A Biography of Gustav Holst
Part 4: 1929-1934
by David Trippett
For his holiday Holst travelled south by train via Chambéry to Genoa,
arriving in Rome on Christmas Eve. He went round the city in his customary
manner exploring by 'getting lost', and left for Naples after declaring 'Rome's
no good after Greece.'(23
) In Naples he visited the ruins
of Pompeii and saw Vesuvius covered in snow, shimmering in the winter sunshine.
He travelled to such places as Taormina, Lucca, Pisa, Ferrara, Verona, Perugia,
and Ravenna before returning to England. No sooner had he arrived, than Holst
set off for America where he was to attend the ceremony and dinner of the American
Academy. He spent most of his time in New York with his brother though travelled
to Boston to lecture at Harvard University.
On his 'second return' Holst was glad to be
able to get into a routine again after all his travelling.
Characteristically though, he set about composing once again,
this time writing twelve songs to the words of Humbert Wolfe's
poetry including The Dream City
which, like Neptune
, he sought to express the incomprehensibility
of space. Concerts of his music were still taking place around
the country, for example a performance of The Golden Goose
Warwick and The Planets
at the Canterbury Festival.
In terms of composition though, Holst had finally begun his
Double Concerto after Bach which was to be in three movements
that ran continuously. He wrote to Imogen that 'Just now I
am feeling that life is moderately pleasing' and soon after
had another 'field day' with VW where they both looked at the
latter's 'masque for dancing' Job
. Much later VW commented
'I should like to place on record all that he [Holst] did for
me when I wrote Job
. I should be alarmed to say how
many 'Field Days' we spent over it.' VW was awarded the gold
medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in March 1930 and the
next month it was Holst's turn. During the interval of the
premiere of his Double Concerto at the Queen's Hall, Holst
was presented with the Gold Medal by Frederick Austin who described
he and VW as 'contemporaries, life-long friends, Arcadians
A further walking tour, this time to Holland,
was intended to reinvigorate Holst after a busy term. He explored
The Hague, Leiden, Haarlem, and Amsterdam where he also heard
a performance of the St. Matthew Passion
. Later that
year he performed A Choral Fantasia
and a setting of
Robert Bridge's Ode for the Bicentenary Commemoration of Henry
Purcell at the Chichester Festival.
The final years
In summer 1930 Holst began work on the much-postponed
work commissioned by the BBC for military band. It was called Hammersmith
Holst said of it 'As far as the work owes anything to outside
influences it is the result of living in Hammersmith for thirty-nine
years on and off
' Split into a Prelude and Scherzo, the
shifting bitonal lines of the Prelude evoke the incessant,
dark flow of the river. The slow moving ground bass with flowing
counterpoint above also conjures up images of the river while
the odd triplet figure sounds like a whistling cockney. This
work was completed by the end of October and by the end of
the year Holst had completed A Choral Fantasia
and The Wandering Scholar
. Early in the New Year Boult
conducted a radio broadcast of Savitri
, The Planets
and Beni Mora
. Holst re-scored Hammersmith
full orchestra and revised the original version a little before
sending it off to B. Walton O'Donnell at the BBC. A new kind
of commission was received when Holst was asked to write the
soundtrack for a film called The Bells
. Although this
type of commission was not considered normal for a 'serious'
composer, Holst was attracted by the idea and made some notes
for the score (it had to be completed in a month) before embarking
on 'a week's middle-aged walking' in Normandy. On his return
he finished the score and recorded it in Wembley despite his
persistent neuritis. He soon lost his earlier enthusiasm when
the directors requested certain changes and, on hearing a private
run-though (using dreadful speakers) was utterly disillusioned
with the result. Imogen, who was present, recalled his 'white-faced
look of dismay'. The film was eventually sold off to an American
company though it was released neither there nor in England.
Holst's passion for walking tours did not abate
and he spent time in the Cotswolds before conducting his Whitsuntide
singers in Chichester, and later travelled to Dorset visiting
Blandford Forum, Dorchester, Abbotsbury, and Chesil Beach.
