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A Biography of Gustav Holst
Part 3: 1915-1928

by David Trippett

The Planets
Photograph: Herbert Lambert, National Portrait Gallery London

Holst began work on an orchestral suite first called 'Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra'; this was to become The Planets. Described by one critic as 'the English Sacre du Printemps', The Planets clearly displays the influence of both Stravinsky and Schoenberg. The work had been gestating for a while, 'That work, whether it's good or bad, grew in my mind slowly-like a baby in a woman's womb…For two years I had the intention of composing a cycle, and during those years it seemed of itself more and more definitely to be taking form.' Each movement is a 'mood picture' and acts as a 'foil to the other mood pictures'; Holst was not bound by strict astrological empiricism such as the order of the planets or the effects of the sun and the moon. When it was completed in 1916 the orchestration was massive - quadruple woodwind, six horns, and two timpanists. The characteristics of each planet as Holst conceived them can be found in the book 'What is a Horoscope?' by Alan Leo which Holst is known to have been reading at the time.

Mars - independent, confident, ambitious, enterprising, skilful in action, 'headstrong and at times too forceful'

Venus - awakens the 'affectionate and emotional side of her subjects, giving them a clear appreciation of art and beauty.'

Mercury - the 'winged messenger of the Gods' gives 'adaptability, fertility, of resource, and the ability to use the mind in various ways.'

Jupiter - brings 'an abundance of life slow and steady - those under its influence will be more plodding and persevering than brilliant and active.'

Uranus - 'will incline its subjects towards the metaphysical and occult side of life producing eccentric, strange, and erratic reactions'.

Neptune - great influence over psychic tendencies, helping mediums and other sensitive people to transcend mundane distractions and 'tune-in' to vibrations from another world.

Mars, 'the most ferocious piece of music in existence', formed a new expression of battle, evoking violence and sheer terror as had not previously been heard. Holst insisted that Mars should be performed at a quick tempo, faster than a normal march, enhancing the idea of mechanized warfare and inhuman forces.

Venus shows the influence of VW, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg. The Sea Symphony (VW) shares a characteristic pulsating chordal effect, found at the end of this work, the 'Ronde des Princesses' in The Firebird (Stravinsky) is evident, and an adaptation of the celesta passage from the second of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra can be heard.

Jupiter was written immediately following Venus, despite the fact that it was to become the fourth movement. The opening figurations are reminiscent of those in Petrushka and the central theme is similar to that of the' Infernal Dance' in The Firebird showing the importance of Diaghilev's recent performances in London. Emotionally, Elgar's Nimrod is very close to the middle section of Jupiter. A mood of relaxed self-satisfaction pervades them both.

After completing his a cappella Nunc Dimittis for eight-part mixed chorus, Holst returned to The Planets completing Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune before the end of 1915. The material for Saturn comes largely from an earlier work - the female-voice part-song Dirge and Hymeneal. Holst changed the modality and rhythmic placing of the original chords; offbeat accentuation was used to disorientate the listener while the ostinato alteration of two unresolved chords portray the inevitable passage of time. He considered Saturn to be the best movement of The Planets and, writing to Adrian Boult, he stated 'In the opening some instruments are quite "dead". Others have <>. Make the latter as emotional as possible…The 4 flute tune (Tempo I) was soft enough but try and get the timp, harps, and basses also down to nothing. This part must begin as if from another world and gradually overwhelm this one.'

Uranus' opening four-note brass motif is reminiscent of the arrival of Pan in Ravel's Daphnis and Chloé, though the main influence on this work is clearly Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice which was first performed in London in 1899 and would have been well known by Holst. Following a series of hearty capers, the spell is undone by the 'magic' chord after a loud climax and the magician disappears as the dynamics fall from fff to ppp within a few bars.

Neptune was, of course, the farthest known planet in the Solar System and Holst's aim in this piece was to depict the wonder and mystery of outer space. The absence of clear thematic material and prominent shifting tone-colours recall the fluid textures of Farben from Schoenberg's Five Pieces. The inclusion of a female chorus was a natural choice for someone who spent his days teaching in a girls' school and, though unusual in symphonic music, had a precedent in Debussy's Sirènes and Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé. The remoteness of space I captured by the persistent pp dynamics which eventually fade into silence evoking the infinity of the universe.

