Room 44--Musical Repetition

Gustav Holst

Repetition is a very important part of music. Look at Ravel’s Bolero—endless repetitions of a two part melody with little changing in the orchestra except for the instruments. It creates a certain tension. Repetition is used in a variety of ways in the orchestral suite The Planets by Gustav Holst. Intentionally omitting the planet Earth and Pluto which was not discovered at the turn of the century when he composed the piece, Holst created a marvelous collection of pieces, each of which symbolizes the mythology of the various characters.

Repetition is a major part of the work’s shortest movement, Mercury, the Winged Messenger. To represent the fleet-footedness of the title character, Holst has the music almost moving to a different key center in every bar. Then in the middle of the piece, the harmony becomes static as the orchestra sings 12 repetitions of a two-measure phrase in a triple meter. It begins at 1:01 from the start of the piece. The repetitions in order are stated by:

1 Violin
2 Oboe
3 Clarinet
4 Celesta
5 Clarinet
6 Violin
7 Violin
8 Violin
9 Trumpet
10 Horn
11 Horn and lower strings
12 flute

Then it returns to the modulating texture of the opening and a brief reference to the central section toward the end.


But then listen to this much longer repetition that occurs in the middle of Jupiter, The Bringer of Jollity. Notice how Holst plays with your emotions by presenting you with two complete renderings of his lengthy melody, but just at the point where you want him to go on, he truncates the third repetition of the theme halfway through and cheats you out of it. Listen!

See how you ache to hear the theme end properly? You don’t want it to end. You want it to keep building up until you burst. Please forgive the analogy but it is similar to an erotic climax but one which is incomplete. Here is what you really want to hear. Listen!

OK, even that version is not completely satisfying because Gustav knew exactly what he was doing to manipulate your emotions- - part of the magic of music.

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