Later that year he conducted The Planets
in one of the
BBC Prom concerts which was broadcast on national wavelengths.
Towards the end of the year Holst received an invitation from
Harvard University to accept the post of Horatio Lamb Lecturer
in Composition for the second half of the academic session.
In addition there was an invitation from the Boston Symphony
Orchestra to conduct a concert of his own works in January.
He accepted both offers and took on an agent - Duncan McKenzie
- to relieve the pressure of his being a celebrity over there.
In the New Year, Holst boarded the S.S. Bremen
at Southampton and set off for America. After some initial
sightseeing in Boston, he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra
on 19 January in a concert of all his own works including St.
, A Somerset Rhapsody
, The Perfect
ballet music, the orchestral version of Bach's Fugue à la
, and Hammersmith
After travelling to New York, Holst spent time
exploring the city, the theatre, gave a talk at a meeting of
the Beethoven Association, and gave a lecture on 'England and
her Music' to the National Association of Organists. In Boston
the teaching commitments of his new post were favourable, so
much so that Holst could devote several mornings a week to
composition - it was here that he taught composition to Elliott
Carter, now an eminent contemporary composer.
He greatly enjoyed teaching and composing in
Harvard, and wrote to Whittaker saying that 'They have given
me delightful rooms and I find that I can get a fair amount
of writing done'.
After Harvard Holst planned to visit Canada
for a lecture and concert tour. There he lectured in Montreal
on 'England and her Music' and conducted, among other works, Jupiter
At the end of March Holst gave a lecture to
the Library of Congress commemorating the bicentenary of Haydn's
birth and, in April, he gave the first performance of Hammersmith
it was originally scored - for military band (24
He attended a concert containing Liszt's Dante Symphony
which he had to walk home 'to get over it.' On returning to
Boston, he became ill and saw a doctor who told him to go to
hospital where haemorrhagic gastritis caused by a duodenal
ulcer was diagnosed. All forthcoming engagements were cancelled
and he remained in hospital for fifteen days. After having
recovered he moved back into Elliot House and returned to his
teaching duties with renewed vigour as well as continuing to
work on the Six Choruses
. Further concerts and lectures
continued as his health improved and, having first cancelled
his part in Ann Arbor (music festival) he changed his mind
and went ahead with it.
An uneventful voyage brought him back to England
on 2 June 1932 and he settled into his English life once again,
teaching, composing, travelling, and walking. He accepted several
conducting commitments and took up the trombone again for a
performance of VW's Fantasia on Christmas Carols
be performed at St. Paul's that Christmas. On 29 October he
was the guest of honour at the Annual General Meeting of the
Music Teachers' Association and, after term ended at St. Paul's,
set out on two one-day walks - the first through Southwark,
Rotherhithe, Greenwich, and Poplar to Barking; the second from
Barking to Theydon Bois, returning by train. In the New Year,
however, his stamina failed him and he suffered a relapse from
which it took him several months to recover. Similarly in March,
after talking with Lionel Tertis of plans for a performance
of the Lyric Movement
in St. Paul's, Holst had to take
to his bed and engagements for the next month were cancelled.
Permission was sought by an American film company
to use extracts from The Planets
on a soundtrack and
Holst was asked to compose some additional music specifically
for the film. Despite his experience of The Bells
agreed though nothing came of the project and any music that
was written must have been lost or destroyed.
When Archibald Davidson and his wife (friends
from America) came to London in October, Holst was eager to
show them the same hospitality that he had received while over
there. He was taken ill, however, shortly after they arrived
and had to spend most of the week in bed. By December 1933
his health had not improved and he was admitted to New Lodge
Clinic, Windsor Forest, three days before Christmas. He was
still in hospital in late January when the premiere of The
was given in Liverpool. By February his
condition had not improved and he wrote to Adrian Boult 'If
my ulcer has not healed by the 22nd the doctors suggest my
leaving the nursing home and either having an operation or
leading a "restricted life"'. Later that month Elgar died and
Holst received news that his close friend Norman O'Neill had
been killed in a motor accident - Holst began to consider his
own future very seriously.
