The Missing Planet: Watch Leonard Bernstein Improvise 'Pluto, the Unpredictable'

Jul 17, 2018

You could say that Pluto is the Rodney Dangerfield of planets.

Downgraded from “planet” to “dwarf planet” in 2006, and with nearly 100 planets discovered during the recent missions of NASA’s Kepler spacecraft eclipsing it (pun intended) and other planets in the news, the icy orb seems to be getting little respect of late.

When Gustav Holst composed The Planets between 1914 and 1916, Pluto had not been discovered — so no musical tribute to Pluto appears in Holst’s masterpiece.

But Leonard Bernstein corrected that during his final Young People’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic, on March 26, 1972.

Bernstein’s exploration of The Planets came at a time when the American imagination was soaring swiftly into the previously unfathomable possibilities of outer space.

The concert took place about a decade after the United States entered the international Space Race, almost three years after the historic U.S.-manned lunar landing of Apollo 11 and about one month before the U.S. and the Soviet Union entered into the Apollo-Soyuz Agreement, putatively initializing an era of collaborative space exploration between the two nations.

In his March 1972 Young People's Concert, Bernstein capitalizes on America’s space-mania by invoking early on in the performance the opening of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra," referring to it as the theme from the 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey."

"These days, when we think of outer-space music, the first thing that pops into our heads is that well-known fanfare from '2001,' " Bernstein tells the audience in what was then called Philharmonic Hall.

Over the course of the concert, Bernstein takes the audience through performances of five movements of The Planets – Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter and Uranus. Bernstein talks about Holst’s interpretations of each planet, using Holst’s own descriptors for each – Mars, the Bringer of War; Venus, the Bringer of Peace – as starting points.

And just as Bernstein breaks down near the beginning of the concert why Holst’s astrological interpretation of the planets meant that Holst composed no movement inspired by planet earth, Bernstein explains near the end of the concert why Pluto is absent from the score.

But he doesn’t stop there. Bernstein issues a playful corrective to Holst’s score, leading the New York Philharmonic in a live improvisation of what Bernstein calls “Pluto, the Unpredictable.”

The video, above, of Bernstein’s “Pluto, the Unpredictable” is a masterpiece, not just because it documents a brilliant idea – updating Holst’s The Planets with a tone poem for Pluto.

The video illustrates his composer’s mind and his conductor’s skill in one fell swoop. He knows which instruments to bring into the texture at every point, and he knows how to “play” the New York Philharmonic – what gestures to use – in order to get the sounds he wants.

Bernstein may have been the first person to add a movement for Pluto to The Planets, but he wasn’t the last.

In 2000, on commission from the Hallé Orchestra, Colin Matthews composed Pluto, the Renewer, dedicating the piece to Holst's daughter, the late Imogen Holst.

Listen to Colin Matthews' Pluto, the Renewer performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, Simon Rattle conducting:

In a final stroke of irony, it turns out that Bernstein was right about Pluto’s unpredictability.

Research conducted since Bernstein’s 1972 Young People’s Concert has determined that, with plains of nitrogen ice, mountains of water ice and constantly changing surface colors, Pluto is one of the most geologically varied masses in the Solar System.

Watch the entire March 26, 1972, Young People’s Concert here:

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birthday on Aug. 25, 2018, Classical 101 is celebrating A Bernstein Summer on air and online.