A Biography of Gustav Holst
Part 1: 1874-1902
by David Trippett
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
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
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
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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