Gustav Holst: Born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England, 1874 and died in London, 1934. Holst’s major works include: The Planets, and Suites for Military Band in F, and E flat. In America, he was awarded Yale University’s Howland prize for “marked distinction” and was an honored guest lecturer in musical composition at Harvard University. The Planets is considered a modern classic and credited with creating the genre for American epic film scores.
John Williams: Born in Long Island, New York, 1932, and resides in Los Angeles, CA. Williams has been nominated over 200 times for music from the movies by the Academy Awards and has won over 100 times in various categories for Motion Picture Music, most notably for Schindler’s List, Hook, E.T., Star Wars, Jaws, and Fiddler on the Roof. Other famous movie scores include: The Patriot, War Horse, Lincoln, Munich, Harry Potter, Amistad, Indiana Jones, Born on the 4th of July, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Saving Private Ryan.
Jerry Goldsmith: Born in Los Angeles, 1929 and died in Los Angeles, 2004. A prominent movie composer, he wrote the music for 5 Star Trek Films. His only Academy Award was for “best original score,” The Omen. Other movie music includes Papillon, Chinatown, The Wind and the Lion, Hoosiers, and Patton. Patton earned an Oscar nomination for best musical score, but lost to Love Story.
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Gustav Holst was an astrology aficionado and titled the seven movements in The Planets after horoscope signs named after ancient Roman gods.*
Lots of people like to read their horoscopes in the newspaper and you might be asked, “what’s your sign?” Well, your sign may not be what you think it is. According to a NASA report in 2016, there has been a gradual shift in the earth’s axis over the past 3,000 years which would put your birthday horoscope off by about one month.
For Holst, the characteristics of the Roman gods gave grist for his imagination and the impetus for writing The Planets. He used unusual orchestration, including six French horns, and introduced odd metered time signatures such as 5/4. The effect put The Planets in a category of its own, where the scene was set for future composers writing for movies, including John Williams for Star Wars and Jerry Goldstein for Star Trek.
Holst and Williams: The musical sensibilities of Gustav Holst and John Williams were influenced by war. In the case of Holst, World War I was smoldering and finally erupted with a snarl in 1914, the same year he was completing The Planets, with Mars, The Bringer of War, announcing the seven-movement suite. For John Williams, it was the experience of being a teenager as World War II ground to a halt and people were returning home and trying to re-start their lives.
Holst tried to enlist in the Royal Air Force, but his life-long asthma caused a medical refusal. His wife, Isobel, became an ambulance driver for the London Green Cross. He grieved for two musician friends killed in action. Holst wrote two suites for military band which are standard fare for military and civilian bands.
Williams enlisted in the Air Force in 1951, during the Korean Conflict, and soon became a member of the Air Force Band which he says was a “wonderful experience,” and a “tremendous education.” Williams conducted and arranged music for the Air Force and played in different bands, including The Band of the Golden West at Travis Air Force Base, near Fairfield, California.
Holst and Williams were sons of professional jazz drummers and both played trombone in various jazz ensembles. Holst was encouraged to play trombone because his father hoped the deep breathing required might help his asthma. Williams was considered a first-rate jazz trombonist and played to supplement his income. Both composers were accomplished in a variety of musical instruments.
Holst did not consider The Planets his best work, and was surprised at its success. He did not foresee the influence it would have on composers like John Williams, whose music is known everywhere in the world where people recognize the Olympic Fanfare, or where the theme from Star Trek, written by Jerry Goldstein, captures imaginations as the Starship Enterprise “boldly goes where no Man has gone before.”
*Ancient Babylonians recognized the approximate divisions of twelve months in a year and named them after deities. The elements of earth, wind, fire, and water were believed to be the sole basis for everything in the universe and each month was associated with a particular god and element corresponding to the month and date of birth of every person. There are many subsets of ideas associated with this and charts and graphs are used to predict outcomes. Gustav Holst was a fan, not necessarily a believer, and was known to cast horoscopes for his friends.