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A Biography of Gustav Holst
Part 1: 1874-1902

by David Trippett

Described by Vaughan Williams as 'a great composer, a great teacher, and a great friend', the life of Gustav Holst presents a fascinating perspective on music and musicians in society during the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century. The prejudices against which Holst struggled as a provincial English composer reveal a divided musico-social fabric in England, that of enthusiastic domestic amateurism as opposed to conservative and perceptibly 'foreign' professionalism. His was a career that spanned the transition from the age of predominant domestic music-making to that of the gramophone and the 'wireless'. These technological innovations allowed for a wider audience to hear a greater and steadily growing repertoire of 'art' music though it also began to have a debilitating affect on amateur music-making. It seems that Holst was happy with a foot in both camps and became something of a protagonist in defending the individual's right for music to be performed and enjoyed at any level. Terrible world events inevitably had an effect on the arts within society, and the activities of continental composers such as Schoenberg and Stravinsky brought into question accepted conceptions of what music is and how it functions within a society. The combined effects of conservative attitudes, stagnation of the concert repertoire and the near extirpation of the native folk-song tradition in England through the effects of the industrial revolution resulted in great public uncertainty as change after change uprooted accepted beliefs and traditions.

Although now world renowned, principally as the composer of an astrologically inspired orchestral suite The Planets, Holst's career embraced the twin disciplines of tuition and composition almost equally, though this was perhaps born more of necessity and circumstance than of will and predisposition. His music was written for a rich diversity of media and in a number of innovative and highly original genres such as the Terzetto for flute, oboe, and viola. His approach to harmony (1) and predilection for asymmetrical time signatures speaks of his individuality and creative spirit though this was never in conflict with his strongly held belief in music as a means of communication. Vaughan Williams remarked how 'He loved his fellow creatures too much to allow his message to them to appear in vague or incomprehensible terms'(2). Although Holst's music has not fulfilled the dismal prophecy he once made, namely: "The epitaph that can be written on every British composer, with only one exception [Purcell], is that fifty years after his death music in England was as if he had never lived", it cannot be said to be appreciated in all its richness. How many people when questioned would be capable of naming but three compositions other than his magnum opus?

The early years
Gustavus Theodore von Holst was born at 4 Pittville Terrace (3), Cheltenham on Monday 21 September 1874. His family origins were in Scandinavia with his great-grandfather, Matthias (1767-1854) an important musician in the Imperial Russian court in St. Petersburg. He left for England in the early nineteenth century and set up a practice as a music teacher in London. His son, Gustavus Valentin(e) (1799-1871), settled in Cheltenham where, like his father, he taught harp and piano to the society of the town. It was Gustavus Valentin(e) who, in the 1820s, added the prefix 'von' to the family name in emulation of the German branch of the family. This is most likely to have been an attempt to enhance his musical status in the minds of prospective pupils. His marriage to Honoria Goodrich (4) resulted in the birth of Adolph(us) (1846-1091) who, in keeping with family traditions, became a musician, working as a pianist, teacher, and organist at All Saints' Church in Cheltenham. After marrying one of his pupils, Clara Cox Lediard - a singer and talented pianist, their first child together was Christened Gustavus Theodore on 21 October 1874. However on 12 February 1882, when Gustav was still only eight, his mother died of heart disease and dropsy, after a stillbirth a few months previously.

From an early age Gustav was firmly encouraged by his father to practice the piano daily. He also studied the violin and trombone (5). His physical disposition was weak though, suffering as he did from asthma and myopia. Indeed this was to plague him throughout his life causing him to seek increasingly frequent holidays to rest from the strains of a growing number of conducting and teaching commitments. In addition, Gustav was to develop neuritis in his right arm putting an abrupt end to his initial ambitions as a pianist and necessitating the use of amanuenses for the tiresome copying out of orchestral parts (the age before the printer and photocopier created hours of copying work for lone composers).

At the age of four Gustav's father took him to Church where the young boy heard his father play the organ and, on recognising a tune he had learned in his piano lessons, cried out "That's my tune!" (6). Also as a child, he had the opportunity to play an old Egyptian flute remarking later that the extremely curious musical effects that could be produced thereon intrigued him. A melody emancipated from the bonds of conventional harmony may have influenced his later writing for solo voice and could also have sown the seeds of his later interest in scales and melodic intervals from the Orient.

