Year 4 Music

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Gustav Holst: The Planets Made Him a Star

bonny bobby shaftoe

Gustav Holst was born in 1874 in Cheltenham, where his father was a music teacher. As a boy, Gustav showed musical talent and learnt to play the violin and piano. Although the family was poor, Gustav's father borrowed enough money to send him to study at the Royal College of Music in London. While he was there, he started to play the trombone, as he suffered from cramp in his hands that made playing the piano painful. The young Holst was too poor to pay for train fares, so when he visited his family he used to walk the hundred miles to Cheltenham. He practised the trombone as he walked through fields, although sometimes the noise scared the sheep! He played well enough to earn a living playing in orchestras, so clearly the practice was worth it.

Holst knew that he wanted to be a composer, but to support himself he began to teach at several schools in London, including St Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith. His health was never very good, and friends would arrange for him to have holidays in warm countries. When he returned from one of these holidays, he found that a new music wing had been built at the school with a specially heated and soundproof room for him to compose in. He was so grateful that he wrote the St Paul's Suite to say 'thank you'.

He began to work on what would become his most famous and popular work, The Planets Suite. The seven movements of The Planets are given characters like the Greek and Roman gods who gave the planets their names. Holst wrote music sounding like a military march for Mars, the bringer of war. The metre has five beats in each bar. Four beats is the usual, so it is harder to march in time to Mars. Jupiter is the 'bringer of jollity' and, like Elgar's 'Pomp and Circumstance', this music contains a tune to which people like to sing the words of a poem, 'I vow to thee my country'.

The Planets made Holst famous, but he didn't really want to be famous. He thought that a composer should live alone, thinking only of his music. He was pleased when one of his admirers, who wanted to be anonymous, gave him enough money to stop teaching and just think about his music for a while. He moved to Thaxted, in Norfolk, where he spent a year seeing nobody and living what he called 'the life of a real composer'. He wrote many more musical works, but nothing that would become as famous as The Planets. The Planets had made him a star!

This activity is adapted from page 215 of What Your Year 4 Child Needs to Know, which can be purchased here.

This activity has cross-curricular connections: click below to see related activities.

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