He managed to hear one of his new compositions, Brook
, played through at St. Paul's and named after
the green on which the school stands. After this spell of
activity, Holst suffered a relapse though recovered quickly
and was contented by listening to the frequent broadcasts
of his works on the BBC. He eventually decided to undertake
a major operation rather than lead a restricted life and
on 23 May he underwent such an operation for the removal
of the duodenal ulcer. The surgery went well though the hospital
announced that Holst would not be out of danger for three
days. Such was the shock of the operation to Holst's delicate
health, he died of heart failure two days later and 'passed
away quietly and peacefully like a little child.'
Family and friends were shocked as they had
not thought that the operation could have had such consequences.
A group of singers who were to give a concert in Little Saxton
church, Greensted, the following day had promised Holst (who
supervised some of their rehearsals) that whatever happened
they would go ahead with the concert. Despite a highly emotional
beginning when almost all the choir were in tears, the concerts
went well and Dorothy Callard recalled that 'we agreed that
it was Mr Holst who was conducting us
His ashes were buried in Chichester Cathedral
and Isobel wrote to Bishop Bell saying 'I am really glad now
that he has passed on, because if he had lived he would have
been an invalid and he would have been most unhappy. I was
with him to the end and his going out was so peaceful and beautiful
and he suffered no pain.'
: A Guide by A.E.F. Dickinson,
Holst : The Planets
by Richard Greene
(Cambridge Music Handbooks 1995)
A Comprehensive Biography of Composer Gustav
Holst, With Correspondence and Diary Excerpts : Including
His American Years
by Jon C. Mitchell Not yet available
by Rubbra, E. Triad
press, London, 1974
Gustav Holst : The Man and His Music
Michael Short OUP 1990 Out of Print
Gustav Holst: letters to Whittaker
Short, M. (ed.) (Glasgow University, 1974)
Heirs and Rebels
U. + Holst, I. (eds.) The Cooper Square Publishers, NY, 1974)
Gustav Holst : A Biography
Holst Out of Print OUP 1938
The Music of Gustav Holst
Out of Print OUP 1951
On the departure of Imogen Holst for the Royal College
of Music, the composer asked his daughter: "Now whatever you
do, promise me one thing - that you will never read a textbook
Short, M. Gustav Holst, the man and his music (Oxford University
Press, 1990) p.2
Now called Clarence Road
) Gustavus Valentin(e) was the first member of the recently
emigrated family to marry an Englishwoman.
Gustav's father felt that the trombone would be a good
antidote to his son's asthma.
See note two p. 11
During this period the asthma attacks had largely abated.
Holst spoke of having the 'shock of my life' on hearing
the opening bars of Tristan.
Parry, as head of the RCM, wrote: 'My dear Von Holst, You
are not at all likely to "give offence" to any authorities
at the RCM, they have much to good a opinion of you. I am very
sorry we shall not have the pleasure of your presence at the
RCM next term, but you are quite right to take an opportunity
of the kind you tell me of.'
Holst later spoke of the benefits of learning the 'impersonality'
of orchestral playing.
Charles Stanford was to be on the Jury.
He also introduced them to Bach Cantatas.
The scoring is for double string quartet, a double bass,
two flutes, and cor anglais, with a wordless chorus.
In spite of this, Holst had to wait several years before
the first performance.
A performance took place that year of the first part of
Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda.
At this Holst remarked 'I think that I can say that since
this event I have never been quite the same man.'
There was a riot on the premiere performance!
This work was dedicated to VW.
This took place during the interval of a football match.
This is based on the first chapter of 'The Return of the
At that time the BBC had its own band.
During his YMCA days Holst had had the opportunity of exploring
The BBC premiere had not yet taken place.