Gustav Holst’s artistic personality was initially moulded by German neo-Romanticism – like many composers of his generation, his musical vision and outlook owed a great deal to Wagner and Strauss; and by the turn of the century, he was close to such artists as Parry and Stanford, who were drawn to folk songs and their stylisations. Holst’s work exerted considerable influence on the following generation of British composers; however, in general, its appeal was limited outside his homeland, with one exception – the impressive The Planets suite penned during the First World War. It was inspired not so much by astronomy as by Holst’s fascination with astrology: the belief that the planets shape the human psyche and destiny. Hence, the seven planets depicted through the prism of a colourful orchestral setting are accompanied by qualities borrowed from horoscopes and expressed by means of subtitles.
A cosmological-astrological context also accompanies the symphonic miniature Scorpius (its title refers to the zodiac constellation of Scorpio) composed in 1990 for the Toronto Esprit Orchestra by Raymond Murray Schafer. This Canadian composer’s interests revolve around the captivating theme of sound ecology, often treated as a niche subject, and the relationship between music and the environment. He is the creator, propagator and researcher of the notion of soundscape and many of his works, in various ways set in the natural sound environment of human habitats and nature, refer to this concept.
Percussion was the main passion of the American composer Lou Harrison – he used it in many highly original ways and also enjoyed treating as members of the percussion family previously unrelated instruments. He used both exotic instruments and built his own (including whole sets of them, such as the American gamelan). One of the composer’s final works, Concerto for Organ and Percussion Orchestra (1972), shows his skilled manipulation of this sound – he once claimed that he wanted to create a bridge between the sound of the organ and percussion families, in which idiophones with fixed tuning, i.e. celesta, vibraphone and bells, and their different variants, would be generously represented, as would be the piano.