For a brief time it enjoyed an elite status. Every child knew that "Mum Very Easily Made Jam Scones Under No Pressure", a helpful memory device for the order of the planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and finally, Pluto. But before Pluto could even circumnavigate the sun just once, it was over. Pluto was demoted and the tidy mnemonic was left wanting. Many Very Educated Men Just Screwed Up Nature. Those educated men were the scientists of the International Astronomical Union. They said that Pluto was actually a dwarf planet. A recent article by Harvard University debating the classification of Pluto questions this: why is a dwarf fruit tree still a small fruit tree, a dwarf hamster still a small hamster, but a dwarf planet is not a small planet?
Semantics aside, Pluto's demotion would have relieved Gustav Holst greatly, if he were alive to hear the news. At the time Holst completed The Planets suite in 1917, Pluto had not yet been discovered. Indeed, it was only discovered in 1930, just four years before Holst's death. There's no evidence that indicates Holst felt any urge to pen a work for Pluto to add to the suite before his death. Perhaps somewhere in his heart he had a feeling that Pluto's planetary orbit would be short. But whatever his reasoning, Holst's masterpiece remains as he intended, and as audiences have always enjoyed it.
However, the other casualty in this whole sorry tale, besides Pluto itself, is the six-minute piece by Colin Matthews that was commissioned by Manchester's Hallé Orchestra in 2000 to fill out Holst's suite. Conductor Kent Nagano suggested the idea of a Pluto work to Matthews, who had his doubts at the time. In the programme notes for that first performance Matthews says: "To begin with, The Planets is a very satisfying whole, and one which makes perfect musical sense. Neptune ends the work in a way wholly appropriate for Holst - an enigmatic composer, always likely to avoid the grand gesture if he could do something unpredictable instead. How could I begin again, after the music has completely faded away as if into outer space?"
Matthews is no slouch when it comes to Holst - as chairman of the Holst Foundation, he had previously worked on a score of The Planets with Holst's daughter Imogen. In an interview with NPR in 2006 he admits: "I knew the works inside out" but struggled with the idea of following Neptune's ethereal ending of female voices trailing away into space.
"I couldn't do anything that's more remote than Neptune, unless the orchestra joined the chorus off stage as well," Matthews said in 2006. "I had to do something that I thought, by contrast, should be fast... what I thought about was the extreme edges of the solar system, with its solar winds."
Like the other planets in Holst's suite, Pluto was given a corresponding astrological character: the Renewer. From its debut in Manchester in 2000 to Pluto's declassification in 2006, the piece enjoyed several outings and recordings and, on the whole, was warmly received. So Matthews admitted he couldn't feel too sad about its brief brush with Holst's masterpiece. "It had a very good life in that six years," he said in 2006. "Getting on 100 performances. it's done pretty well already."
Now, Pluto, the Renewer, much like its namesake (ex-)planet, gas quietly stepped back down. At the time Matthews wondered what would become of the work. "I don't know," he said in an interview with The Guardian. "It's not up to me anymore. It will be interesting to see if there is any reaction. I might withdraw it from circulation and ban all future performances."
Listen to a performance of Pluto, the Renewer by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain below:
This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 edition of Phil News.