After attending the local preparatory school, Gustav entered Cheltenham Grammar School. Here, after studying Macaulay's 'Lays of Ancient Rome' in 1887, he conceived of setting the story of Horatius as a cantata. Secretly he worked on this idea whilst studying Berlioz's 'Treatise on Instrumentation' and, when the family were all out, tried the unfinished work through on the piano. He was shocked and upset by what he heard and never finished the work. Undeterred however, he continued to explore composition when his attention was caught, in 1888, by a competition in Boy's Own Paper for a musical setting 'with organ or piano accompaniment' of a stipulated poem. Holst's entry came sixth in the junior division and Holst, spurred on by his near success, subsequently went on to win first prize for three years running in this annual competition. Other immature works of this period include Four Voluntaries for organ, a Symphony in C minor, and the anthem The Listening Angels in which Holst first uses a hidden choir during the lines 'Solemnly from distant voices rose a vesper hymn.' Holst's father, whose position at the church enabled some early works to be performed, arranged, in 1891, for the première of three works at the Montpellier Rotunda: Scherzo for small orchestra, Intermezzo for small orchestra, and a song called Die Spröde. Even as a young man, Holst was suffering from neuritis in his right arm and Adolph knew then that a career as a concert pianist would be impossible.

He was, however, set on a musical career, and applied unsuccessfully for a scholarship to Trinity College, whereupon his father sent him to Oxford to study counterpoint with George Frederick Sims of Merton College. Compositions of this period include anthems, songs, an arpeggio study for piano, and a setting of Charles Kingsley's Ode to the North East Wind for male chorus and orchestra. On his return, he worked as a choir director at the Cotswold village of Wyrk Rissington where he gained valuable experience if little money.

Two main influences are discernible at this time - that of Wagner and Arthur Sullivan. Holst heard Götterdämmerung in London on 13 July 1892 and was stunned by the passionate expression of the music, which amazed him by its technical audacity. The intense chromaticism of Wagner's mature style was to greatly influence the harmony in many of the early works, for example the operas The Youths' Choice and Sita. Sullivan's influence is evident in the two-act opera Lansdown Castle, or The Sorcerer of Tewkesbury written in 1892 which the Gloucester Chronicle declared to be a 'a slender stringing together, in a whimsical way, of various incidents, more or less improbable'. The Echo perceptively wrote that 'Young Gustav von Holst gives evidence not only of genius, but of careful laborious study.'

An unsuccessful application for a scholarship for the RCM leads to Adolph borrowing £100 from a relative to finance a couple of year's maintenance and tuition for Holst who entered and passed the ordinary entrance examination.

The student years
At the RCM, after an initial course in theory with Rockstro and Frederick Bridge, Holst studied composition with Charles Stanford (who described him as 'enthusiastic, and happily not devoid of humour') and music history with Hubert Parry. Though hard working, he was not deemed to be brilliant, and only received a badly needed scholarship after two further failed attempts. His modest weekly allowance (£1) would not stretch to the hire of a piano for his Hammersmith lodgings, so all exercises and composition were completed without the aid of a keyboard. To save money Holst either cycled or walked the 97 miles from London to Cheltenham (7) at the end of each term, and solitary walking in the countryside was to remain an important pastime for the rest of his life. The minutes of the Literary and Debating Society record that Holst spoke on 'The Future of English Music' proposing that 'Academic Training Should be Abolished'!

Compositions at this time are saturated with imitations of Wagner. Indeed, during the first term at college he attended a season of Wagner (8) operas at Covent Garden and one of his closest friends of this period - Fritz Hart - who was fanatical about the German master - frequently expounding his virtues in conversation. Though none of his works were deemed worthy of inclusion in official college concerts (Holst later consigned his schoolboy and student compositions to his music cupboard, labelling them 'Early Horrors'), several pieces were performed outside college and some were even accepted by well-known publishers. They include an Air and Variations for piano quintet, a short trio for piano and strings, and a piano quintet in G minor; songs and unaccompanied part-songs of settings of Walter Scott and Thomas Hood abound.

During this period Holst read widely, taking in authors such as George Macdonald, Walt Whitman, William Morris, and Sir Walter Scott, all of whom were to be the subject of later works and musical settings. A further seed was sown when on 20 November 1895 college students put on a production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. It was here that Holst's lifelong admiration of Purcell's' music began. This would later lead to the first performances of his stage works since the late seventeenth century.

In 1895 Ralph Vaughan Williams returned to College as a full-time student after three years studying history at Cambridge. He met Holst, who opened their first conversation by quoting from Sheridan's 'The Critic'. This caught VW's fancy and, after learning that they were both Gloucester lads, a friendship was struck up which was to endure throughout Holst's life and have a great influence upon his music and career. The two men began a practice of holding 'field days' during which they would play through and discuss each other's compositions. This habit was maintained throughout Holst's life even after both composers had acquired international reputations.

After finally receiving a scholarship (maintenance grant) of £30 per annum, Holst also began to supplement his income by playing the trombone in theatre orchestras and seaside bands. The band that paid most highly for fewer performances (still a pittance) was called the 'White Viennese Band' - all were dressed in gold-braided uniforms and, despite the English contingent, were instructed to talk in foreign accents when in earshot of the public. Thus Holst was exposed to the curious prejudice that the English public has against its own musicians, later remarking that 'It was understood that if you were a good musician you must be a foreigner. And if you were a good musician it followed that you must be a better one than a English one.' Holst referred to his work as a bandsman as 'worming' after the band's conductor Stanislaus Würm.

