Holst’s The Planets is one of those belovèd musical pieces that has earned itself a solid place in the canon—from the stirring “Mars” to the sublime “Jupiter”, and not forgetting the gentle “Venus” and subtle, ætherial “Neptune”. I’ve made use of some of these pieces in ritual—for example, of “Mars” on the Kalends of March—since each piece is as much in honour of a planetary god as of the orbs that belong to them.
It has always disappointed me, however, that Holst’s “Mercury” is one of the weakest pieces in The Planets—at once busy and trivial. Holst, I assumed, just wasn’t in tune with Mercury in the way that he patently was with Jupiter and Mars. Quite by chance, however, I stumbled upon an earlier work in which Holst does much greater justice to the “god of travellers”—this time the Vedic god Pushan. Gustav Holst, it turns out, went through an Indian period in which he immersed himself in the Rig Veda and other Sanskrit writings. In many cases, he translated hymns into English and set them to music. We have an Invocation to the Dawn (the opening to Op. 15); the immense Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (Op. 26), of which the hymn to Pushan forms part of the third section; a slightly earlier body of Vedic hymns (Op. 24); and the Cloud Messenger (Op. 30) from Kalidas, as well as the symphonic poem Indra. All of them are well worth listening to, but I’m proud to say that the finest part is the third group of Choral Hymns, and the Hymn to the God of Travellers is probably the best of this group. It’s certainly the one that most stirred my soul, I can tell you.
Holst is one of numerous Western composers who wrote what amounts to pagan sacred music (think of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle; I would also count Saint-Saëns’ Symphony in F major “Urbs Roma” and Karl Jenkins’ Palladio, both for the Goddess Rome, as well as George Lloyd’s Pervigilium Veneris and Carl Orff’s Trionfo di Afrodite). Among Holst’s other pagan religious works, we have a Hymn to Dionysus (along with Hecuba’s Lament, Op. 115), the so-called First Choral Symphony (in the end, there was only one) dedicated to Pan and Bacchus (Op. 41), the song “Persephone”, etc.
I don’t think I’m misappropriating Holst here. His religious sensibilities were wide-ranging and mystical, and he clearly knew and valued more gods than the one of Abraham. At all events, Holst’s music can make for a refreshing change of pace from the modern pagan bands that I also love (such as Eluveitie, Heidevolk, Arkona, or in a softer tone Faun and Woodland).