass are just going to sound silly and will only serve as a distraction.

I wrestled with these 16 bars quite a bit. But once I reached the decision to not try to literally transcribe, it freed up lips and fingers to resolve two other problems with this passage.

 

Problem 1 – unless you want to just program this movement on a brass ensemble program, you need to consider comfort and endurance.

 

Problem 2 - Holst wrote for 6 horns, but for practical reasons, I only wanted to write for 4 horns (and likely with no assistant).

 

The horn passage above, which is two identical overlapping three voice harmonic ideas, is in the medium high register for horn 1 and 3 and continues on at a relatively slow tempo for 16 measures (and that's without considering what happens before or after it).

 

By deciding to not write the flute notes into the trumpet section (the most likely candidate for a literal transcription), it freed up voices to ease the chop burden on the horn section.

 

I also did something else which may be considered heresy by some (this is where I wrecked it) – I violated the metric units of 5 by rewriting the passage into longer overlapping phrases – this created some horizontal room for rest.

Getting the mouthpiece off the chops for a few seconds will make this a more playable passage with a higher probability of success, while preserving the interlaced C6 chord motion. That's my theory.

Incidentally, this is all in cup mute for the cylindrical instruments and straight mute for horn.

 

One question remains – how to create some representation of the atmospheric element?

My solution was vibraphone (pedal down and motor on), with a soft mallet playing a repeating 5 beat eighth note arpeggio. I also used glockenspiel with a soft plastic mallet to play a repeating 5 beat arpeggio (picking out the highest note of each harp arpeggio).

Remember that glockenspiel sounds two octaves higher than written while vibraphone sounds as written. By keeping the vibraphone in the same octave as the muted brass, my hope is that this will all sound "atmospheric" rather than too distinct. The glockenspiel will add the sparkle.

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