Mercury was finished during the first few months of 1916. Previously Holst had been working on his Japanese Suite with alternating 3/4 and 6/8 rhythms, this may have been partially responsible for the same alternation of metre in Mercury. An impression of the constant movement of this messenger is achieved through the bitonal effect of E major and Bb major triads and the metrical alternation.

Although first written for piano duet, Holst conceded that it only worked on the piano if the scoring for orchestra was taken into account, and even then some of the sustained orchestral effects were not at all suited to the piano. Holst wrote to Whittaker 'The last one Neptune is so ridiculous on the piano that I have arranged it for organ duet. Even then it isn't quite successful.'

See also The Planets by Len Mullenger

The onset of war
Just as he was finishing Mars, the inevitable happened and Europe was plunged into war. The immediate effects on the arts were a complete ban on Teutonic music and the replacing of German musicians from the orchestras. Holst, like VW, volunteered for military service but was rejected on medical grounds because of his short-sightedness, neuritic right hand, and bad digestion. At Thaxted the townsfolk became suspicious of this 'Von Holst' and stories of his activities as a German agent abounded. After a police interrogation he was cleared and eventually became friendly with the villagers who often referred to him as 'our Mr Von'. Prejudice was running high, for the windows of shopkeepers suspected to be of German origin or sympathy were smashed, German grocers were suspected of poisoning food, and Barbers of cutting throats; it has been said that even Dachshund dogs were kicked in the streets.

During 1916 a growing friendship with the local vicar in Thaxted, Conrad Noel, resulted in the establishment of Whitsun music festival in Thaxted church. The previous year Holst had invited a few pupils of Morley College to come and sing at Thaxted, now pupils from both Morley and St. Paul's were invited to visit for the Whitsun weekend of 10-12 June. A mixture of services, concerts and garden parties ensured that the event was a great success while the music performed included Purcell, Lassus, Vittoria, and Palestrina together with the Bach mass in A. One morning Holst went to the church only to discover one of his Morley Pupils, Christine Ratcliffe, in the shadows playing her violin and softly improvising a wordless song. This was to give him the idea for the Four Songs for voice and violin using texts selected from Mary Segar's 'A Medieval Anthology'. However, having written three songs for Christine Ratcliffe's voice, Holst was disappointed to discover that she could not articulate the words whilst playing the violin and so he abandoned the idea of a performance by only one person.

With the introduction of conscription, Holst found that his choirs were somewhat unbalanced, remarking in October 1916 'Morley choir started last month with 50 women and 2 men, and 50 per cent of the men could not sing!' Some Morley students sent work from the front so that Holst might have a look at it, Cecil Coles, for example, sent the first movement of a suite for orchestra but died soon after in no-mans land. Sydney Bressey visited Holst whilst on leave recovering from wounds received at the front and showed him a setting of Shelley's lines 'Music, when soft voices die' written in the trenches. Holst tried through the work with the young composer, the Head Mistress, and a student and was so impressed that he agreed to include it in the forthcoming Morley concert. Bressey was not to return, however, from his second trip to France and never heard the concert.

Wartime London
Having completed The Planets Holst set about a new work The Hymn of Jesus for which he chose a text from The Apocryphal Acts of St John by G. R. S. Mead. This was postponed until the summer holidays as the exciting Whitsun festival took up much of his time during the Easter holidays and term time was taken up with teaching. When he settled down to work at it, he selected two mixed choirs, a semi-chorus of female voices, and, in his own words, 'an orchestra of rather more than a dozen, in other words, a damned big thing.' The use of plainsong in non-liturgical works had a precedent in Berlioz's use of the Dies Irae motif in his Symphony Fantastique though it was almost certainly during his work as co-editor for the English Hymnal with VW that he came across these melodies, for the two hymns 'Vexilla Regis Prodeunt' and 'Pange Lingua Gloriosi Proelium Certaminis' both appear in that book. The harmonic interest in The Hymn of Jesus is highly dissonant and functions as an expression of intense religious experience. Though vertically the harmony is often very difficult to dissect, a linear perspective shows that all dissonances are carefully approached and quitted logically. Typically the section 'Ye who dance not, know not what ye are knowing.' is set to a five beat rhythm similar to that in To Agni from the second group of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda.

