Gustav Holst and India by Raymond Head. Paperback, 35 pp (A4), 9 illustrations, 10 music examples. Available at £12.50 plus postage (hard copy) or £15 (download) from Sky Dance Press, The Firs, 10 Worcester Rd, Chipping Norton OX7 5XX (
I once referred to ‘Holst in India’. This slip of the tongue has recently been matched by a Radio Times slip of the word processor: ‘Holst in Japan’. Although he visited America three times in the pre-jet age, he did not venture any further east than Turkey and Algeria where his only known collecting of folk tunes produced Beni Mora, a ‘brilliantly original oriental orchestral suite’ in Raymond Head’s accurate description. Although Holst never set foot in India his enquiring mind, inspired from an early age by his Theosophist stepmother Mary, led him to discover all he could about world religions, and his daughter Imogen traced the beginnings of his interest in Indian culture to a book by R W Frazer published in 1895. There followed study of Sanskrit - literature, rather than language at first, insists Head - with Mabel Bode at the London Institute of Oriental Languages. Immersion in the language itself ensued, not total but deep enough to enable him to produce his own music-friendly versions of Hindu literature, using R Griffiths’s translations as a starting point. The result was a series of works which were not merely fashionably ‘oriental’ and, allied to his increasing awareness of folk and Renaissance music and Purcell, formed the impetus he needed to develop his own original style with its new scales, new harmonies and new rhythms. As Head demonstrates, the ‘brilliant successes’ of The Planets and The Hymn of Jesus were made possible by the confidence he gained earlier in the ‘Indian’ works.
This book, culled and expanded from articles which the author contributed to Tempo in the 1980s, is the ideal summary for the student, commentator or presenter. He is well versed in the broader picture of east and west in the arts. He tells us that Holst asked Maud MacCarthy about ragas: she had been to India with Theosophist Annie Besant and become a leading western exponent of the performance of its music. It is true that he made no systematic use of them in his music, but there are suggestions of particular ragas and the accompaniments he devised for his songs are sometimes tambura-like. Head makes a thorough comparison of the original Rig Veda and other classical texts with Holst’s treatment of them, noting that he often omitted passages which would restrict their universal application – in one salient example, the chamber opera Savitri, superimposing his own interpretation to reflect the doctrine of maya (illusion). (Savitri is fast establishing itself in the affections of those who are prepared to extend their listening beyond The Planets, with recent performances in the English Music Festival, Kings Place, the Arcola Theatre and even the city of New York.) Head sensibly considers the different Rig Veda settings, solo and choral, not in order but taking each deity in turn, this enabling him to draw pertinent comparisons –eg the thematic connections between the three Indra settings. He makes a persuasive case for the long-awaited premiere of Sita, the opera which first bridged the gap between Holst’s older, Wagnerian, style and the new. Despite its length and complexity, it contains beautiful music (e.g. Sita’s hymn to the dawn). ‘There is every reason to believe that the opera would work well on the stage’. Any offers? The illustrations in this book are a delight in themselves. A second edition will no doubt iron out a number of proofreading lapses in due course, and I hope fervently that the author will re-issue in similar manner his articles on ‘Astrology and Modernism in The Planets’ - still often mistakenly regarded as an astronomical work - and ‘The Hymn of Jesus: Holst and Gnosticism’.
  Alan Gibbs
Holst and India – ideal for student, commentator or presenter.