Astrology is hard to define, being variously known as a science, an art form, a language, or divination, amongst other definitions. If we go back in history, it was once thought poetically that the cycles of the planets – the vital essence of astrological thought – moved in their orbits as ‘the music of the spheres’, tracing out their paths to the accompaniment of heavenly sounds.
This idea was born in the mind of a composer of music in 1913, more than a hundred years ago, who also happened to be reading a book at the time that dealt with an interest of his – astrology. This was one of the prolific output of books on astrology by Alan Leo, who is often known as the father of modern astrology, for Leo’s enthusiastic promotion of astrology at the turn of the twentieth century greatly revived public interest after a couple of centuries when astrology had been consigned to the back burner.
The composer was Gustav Holst. His most famous orchestral work, The Planets, embodies the qualities of the planets in ways that only someone with some astrological knowledge could write. The mythology of the planets and their personification as the gods of old informs Holst, in combination with his knowledge of the symbolic meaning of each astrological planet. He composed this piece of music, consisting of seven movements for seven planets, over two years from 1914-1916. It was premiered in 1918. The order in which the music embodying each planet is normally played is:
Each planet’s musical theme is quite different from the others – as is the meaning of each planet in astrology. Mars is first as this was the first piece that Holst wrote, and forms a dramatic beginning to the whole work – written as the First World War began in 1914. Pluto is missing, because Pluto was not discovered until 1930. Maybe a modern composer will one day write a movement for this small and powerful planet!
A brief look follows at what is evoked by each musical movement in turn in The Planets, and how it relates to modern understanding of each planet in astrology.
Mars, the Bringer of War
The menacing music of the start of Holst’s Mars already evokes images of battlefields, of enmity and urgency. The banging of the drums and the rising crescendo of the call to war, and the sounds of engagement in fighting are all there in the brass instruments, the violins and the double bass.
The meaning of Mars in your chart is indeed encapsulated in the energies of war, but of course modern interpretations are somewhat wider than that! War is about one’s survival, it is often about anger, and about self-defence, and the desire to do harm to one’s enemies. In the chart, your Mars represents the ways in which you assert yourself or express anger (or don’t!), your fighting spirit, and your inbuilt instinct for survival.
Venus, the Bringer of Peace
In sharp contrast to the noisiness of Mars, the gentle and poignant music of Venus, with its distinctive repeating theme on the violins, flutes and oboes, arouses images of the goddess Venus, also known as Aphrodite, as she is born from the waves of the sea. She was said to be the most beautiful woman in the world. The music uplifts and calms you, and does indeed bring a feeling of peacefulness. She is like a still lake or a calm sea, and all places of beauty where all pressures fall away and there is nowhere else you have to be.
The astrological meaning of Venus is love, peace and beauty, and is about our close relationships with others – friends and lovers. Venus represents a feeling of fulfilment and harmony when all is right with your world. Your appreciation of beauty, whatever that means to you, and the personal values you have formed, as well as your own ability to create in some way are shown by the placement of Venus in your chart.
Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Mercury is the shortest piece in The Planets suite, and the quickest. Very apt for this speediest of planets, and for the speediest of the ancient gods. Mercury in myth traverses the bridge between Earth and the home of the gods in Olympus, and you can hear the contrasting rhythms as he delivers his messages to one place or another. The music has two keys that overlay each other, just as Mercury represents duality and double sidedness – and never being in one place for long. This whole piece is full of movement and restless energy, and its shortness is appropriate.
Mercury in the chart symbolises the lightning synapses of our brains, that power the speed of our thoughts and ideas. It describes our mentality, and the ways in which we communicate to others. Classically this planet represents fast speech and fast movement, although its placement for each individual can vary considerably – we do not all think, comprehend or communicate at the same speed! The two keys in the music reflect the duality associated with Mercury’s changeability; one face one moment and another the next.
Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity
This is indeed jolly Jupiter music, with the full sound of a large orchestra. The themes that run through the music are generally very well known, so it is recognizable to many. It varies in volume and temperament, but its exuberance is clear. This is the king in his palace, the celebration of an important occasion, a street carnival, a theatrical performance – all Jupiter images. The all-encompassing sound has poise and depth of feeling, and inspires cheerfulness and sheer joy – in a big outgoing way, but also with quiet passages that illustrate a inner kind of joy that is equally moving.
In our charts, the planet Jupiter looms large (as does the actual planet in the Solar System). ‘Jollity’ is certainly a quality of the astrological meaning of Jupiter, which also is said to bring luck – brought about largely by a positive approach to life. Jupiter is associated with pleasures and expansiveness. Astrology students often give Jupiter’s meaning as being to do with travel and higher education. This is so, but underlying such activities is Jupiter’s search for a sense of purpose in life, the desire to grow and learn, and to above all to enjoy life.
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
Starting slowly and quietly, as befits one’s ideas of old age, Saturn’s gravity and poignancy as it builds through the distant voices of the background choir amongst the strings and trumpets, is evident here. A whole array of emotion fills the music of this movement: from sadness and loss, to dignity and wisdom gained. Old age, which is indeed the period of life represented by the astrological Saturn, may seem a sad time of life to many younger people. Yet the value of the years of experience and the depth of what has been absorbed during a long life, which can be gained in no other way than living it, seems also to be encapsulated by Holst’s composition.
Saturn is the last ‘naked eye’ planet visible from here on earth, forming a boundary, and demonstrates the restriction of human vision. These are other ways to understand Saturn’s meaning for it symbolises where the limits of physical existence lie, as well as that which forms the restriction of our understanding. We are often constrained by fear from truly understanding the depths of ourselves. This is the astrological Saturn’s task and also his key, for this planet brings us challenging circumstances where we have the free will to ‘go where angels fear to tread’, or to do our best to escape from the responsibility.
Uranus, the Magician
In the last two movements of The Planets, Holst ventures into composing for the two known (at the time) outer planets, too far away to be seen without a telescope.
Opening loudly with a blast on the trumpets, Uranus is here depicted as a magician, a trickster who cannot be pinned down, and who sounds like he has a high opinion of himself and his abilities, through a strong and rather ostentatious musical theme. Drums, piccolos and strings demonstrate his power to dazzle and bewitch. Look at me, the music seems to be saying. At the end, he suddenly disappears in a crescendo of sound, accompanied by fading distant drums.
Uranus in astrology can and does make an appearance in our charts as a magical kind of energy. Suddenness of action, or a breakthrough idea or comprehension, are ways in which this planet may show itself in our charts, especially if there is an aspect between Uranus and a personal planet – from Sun to Mars. Like a conjuror-magician, this planet symbolises sudden and unexpected situations. It shows where each of us is unique, and it carries our potential to follow our own path in life. In myth, Uranus was the primordial god of the sky, which stretches endlessly above us. Your need for space and freedom are paramount to the placement of this planet in your chart.
Neptune, the Mystic
As its title suggests, the quiet music for the most distant planet that was known in Holst’s time, slips up on you unawares. Almost imperceptibly, high female voices meld in with the subdued orchestra, creating a truly mysterious impression of other-worldliness. There are no recognisable themes in this movement, but simply angelic visions, evoking the world of dreams or the meditative peace of Neptune’s mystical realm.
In your chart, Neptune represents your spiritual self, or your higher consciousness, depending on which definition you prefer. The mystic self in you is difficult to grasp or pin down – like the sea, which is mythically the ancient god Neptune’s domain. On an earthly level, Neptune symbolises many qualities, which are actually all linked together, though not in an obvious way. Your compassionate nature, fantasies, intuition, illusions, escapism, deceptiveness or creativity are just some of the characteristics of this planet in astrology. Neptune’s insights can be profound, but so can the depths of human illusions. Perceiving the difference can be a fascinating inner journey.