Various concerts included works by Holst as patriotism demanded English composers and one of the foremost conductors, Adrian Boult, was becoming a close acquaintance and friend giving several performances of Holst's works in the Queen's Hall. Following the third Whitsun festival at Thaxted and a host of school concerts, Holst was given a year's leave of absence to undertake educational work for the YMCA. Before setting off, Holst was strongly advised to drop the 'Von' from his name, as it would not go down well with allied internees. He subsequently changed his name by deed poll on 18 September 1918. As a farewell gift, Henry Balfour Gardiner gave a private professional performance of The Planets in the Queen's Hall with Boult conducting. The choir of St. Paul's School was engaged for the task and an invited audience (including the majority of the school) attended. There were many congratulations though Holst shortly received notification that he was to depart for Salonica in thirty-six hours.

Working with soldiers and children
Holst spent 1918-1919 in the Middle East (Salonica and Constantinople) working for the YMCA's army education scheme as a music organiser. During this time he organised many concerts of mostly English music both with and for the troops and gained hundreds of pupils who were eager to learn and escape the dismal camps and their mundane duties. He became frustrated at the way in which troops would come and go from one week to the next protesting that he could not teach them much or build on skills if he only had a week before the particular soldier must move on - though he knew that there was nothing he could do about this.

Whilst away The Hymn of Jesus won an award and was published by Stainer and Bell Ltd. who immediately put the vocal and full score parts into production. More importantly perhaps, The Planets received its first public performance under Adrian Boult in the Queen's Hall in London (Neptune and Venus were omitted). As Holst was not present, he only had the press reviews to go on and commented 'It's all quite nice, except that people seem to dislike Saturn which is my favourite.' After returning to Thaxted he began to write a piece which was motivated by the waste of life and the futility of war - Ode to Death was written in memory of the musicians and friends, particularly the composer Cecil Coles, who had died during the war. One again, he turned to Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass' using 'When lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom'd' for the words and used antique parallel fifths to evoke quiet resignation at the opening and at the end.

By the end of 1919 Holst had almost finished writing the libretto for his satirical opera The Perfect Fool. Towards the end of the Christmas term he had received two offers for posts, the first at the Royal College of Music where he was to teach theory and composition, and the second at University College, Reading where he would have similar duties. By accepting these posts Holst had to resign from James Allen's Girls' School though he maintained his posts at St. Paul's and at Morley College. Now working as a professor of composition, Holst expounded the benefits of communal study: 'In the Middle Ages a great painter had several pupils working in close comradeship with him in his studio. This is one of the best ways of fostering the artistic impulse and the power of artistic expression. And one of its best features is the continual comradeship with the master. This ensures education in the deeper sense: the unfolding of the pupil's mind - largely unconsciously.' One of Holst's pupils who himself later became a successful composer was Edmund Rubbra. He recalled 'Holst's over-riding characteristic as a teacher was his deep identification with what a struggling young composer was trying to say. Not many teachers would carry his pupil's problems away with him and worry over them between lessons and to send a solution on a postcard: or, when genuinely pleased with something a pupil had written, organise a performance and a small audience for the next lesson. Nothing could give a young composer more confidence in himself than his unselfconscious sharing of the problems of music making between master and pupil.'

Growing reputation
During 1920-1922 Holst's fame was growing. The Times wrote that Holst had 'achieved a position, rare for an Englishman, of being a really popular composer.' Many concerts of his works were now being put on, some of which he conducted, though his friends - Adrian Boult, Balfour Gardiner, W. G. Whittaker among other - were tireless promoters of their colleagues music. Two performances of The Hymn of Jesus (19) took place in early 1920 and with very favourable reviews many more were to follow in subsequent years. W. G. Whittaker arranged the premier of Two Psalms (written in 1912) for St. James's Football (20) ground in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in front of a crowd of twenty thousand people.

The first unabridged performance of The Planets took place on 15 November in the Queen's Hall. Albert Coates conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and a huge ovation greeted Holst as he was summoned up onto the stage. Reviews praised the new work greatly and, now that the work's place in concert repertoire had been confirmed, conductors were soon vying with each other to give performances even though Holst had so far been unable to have it published. Both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Symphony Orchestra wanted to give the American premiere. A compromise was agreed - the work would be performed simultaneously in Chicago and New York (because of the time zones, New York would just have the edge). Journalists and gossip-columnists were soon pestering Holst for interviews, photographs, and information though he made it clear that he detested such mercenary attention and his replies became ever briefer until he would withdraw into silence.

