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Ten Pieces - 'Mars' from 'The Planets'
What unusual technique are the string players asked to use during this piece of music?

Ten Pieces - 'Mars' from 'The Planets'

If you are familiar with the BBC Ten Pieces, you will enjoy this KS2 Music quiz about Holst's Mars, the Bringer of War from his suite, The Planets.

The Planets is a seven-piece suite in which each movement is named after a planet. The first movement, Mars, the Bringer of War, is probably one of the most startling pieces of classical music ever written. Its rhythm, pounded on repetitive drums, gives it a military air - appropriate for a piece symbolic of the Roman god of War. The work has an 'angry' sound to it and an ominous feel, which together make it one of the most striking pieces of classical music. If you've listened to it you'll know exactly what I mean!

How can a piece of music so successfully symbolise the god of War and generate such a menacing air? Let's go 'under the bonnet' and see what exactly makes Mars, the Bringer of War such an effective work!

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Why would the whole idea of Mars most likely have been in Holst's mind at the time when he wrote this piece?
He had lost many friends in the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century
World War I was beginning at the time when he began composing The Planets
H G Wells had fairly recently published The War of the Worlds in which Martians were 'the enemy'
The Mars Bar was newly on sale, so the name was in people's minds
Holst composed the Suite during 1914-16 but he did not hear it performed until September 1918 when the war was effectively over
Mars has many obvious, and intentional, 'warlike' and military features of style: not least that it is march-like ... though not quite. What's 'deliberately wrong' with it as a march?
It uses stringed instruments, which would plainly be impractical for marching people to play
It has the wrong number of beats in the bar (5 rather than 4)
It isn't loud enough from the outset
There are no 'effects' to suggest gunfire during it
Yes, it's in 5/4 all the way through, which the ear quickly gets used to ~ through the growing and battering repetition ~ yet it remains disturbing. Neptune (the 'outer' movement of this Suite) is also in 5/4 but obviously far more leisurely. Few others have managed to write successfully in this time-signature, though there are memorable examples of a 5/4 'waltz' in a Tchaikovsky symphony, plus of course Dave Brubeck's legendary Take Five ...
What is the usual semi-technical name for a 'call' by one or more trumpets?
A peal
A blast
A fanfare
A blether
We hear plenty of these as the piece progresses
What unusual technique are the string players asked to use during the outer section of Mars?
They flick the bodies of their instruments with their fingernails
They pluck the strings with their fingertips instead of stroking them with the bow
They turn the bow over and bounce the wooden side off the string instead of stroking it with the horsehair
They tune their strings to pitches different from the usual
The technique is called, in musical Italian, col legno ('with the wood'). Your author well recalls hearing Mars as his first-ever CD ~ after an upbringing on vinyl LPs ~ in about 1980, when for the first time he could actually hear the texture of the wood
What is the Italian musical term for the insistent use of a rhythm or shape right through a piece, such as the 'wonky-march' motif in this movement?
Ground bass
... = 'obstinate', in other words a musical shape that refuses to give way
Apart from Neptune, what musical forces did Holst originally have in mind for this Suite?
Brass / military band
Piano duo or duet (2 players at 1 instrument each)
Chamber orchestra with enlarged percussion section
Neptune was originally for organ, because the percussive sound of the piano/s wasn't dreamy enough for the effect Holst wanted
There is another link between Neptune and the organ: what is it?
Holst's first schoolgirl choir (from St Paul's, where he taught) rehearsed their notes to the accompaniment of an organ before practising with the full orchestra
The singers were instructed to vocalise without forming actual words, so as to sound as near as possible like the tone of an organ
The singers could breathe 'secretly' whenever they wanted, so the overall sound of their chords never ran out of puff ~ like the potentially unbroken sound of an organ
The final 'fade' is achieved by slowly closing a door so that the audience can no longer hear the offstage chorus: this is the same basic acoustic / mechanical principle as the pedal-controlled 'swell box' on all but the smallest pipe organs
Holst used to play the village organ at Wyck Rissington in the Cotswolds (several miles, walked to & fro in all weathers, from his hometown of Cheltenham); the organ there only has a fairly basic swell-box
What is the simple but startling musical 'recipe' for the first three notes around which Holst builds the tune in Mars?
Up by a fifth, then down by a tone
Up by a fifth, then down by a semitone
Up by a tritone, down by a diminished second
Up by an augmented fourth, down by a third
Crucial, yet disturbingly simple. The piece doesn't really settle into anything like a conventional 'key' for a long while, either, adding to the intendedly unsettling effect
Which of the following types of drum, used in this piece, would not feature in an actual marching military band?
Side drum
Bass drum
Snare drum
Kettledrums would not be practical on the march, though a light pair have been known to be used in older times by cavalry (mounted) bands. The side and snare drums (Answers 1 & 4) are effectively the same thing and feature prominently throughout this piece
Who conducted the first performance of the Planets suite?
Sir Adrian Boult
John Barbirolli
Malcolm Sargent
Thomas Beecham
Holst wrote a grateful message into Boult's score of the music after its first performance in 1918


Author:  Ian Miles

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