Professor Brian Cox Celebrates Gustav Holst’s ‘Planets’ With His Take On The Science Behind The Music

Brian Cox discusses the fragility of life, but also the great hope that can be found in Gustav Holst's 'Planets.'

Professor Brian Cox discusses the planets inspiring Gustav Holst's 'The Planets'.
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Brian Cox discusses the fragility of life, but also the great hope that can be found in Gustav Holst's 'Planets.'

When Gustav Holst released The Planets in 1916, most scientists had very little real understanding of the physical side of the planets that Holst was inspired musically by. Professor Brian Cox has explained that neither did Holst, who was more interested in using the planets that inspired these beautiful songs as metaphors for different ideas like “Jollity,” “War,” “Peace,” “Magician,” “Messenger,” “Old Age,” and “Mystic.”

“Planets, just as human beings, were once born and will one day die, and it is this fragility that makes them precious,” Cox noted, as The Guardian reported. Cox also explained that when it comes to music, pieces like Holst’s The Planets will live on in a very different and subtle way than other art forms have.

“Music from the past is not a fossil in the same way that Aristotle, Shakespeare and Newton do not belong in airless cases; music emerges from the ferment of ideas and contributes to the vitality of the brew; as such it is a transcendent ingredient of intellectual life.”

Discussing Holst’s “Venus: The Bringer of Peace,” Brian Cox described how, when the piece was originally written, the planet represented “the evening star, brightest of worlds.” So little was understood about Venus that even in the 1960s, astronomers surmised that beneath its thick layer of clouds, a gorgeous paradise similar to the Bahamas may be lurking there.

However, Americans and Russians soon learned that this planet was actually a very real version of Dante’s Inferno, with temperatures of 860 degrees Fahrenheit, making sunbathing a slightly frightening and daunting prospect.

Two billion years ago, Venus was almost certainly a very different place than it is today, and Cox believes that with this knowledge comes a very important message. Namely, whatever is powerful and mighty, whether humans or planets, is subject to death and decay, and this fragility and shortness of life makes Holst’s piece even more poignant.

“Listen to Holst’s ‘Venus’ with this history in mind, and the piece becomes a requiem for a failed planet, a paean to transience. The laws of nature allow for the spontaneous emergence of beauty but only as an intermediate destination between creation and decay. A reminder that planets, just as human beings, were once born and will one day die, and it is this fragility and unavoidable transience that makes them precious.”

Gustav Holst’s “Mars: The Bringer of War,” is another powerful piece of music, and Professor Brian Cox notes that it was written before the first World War. As such, it may have been an indictment of capitalism during that time.

“Written before the first world war, Holst’s motivation was likely a critique of industrial capitalism; a prophetic work which found new resonance and power when set against the images of mechanized warfare that dominated the decades following its composition.”

Mars, just like Venus, was once believed to be perhaps habitable, but all of this changed in 1965 after the Mariner 4 spacecraft flew by it, and found that it actually had more in common with the moon than Earth. This surprised many people, even then-president Lyndon Johnson, who took a positive approach.

“It may be, it may just be that life as we know it, with its humanity, is more unique than many have thought,” Johnson remarked.

But with the advancement of science, it is now quite possible that humans will be heading to Mars to become an interplanetary species, as Elon Musk of SpaceX would very much like to see happen. Brian Cox, too, believes this is very likely and that Holst’s vision of the planet will live on as part of the human race on Earth may one day become Martians themselves.

“A planet with a history like Mars may also play a defining role in our future. Mars is rich in resources; all the things needed to support a civilization. Even if there are no Martians today, there will be soon: The Martians will be us. Mars is the only planet we could ever hope to visit. The others are far too hostile.”

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Gustav Holst’s The Planets has inspired not only scientists like Professor Brian Cox, but also filmmakers, with Nicolas Roeg’s film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, with David Bowie, featuring both “Venus: The Bringer of Peace,” and “Mars: The Bringer of War,” to add to the movie’s lofty vision of a lost and sad alien wandering friendless over Earth, yet with a message of peace and hope at its conclusion.