As well as continuing his frequent conducting commitments, Holst was increasingly in demand as a lecturer covering such topics as 'The Education of the Composer', 'The Music of England', and 'The Music of Purcell' at Edinburgh, London, and Reading. His increasing fame afforded him greater influence with music publishers and Holst was able to have many of his earlier works published. The downside for him was, however, that he was obliged to agree to the publication of things like the maestoso theme from Jupiter to the words of Sir Cecil Spring Rice's patriotic poem 'The Two Fatherlands' - 'I Vow to Thee, My Country'.

Albert Coates was performing Holst's works world-wide now, giving the Canadian premiere of The Planets in 1922 and performing the ballet music to The Perfect Fool with the Royal Philharmonic at the Queen's Hall. That same year Holst went to see Thomas Hardy in Dorset, whose work he had long admired. This encounter would eventually lad to the composition of Egdon Heath. But now a new prospect beckoned, that of recording The Planets for the Columbia Graphophone Company.

International renown
1922-1923 saw a host of lecturing and conducting in Newport and Newcastle, while concerts of The Planets and St. Paul's Suite took place in Birmingham and London respectively. Being the tercentenary of both William Byrd and Thomas Weelkes, Holst, known to be especially interested in the Elizabethan composers, was much in demand to speak about their music giving lectures in Glasgow, Manchester, Burnley, Leeds, and York. However, on the 20 February 1923 in Reading, during a rehearsal for a Byrd and Weelkes commemorative concert, Holst fell from the rostrum and struck the back of his head before falling to the ground. This incident was to have a debilitating effect on his career. Though the concussion was not serious, and he seemed to recover that spring before setting off for Michigan, on returning to England he found that he suffered from headaches and insomnia. After the event Holst left his Morley and Reading posts much to the disappointment of his students, though he did maintain his position at St. Paul's.

Later that year Holst left for Michigan where was to lecture and conduct the music festival at Ann Arbor. Whilst aboard the liner Aquitania with Arthur Bliss he began to write drafts for his Fugal Concerto ('the world's shortest concerto'). On arrival Holst completed the Fugal Concerto and during the festival conducted The Hymn of Jesus, Beni Mora, A Dirge for Two Veterans, and his A Fugal Concerto. While in America, Holst missed the premiere performance of his satirical opera The Perfect Fool which took place on 14 May 1923. The reaction in England was mixed for the opera itself is a parody on 'English Opera'. The action, if one may speak of such, turns on the inability or unwillingness of the Fool to take any interest in wooing a Princess, despite the prompting of his Mother and competition from a Wizard, and in the final scene, the Fool yawns and falls asleep out of sheer apathy. After the performance, heated discussion broke out as to the meaning of the work: some said that the Princess represented 'Opera' while the Fool was 'The British Public', while others felt that the Fool was 'Native Art' while the Princess was 'The Public'. There was some annoyance, however, at Holst's flippant treatment of operatic traditions though the work was praised for its technical construction.

In the summer of 1923 Holst completed his Columbia recording of The Planets. Conditions were cramped and there were no editing facilities so this project proved a strain for all with the exposed horn solo being recorded no less than thirteen times. Holst spoke of his exhaustion after the Christmas term 'I've had 5 shows at the Queen's Hall, a lot of teaching at the RCM and huge classes here, Dulwich and Morley. Relief came in the form of a gift from Claude Johnson, a director of Rolls Royce Ltd. who offered to cover the expenses of a festival of Holst's music. Instead Holst accepted a monetary gift of £1500 enabling him to concentrate on composition for a substantial period of time. Works of this period include A Choral Symphony (in four movements) set to the poems of John Keats - Invocation to Pan and Song and Bacchanale, Ode to a Grecian Urn, Hymn to Apollo, and Old Bards of Passion and Mirth. Holst was inspired by VW's Sea Symphony set to poems by Walt Whitman, though his new work did not have the same literary cohesion as VW's being a selection a poems chosen for their aesthetic value alone. In late 1924 Holst was elected to a Fellowship of the RCM; this was the only academic award that he would accept.

