In 1916, after two years of effort, Gustav Holst (1874-1934) finished “The Planets”, his best known composition. This seven-movement suite is normally heard in its orchestral form, but as part of the process to write the composition, Holst first wrote a piano arrangement of it. This tactic is common among composers writing music for orchestra. Once the composer has a general idea of the music to be created, all or part of the work is often sketched as a piano arrangement, so that the composer can get a better sense of how all the instruments will fit together. If such early piano sketches survive at all, they are typically unpublished sketches only – a fascinating insight into the mind of the composer, but generally not performable in the same way as the final orchestral rendition. The Planets is an exception, and for that, we have a twist of fate to thank.
Because of inflamed nerves in his right arm, Holst was obliged to thoroughly dictate the whole arrangement to two of his colleagues, Nora Day and Vally Lasker, at the St. Paul’s Girls’ School. Working with Holst in his music room at the school, the two listened to Holst’s instructions, performed the work for him in its piano form, and ultimately wrote out the full instrumental version. But as is so often the case, the piano version faded from memory, while the orchestral version thrived (Holst would later lament that it was too popular, detracting from his other works). It was not until 15 years after Holst’s death that the Executors of his estate arranged for the individual piano movements to be published over a three year period from 1949-51, after which many went out of print. The complete work for two pianos was not published until 1979, and it is this arrangement that I perform here.