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In 2017, Opal Flutes (a flute choir based in South London) decided to plan their Autumn concert around the theme of ‘Outer Space’. There was plenty of repertoire to choose from, but the most obvious candidate, Holst’s ‘The Planets’, felt impossible to rearrange for flutes. So we came up with the idea of producing our own Planets suite instead, and invited 7 local composers to contribute a movement each to the project. To distinguish it further from Holst’s masterpiece, we asked our composers to write about the characteristics of the gods each planet was named for, rather than the astrological significance that Holst focused on. We also requested that our composers wrote new material rather than re-working Holst’s music – though we did allow them to include short quotes from Holst’s original if they wished. The result is 7 unique movements that exist as individual pieces, as well as a complete set. The movements can be performed in any order. Sharon Moloney (Musical Director – Opal Flutes)
Mars – God of War As soon as I was given the task of writing “Mars – God of War” my mind immediately turned to the third symphony of Honegger, which scared the life out of me as a child when I first heard it as the theme music to a TV adaption of Great Expectations. It still scares me a bit, come to think of it. Without in any way copying Honegger’s music (at least consciously) I tried to create something of the same savage mood of the symphony’s opening, just using a flute choir rather than a full orchestra, in the first section “Dies Irae”, followed by a desolate prayer for peace in “Dona Nobis Pacem”.
Venus – Goddess of Love and Beauty It’s fair to say that I was influenced by Holst quite a lot when writing this movement and several quotes from the original ‘Venus’ make an appearance along the way, but dressed slightly differently and weaving a more complex narrative, which could be interpreted as coyness. The subtle splashes of percussion colour add a certain shimmer throughout, leading to a cloud of sound that just drifts away at its close…
Mercury – God of Commerce, Travel and Thievery Packed with sparkle, morse-code like messages, and light-footed excitement, at just over 4 minutes, Holst’s Mercury is ‘the winged messenger’ and the shortest movement in the suite. My Mercury shares this sense of contained energy whilst reflecting on some of the many characteristics Mercury the God is known for; commerce, eloquence, travel, and thievery amongst other things. The piece begins as a circling 5 note theme before expanding to contrast the darting movements of a petty thief with the expansive vistas of travel and discovery.
Jupiter – King of the Gods ‘King of the Gods’ is a tall order. Jupiter needed a kaleidoscope of talents to hold his position, so that was my starting point … but I soon found myself writing something more personal. Let’s face it – Gods only exist because we weave their stories into the pattern of our lives. So the fanfare of the Gods comes and goes while life follows its own pulse, and dreams and hopes assume the power of prayer.
Saturn – God of Agriculture Saturn, among other associations, was the god of Agriculture, and my piece is a brief portrayal of a year’s cycle of cultivation. From the depiction of bleak, bare earth at the start, through slight stirrings of growth as fragments of melody appear, with just a hint of breezes and raindrops, to full flowering and then perhaps falling seeds (raindrop motif again) and dying down to warmer earth at the autumnal end. A quirkier aspect is the lowest note of the standard flute, sounding middle C, at the start and end of the piece. One of a fellow teacher’s pupils had said that a semibreve middle C (an open ‘oblate spheroid’ with a line through the middle) looked like the planet Saturn with its rings, and the idea lodged in my brain!
Uranus – God of the Sky Uranus’s job as God of the Sky suggested to me that I should depict a skyscape in sound, a night sky for example. However, once the stars were there as points of sound, the music needed to move on, so day broke and a bit of weather came along. Moonrise at the end of the day provided a satisfying conclusion.
Neptune – God of the Sea Neptune was written in 2017 at the request of Opal Flutes for inclusion in their concert entitled “The Planets”. Because Neptune – [known to the Greeks as Poseidon] – in addition to being a planet, was the ancient god of the sea, I used a short theme from Debussy’s La Mer as the basis for much of the piece.