Editor, McLerran Journal
Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX
Mars: God of War
Did you know that the month of March is named after the Roman god of war, Mars? March is the third month of the year in the Gregorian calendar system, but was actually the first month on the Roman calendar. Originally named Martius, this month in Ancient Rome was characterized by religious festivals and preparations for war (Cartwright). Mars, the Roman god of war was responsible for protecting Rome and securing victory in military campaigns (Cartwright). He is not to be confused with Ares, the impulsive Greek god of war; Mars was depicted as a more “level-headed” and “virtuous” deity than his Grecian counterpart (Cartwright).
According to Fritz Graf of the online Oxford Research Encyclopedias, religious festivals in Ancient Rome were characterized by large processions, animal sacrifices, athletic competitions, and musical performances. These celebrations were used to mark the change of seasons and unify the empire in celebration (Graf). During the months of March and October, specially-trained religious leaders, called flamen Martialis, led several Mars-centered festivals including feriae Marti (New Year’s Day, March 1st), Equirria (the blessing of war horses, March 14th), Tubilistrum (“to cleanse and favor trumpets,” March 23rd), and several others (Cartwright). One of the most important rituals performed during this time was the rousing of Mars before battle. This critical ritual was performed by the commander of the Roman army who “shook the sacred spears,” shouting, “Mars, vigilia! (Cartwright).”
“Mars, the Bringer of War” from “The Planets, Op.32” (1914) Gustav Holst
Gustav Holst (1874-1934), was a 20th century British composer who wrote primarily choral and orchestral works. Although he is best known for The Planets, Op. 32, there is substantial evidence that he detested the work and the attention that it brought him. Marianne Williams Tobias, of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, cites a remark by him in an interview where he complained, “Every artist ought to pray that he may not be a success.” Other successful works by Gustav Holst include St. Paul’s Suite (1913), Ode to Death (1919), and Choral Fantasia (1930).
The Planets, Op. 32, was a post-romantic orchestral work composed between 1914 and 1916 (IMSLP). It was first performed in 1918 by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Adrian Boult, and was dedicated to Holst’s daughter, Imogen (IMSLP). Mars, the Bringer of War is the first of the seven-movement work and is famous for its militaristic ostinato bass line and “feel of vulgarity (Gailey).” The beginnings of World War I during this same time period likely influenced Holst’s decision to place the god of war at the start of the suite despite Mars being the fourth planet away from the sun (Gailey).
It is interesting to note the other famous composers who likely influenced the composition of this piece. Among others, Holst would have had the opportunity to enjoy performances of music by Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who both visited England in the early 1900’s (Taylor). Several sources point out the fact that Holst subtitled this work Seven Orchestral Pieces, only shortly after the widespread success of Stravinsky’s Five Orchestral Pieces, Op. 18. A nod to the contemporary German style, Holst employed unconventional meter changes, unusual instrumentation, and abundant dissonance, comparable to Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (1912) or The Rite of Spring (1913).
FUN FACT: Why only seven movements? According to Charles Q. Choi of Space, Pluto was not a recognized planet until 1930. Holst likely omitted an Earth-movement from the suite since it is not generally personified in the study of astrology, but is instead considered the central (viewing) point of the galaxy.
Purchase The Planets Here
What does the planet, Mars, actually sound like?
Click here to view footage from NASA’s Opportunity Rover.
“The Month of March.” Time and Date. Time and Date. 2017. Web. 15 January, 2018.
Cartwright, Mark. "Mars." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 16 Jan
2014. Web. 15 Jan 2018. <https://www.ancient.eu/Mars/>
“The Planets, Op. 32 (Holst, Gustav).” IMSLP. Petrucci Music Library. N.d. Web. 15 January,
“Compositions: The Music of Gustav Holst.” Taylor, Kenric. Gustav Holst. N.p. N.d. Web. 15
January, 2018. <http://www.gustavholst.info/compositions/listing.php?work=18>
“Dwarf Planet Pluto: Facts About the Icy Former Planet.” Choi, Charles Q. Space. N.p. 14
November, 2017. Web. 15 January, 2018.
“Gustav Holst: The Planets, Suite for Orchestra & Female Chorus, Op. 32, H. 125.” Gailey,
Meredith. All Music. All Music. Rhythm One. 2017. Web. 15 January, 2018.
“Festivals in Ancient Greece and Rome.” Graf, Fritz. Ohio State University. Oxford Research
Encyclopedias. Oxford University Press. May 2016. Web. 15 January, 2018.
“The Planets, Op. 32.” Tobias, Marianne Williams. Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. 2015. Web. 15 January, 2018.