A Biography of Gustav Holst
Part 3: 1915-1928
by David Trippett
Photograph: Herbert Lambert, National Portrait
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
Jupiter - brings 'an abundance of life slow and steady - those
under its influence will be more plodding and persevering than brilliant
Uranus - 'will incline its subjects towards the metaphysical
and occult side of life producing eccentric, strange, and erratic
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.'
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 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
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 between now and next
Easter I'm going to have a long holiday abroad.'
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