Holst was invited to conduct the Hammersmith Social Choir and so taught them Morley madrigals and Purcell part songs. The young, fair-haired soprano, Isobel Harrison, came to Holst's attention during this time and he promptly fell in love with her though plans of marriage were not possible for a long time due to financial restrictions. Holst had many activities as a choral director, for example, he took over from VW as organist at St Barnabas' Church, South Lambeth temporarily and had responsibility for another choir of which VW said 'I remember a certain choral society which in his [Holst] youthful enthusiasm he over-dosed with Bach's Cantatas with the result that he was asked to retire in favour of some other conductor and the society returned to its wallowing in the mire.'

In 1898, despite the extension of his scholarship for a year, Holst felt that he should begin to make his own way in the world, for he had been at the RCM now for five years. He applied for a post as trombonist and répétiteur with the Carla Rosa Opera Company and, after a touching goodbye (9), set off for the Lancashire seaside resort of Southport.

Tours and orchestras
When Holst joined the Carla Rosa Opera Company their repertoire was mostly of foreign works such as La Bohème (Puccini's not Leoncavallo's), Carmen, and Cavalleria Rusticana, though some English stage works were performed, for example Balfe's The Bohemian Girl, Stanford's Shamus O'Brien, and Wallace's Maritana. Here Holst met Henry Wood and gained much practical insight into orchestration and the problems of operatic composition as well as having to opportunity to experience the orchestra 'from the inside out'(10).

Whilst on tour Holst continued to compose as best he could and, for relaxation and diversion, began studying Sanskrit literature. His interest was fired when a friend leant him one of Friedrich Max Müller's books (Michael Short, a distinguished scholar, asserts that this was probably 'The Sacred Books of the East') and would go on to inspire some of the most interesting works, for example the orchestral suite Beni Mora. A mark of Holst's tenacity and characteristic determination is his enrolment at the London School of Oriental Languages on the discovery that most Sanskrit texts were either not translated or not translated very well. He remarked: 'I believe…that if you really want passionately to do something, you will find time. I used to study Sanskrit on the train - I learned the alphabet, at least. Much good it did me, but I learned it.' The immediate musical consequence of this was his large-scale three act opera Sita though this was not completed until 1906.

In 1900 Holst gave up his job in the opera company and joined the trombones of the Scottish Orchestra. The standard of musicianship was much higher here than with Carla Rosa, and the customary repertoire of Beethoven's Symphonies and Wagner overtures meant that the concerts were always popular. Composition was made very difficult, however, as the punishing schedule left little time for work. Important works of this period include Ave Maria for eight-part female chorus - this was strongly based in the harmonic idiom of the late nineteenth century and demonstrates much skill in the contrapuntal handling of a double chorus. It attracted favourable reviews, most notably from the distinguished musicologist Ebenezer Prout who wrote 'It is very ingeniously written, and I do not think the counterpoint too free. Nobody would expect such a piece to be written in strict counterpoint. I am afraid that the fact of its being write for 8-part female choirs will prevent its having a large sale; there are very few female choirs good enough to divide into eight parts without coming to grief.'

Now that Holst had a regular source of income and was becoming more established as a composer, he and Isobel decide to get married. The ceremony took place on 22 June 1901 and, after moving to their new home at 162 Shepherd's Bush Road, Brook Green, Fritz Hart (a good friend) came in with the depressing news that Thomas Dunhill had spotted a pair of parallel fifths in the Ave Maria! Shortly after the marriage, however, Holst's father died at the age of fifty-six. His obituary read 'A fine pianist, well known in musical circles. He was a local examiner for the RCM…His son, Gustav, late student of that institution, is a promising musician and has produced some excellent compositions.' Various concerts of Holst's works took place during this period, including the premiere of the Cotswold Symphony by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra on 24 April 1902, and the young composer, in spite of his relentless neuritis, frantically finished The Youth's Choice and entered it into a competition by the Milan publisher, Edoardo Sonzongno hoping to win the offered prize of £2000. In the end, he did not win and was particularly disappointed by the news that operas with what were deemed to be poor libretti were rejected before the music was even considered so none of his music may have been seen.

Indra, an orchestral work resulting from his Sanskrit studies, was completed in Berlin while Holst was visiting family members there. Whilst abroad Holst expressed his wariness of continental influences upon his music in a letter to VW; 'Seeing foreigners is a mistake as a rule. Don't you think that we ought to victimise Elgar?' That summer Holst stayed at home, effectively giving up his job as a trombonist, to concentrate on his composition while Isobel earned money for their meals by dressmaking. These were anxious months and Holst rejoined the Scottish Orchestra for the winter season though when VW decided to leave his post as music teacher at James Allen's Girls' school in 1904, Holst, who had already deputised for him, was asked to do the job and so embarked on his career as a teacher.

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