Mars, Metal and Star Wars

There are many connections in music – in fact one could define it as pitched, rhythmic sound connected through time. That said, this article isn’t about the beats and intervals that connect to form rhythm, harmony and melody. Rather, this is about connections fundamental to music, art, and creativity itself. Influence. And this one starts with Mars.

More specifically Gustav Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War. Part of The Planets suite inspired by astrology, Mars starts it off with an aggressive tour-de-force of orchestra – in keeping with the astrological force the Red Planet was said to play on the human psyche. Gustav Holst wrote the piece in 1914, and followed with themes for the other six planets of his suite. Of them, Mars is the first, most famed, and probably the most influential – it may even be one of the most influential pieces of classical music in history.

But where influence is concerned, Mars and The Planets aren’t lacking themselves. Composers like the moderns Schoenberg and Stravinsky, and the romantics Glazunov and Rimsky-Korsakov offered their fair share, and I hear more than a sprinkle of The Rite of Spring on this piece in particular. Have a listen.

Listen all the way through if you like. Pay special attention to that 4-1-3 staccato rhythm and how it mixes with the swells on horns and strings. It’s worth mentioning the rhythm here is 5/4: just the same as ubiquitous 4/4 save for that extra quarter beat stuck in at the end there. It’s an unsettling and oft lurching meter all its own, and lends that lurch here wonderfully.

Overall, it’s a punchy, powerful, and… familiar sound. Perhaps even familiar – I will assume – if you’d never heard it before. And that would be a testament to its impact. Perhaps it doesn’t sound quite so 1914 to some of you. In fact, its militant motifs and The Planets‘ overall sweeping score would prove quite seductive for musicians and composers in the the decades to follow.

The Heavy Influence of Mars on Music

So how much music did it influence? Too much than could be hoped to list, that’s about how much. But we can look at some of the highlights and start with an easy one: The Devil’s Triangle by King Crimson, which just directly lifts the rhythmic ostinato (that 4-1-3) and a good chunk of the melody from Mars, and then uses it to good, intriguing effect by slowing down the pattern into something steady to calm us before the melody comes in blaring.

Skip to 2:20 if you want just that melody.

Quite the resemblance, isn’t it? The Devil’s Triangle was adapted from a live arrangement of Mars and released on album a year later in 1970. But Metal is in the title so metal we will bring: Black Sabbath. More specifically, Black Sabbath and Black Sabbath to be exact. The song on the album of the famous band.

Black Sabbath was pivotal to the development of metal as we know it, and this album was their debut foray. (It was also released in 1970. Hm.) Here Holst’s influence is less obvious, but still present. The story goes that bassist Geezer Butler was riffing a melody from Mars, and guitarist Tony Iommi, listening and inspired, returned the next day – with the riff subtly morphed to the tritone you hear right the way through the song. If you don’t hear the similarity, just start Mars from 10 seconds in: it’s the first horn motif we hear. And, just as an aside, Black Sabbath was one of the earliest and most enthusiastic uses of the tritone in heavy metal – a dark, dissonant musical interval (called centuries ago the diabolus in musica) that would go on to be one of the most definitive and iconic motifs in all metal. Thanks Holst.

mars and star wars

So that’s metal. But there’s more! Let’s jump ahead about 7 years, to Star Wars. First it must be said: John Williams, composer of all three trilogies, is a legend in a category all his own. He’s widely regarded as the greatest film composer of all time for good reason. And when scoring the space opera Star Wars he ended up, naturally enough, using Holst’s space suite as inspiration for his score. Where Mars is concerned, one example is oft touted above all others for its influence: The Imperial March of The Empire Strikes Back.

Again it’s a more general musical lineage to be found here. Sharp, harsh and fast staccato strings mix with triumphal medleys of horns in a snappier, more marching fashion than its 1914 forefather. The Imperial March is unquestionably memorable. Personally however, I think there’s an even better example. But first, let’s listen to a bit of Mars again: just the end.

Now, pay attention to the music your hear in the first 30 seconds of this scene from Star Wars – the very first scene, from the very first film.

You hear that? It’s good old Gustav again.

Let’s put this into context: this is the opening scene of one of the most famed, acclaimed and influential films in cinema history, and this is a famous scene in its own right. This was the genesis of one of the greatest film franchises in history. And it starts its very first scene, almost note-for-note, with the end of Mars.

And on that note, we leave you too, with Mars.

Watch more videos on the powerful music of Gustav Holst.

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