Pinnacle and decline
The years 1925-1933 were Holst's best years as a composer. He gave up all teaching duties except for a little at St. Paul's and his fame was at its height. Performance after performance up and down the country of his works went on, so much so that Holst was often unable to attend the concerts due to doing another one or feeling exhausted. His new work At the Boar's Head, a setting of speeches from Shakespeare's 'Henry IV', received mixed reviews 'For the whole hour…nothing happened that was of the slightest consequence' though Holst was praised for his technical ingenuity. Some other works of this period include a setting of poems by Robert Bridges entitled Assemble, All Ye Maidens, Love on My Heart from Heaven Fell. The premiere of his Choral Symphony took place at the Leeds Triennial Festival under the baton of Albert Coates with Dorothy Silk as the soprano soloist. Holst came in for harsh criticism for his apparently illogical juxtaposition of various poems by Keats though, again, he was praised for his technical ingenuity.

In spite of his immediate success, Holst's absence from the media and refusal to tailor his music to popular demand meant that he was soon in decline as a celebrity composer. Many of his works were now being broadcast on the BBC 'wireless' including Beni Mora, A Choral Symphony, and A Fugal Overture. He gave six weekly lectures at Liverpool University on 'England and her Music' and ten lectures in four weeks at Glasgow University on orchestral music. At the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester his Short Festival Te Deum was performed, after which the BBC invited him to conduct a special programme on his birthday - 21 September. Although he began making notes for a second Choral Symphony at this time, this would never be completed.

The citizens of Cheltenham decided to hold a special event in honour of the town's most favourite son. After refusing a portrait, a concert was arranged which he would later describe as 'the most overwhelming event of my life', it consisted of A Somerset Rhapsody, The Perfect Fool ballet music, A Fugal Concerto, Two Songs Without Words, and The Planets.

After returning from Beverly on a walking holiday, a telegram was waiting for Holst from the New York Symphony Orchestra offering a commission for an orchestral work. Immediately, Holst knew that this was the chance that he had been waiting for to write an orchestral work based on Thomas Hardy's Wessex. Sketches appear in his notebook at the beginning of May 1927 for what was to become Egdon Heath (21). So on 4 August Holst set out on another walking holiday to Dorchester with the intention of visiting Thomas Hardy. The two men walked together and spoke of the beauty of the countryside and the whole visit made an indelible impression on Holst; 'It's been an unbelievable day.'

As busy as ever, Holst tried as often as possible to escape London for the peace of Essex, and it was here that he completed Egdon Heath. After hearing a performance of Bach's double violin concerto in the Queen's Hall, Holst resolved to write a double concerto himself, though it would be two years before he started work on this. Further lecture topics in his busy schedule included 'England her Music' and the music of Robert Lucas Pearsall and Samuel Wesley ('Old Sam') in Morley College and at the Royal Institute at Albemarle Street. During December that year Holst received a letter from the BBC asking him if he would be interested in writing a work for military band (22). The piece was to be in one movement lasting between twelve and fifteen minutes and in the form of a concert overture, fantasy, or symphonic poem. Holst accepted though warned that he would not be able to start the piece for some time as he wanted to arrange a Bach organ fugue for band to familiarise himself with the medium.

That Christmas Holst travelled to Prague, Leipzig and Vienna after his school commitments were over. In Prague he visited Mozart's house and met Janácek and Hába, also attending several concerts at which he saw Smetana's Two Widows and The Tales of Hoffman.

Before Holst could begin his Bach transcription a more urgent commission arrived that of the National Band Festival to write a competition piece for the annual championships. The resulting work he called A Moorside Suite. The premiere of Egdon Heath on 12 February was preceded by the death of Thomas Hardy and the dedication was altered accordingly from simply to the man to 'Homage to Thomas Hardy'. This work met with much criticism for Holst's works were, in point of fact, going out of fashion.

His latest work was the play The Coming of Christ was to be performed in Canterbury Cathedral at Whitsun 1928. This would be the first sacred drama to take place in an English Cathedral since the Middle Ages and inevitably there were protests from Fundamentalists. The texture is, on the whole, very sparse with the juxtaposition of unison chanting and unaccompanied choral passages working extremely well in the resonant acoustic.

Holst was back in London after a brief sightseeing tour of Paris in time for the National Brass Band Festival; the work was performed fifteen times and Holst was impressed by the technical skill and musicianship of the performers, though he disliked the sporadic indulgence in vibrato of some of the performers. Holst, however, was not getting enough composition done as his schedule of teaching, lecturing, and conducting allowed so little time. He wrote that 'for some queer reason I have not been able to write a note since Easter …between now and next Easter I'm going to have a long holiday abroad.'


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