Listening Guide – ‘Mercury’ from The Planets


‘Mercury: The Winged Messenger’ is the third movement of The Planets Suite by Gustav Holst. You can read all about The Planets in our Listening Guide.

‘Mercury: The Winged Messenger’

In Ancient Rome, the god Mercury was the winged messenger, taking messages from one god to another.  This gives Holst the chance to compose some very fast music which jumps around between the different instruments in the orchestra. Players have to count really hard in this piece – they might only have to play a very short phrase, but the phrase will be passed to them from one group of instruments and another group will take it over afterwards.  If they make a mistake and miss their cue, the whole sequence is spoilt!

The piece starts with some short, fast phrases being passed around the orchestra – they keep changing direction as if Mercury is swooping around the skies. Listen out for the harps throughout this and also the celeste – a small keyboard instrument that looks a bit like a piano, but it creates a bell-like sound instead. Find out more about the celeste here

Eventually the music settles on a high, fast repeated note played by the violins.  Over this, you’ll hear a conversation between some quiet musical ideas, answered suddenly by some shorter, louder outbursts!

Listen out next for a short, repeated melody.  It is repeated 12 times, each time with a different instrumentation – see if you can spot which instruments play each time. The section gets louder and louder, with the whole orchestra playing at the loudest point, before the music dies away again.

The music from the opening of the movement returns – but Holst doesn’t simply repeat it exactly, he introduces a new, fast, ‘choppy’ idea played by the strings, as well as using the ideas which we heard earlier.

bassoon vs contra

Listen carefully at the very end – just before the last two chords, there is a very short, very low solo played by the contrabassoon.  This is the lowest member of the woodwind family – it is so low it nearly goes beyond what the human ear can hear! Contrabassoons have a wonderful, honky sound and don’t often get a solo – so don’t miss it! In the picture to the left, you can see a bassoon on the left and the larger contrabassoon on the right.

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This resource was written by John Webb