Horoscopes by Holst

Well, friends, it seems the stars have finally aligned for me. A quick Google search of my horoscope has turned up this bit of excellent and overdue news: “This week, everything seems to be going your way, and shady issues that troubled you in the past will finally clear up.” That’s a relief. I’m a tad concerned about who may have tipped them off to my shady issues, but no matter. Smooth sailing ahead!

Ok, I will admit that I have more than a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to the efficacy of astrology in determining what may lie ahead for each of us. Apologies to my zodiac-devotee friends out there. As it turns out though, there have been some historical high rollers who took their signs awfully seriously.

Astrology has been around for centuries. Just browse a bit of Shakespeare to find proof. But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that a British fellow called Alan Leo really ramped things up in a pseudoscientific sort of way. (His real name was actually William Allan, but he put his money where his mouth was when he adopted his astrological sign as his surname.) Mr. Leo published tome after tome on the subject, and people began to take notice. Astrology was suddenly en vogue in the UK and beyond. Incredibly, toward the end of World War II, the British intelligence agency MI5 secretly hired a suitably outrageous fellow—one part astrologer, one part author, and one part Knight Commander of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre—who was tasked with trying to divine what Hitler’s own astrologers might be telling him from week to week. Equally surprising is that for most of the 1980s, the White House also had a secret astrologer on the payroll.

While the benefits of the aforementioned astrological efforts are questionable, Mr. Leo’s work was at least indirectly responsible for some undeniably great things. In the spring of 1913, a handful of Englishmen and women, including the composer Gustav Holst, were holidaying on the island of Majorca. One of Holst’s travelling companions introduced him to the concepts of astrology. He took up the celestial ball and ran with it, getting his hands on some of Leo’s texts. From this, Holst’s symphonic blockbuster The Planets was born.

The Planets is an gargantuan symphonic suite in seven movements, each named for one of the planets in our solar system. Unlike us, Holst didn’t have the benefit of NASA imaging, so his inspiration came more from the personalities of the planets, as outlined by Mr. Leo. Holst calls Mars the Bringer of War; Venus the Bringer of Peace; and Jupiter the Bringer of Jollity. The Planets employs huge orchestral forces, and the composer uses them to paint suitably epic pictures. Each movement is uniquely and masterfully orchestrated, which may be why this work, now just over one hundred years old, still has the power to grip our imagination and send us into space.

As for poor old Mr. Leo, his run was not so smooth. Twice he was put on trial for illegal fortune telling. He tried to convince the judge that he was only telling “tendencies” and not “fortunes”, but no dice. He was fined £5, and the ordeal proved seriously damaging to his health. Shady issues indeed.