Herbert Lambert, National Portrait Gallery London
A Biography of Gustav Holst
by David Trippett
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.'
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
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
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
now and next Easter I'm going to have a long holiday abroad.'