Gustav Holst Biography

(Was an English Composer)

Birthday: September 21, 1874 (Virgo)

Born In: Cheltenham, United Kingdom

Gustavus Holst was an English music composer, teacher and arranger, best known for his orchestral suite titled The Planets. Born amidst a family with a generations-long history in music, Gustavus’ father wanted him to become a pianist. However, Gustavus found it difficult to play the piano owing to his health condition and preferred a trombone. Following his initial education, he studied music at the Royal College of Music in London, which was the best formative time of his life. He began playing in several orchestras and embarked on his own career as a composer and teacher. To support himself, he played trombone in orchestras and taught music at Morley College and St Paul’s Girls’ School. Gustavus had multiple influences on his composing work, such as poetry by Walt Whitman and the ancient Hindu Sanskrit texts such as Ramayana. His reputation soared following the massive success of songs such as The Planets and The Hymn of Jesus. However, despite being a great teacher and a composer, he spent most of his life in relative obscurity. Currently, he is known as one of the best music composers from his era whose influences can be seen to this day.

Quick Facts

British Celebrities Born In September

Also Known As: Gustav Theodore Holst, Gustavus Theodore von Holst

Died At Age: 59


Spouse/Ex-: Emily Isobel Harrison (m. 1901), Isobel Harrison

father: Adolph von Holst

mother: Clara Cox, Clara Cox, née Lediard, Clara von Holst, née Lediard

siblings: Emil Gottfried, Evelyn, Matthias

children: Imogen Holst

Born Country: England

Composers British Men

Died on: May 25, 1934

place of death: London, United Kingdom

City: Cheltenham, England

More Facts

education: Royal College of Music, University College London, Pate's Grammar School

  • 1

    What inspired Gustav Holst to compose "The Planets" suite?

    Gustav Holst was inspired by astrology and the cosmic world when composing "The Planets" suite. Each movement is named after a planet in the solar system.

  • 2

    What is the significance of "The Planets?"

    "The Planets" suite is considered one of Holst's most famous works and a masterpiece of 20th-century classical music. It showcases his innovative use of orchestration and thematic development.

  • 3

    How did Gustav Holst's interest in Eastern mysticism influence his compositions?

    Gustav Holst's interest in Eastern mysticism, particularly Hindu philosophy and Sanskrit literature, influenced his compositions by incorporating themes and melodies inspired by these spiritual traditions.

  • 4

    What was Gustav Holst's approach to music education and teaching?

    Gustav Holst was a dedicated music educator who believed in the importance of music for all individuals. He focused on teaching music as a holistic experience, emphasizing creativity and expression.

  • 5

    How did Gustav Holst's health issues impact his music composition?

    Gustav Holst struggled with health issues throughout his life, including neuritis and partial deafness. Despite these challenges, he continued to compose music and created some of his most renowned works.

Childhood & Early Life

Gustavus Theodore von Holst was born on September 21, 1874, in Gloucestershire, England, to an English mother and a Swedish father. His father, Adolph von Holst was a professional musician. His mother Clara Cox also had a musical inclination. In addition, Gustavus was born into a family with at least one member of his previous three generations indulged in making music.

Despite being born into an esteemed family, Gustavus’ childhood was far from perfect. His father married twice and had four sons, including Gustavus. Now the father was mostly absent throughout his childhood and he faced neglect from his father. He also suffered from the chest and sight issues and was not taken care of well.

It was obvious from the very beginning that Gustavus was going to follow music as a professional career, owing to the early impressions of his family legacy on him. His father played the organ and was a choirmaster at a church in Cheltenham. In addition, he also gave piano lessons and one of the students was his own son.

Gustavus learned to play piano and violin as a child. He loved playing the piano but hated the violin. His father suggested he play the trombone, which could supposedly help Gustavus with his asthma problems. He attended Cheltenham Grammar School, where he further explored his musical inclinations. In school, he began composing piano pieces, symphonies, organ voluntaries, anthems etc. However, his father was more interested in having his son become a pianist and steering away from composing.

Gustavus also suffered from neuritis, which caused a weak arm that was not perfectly suited to playing the piano. He left the school in 1891 and his father then sent him away to Oxford to study counterpoint with Merton College’s professor, George Sims. He returned at the age of 17 and took his first professional assignment at the Wyck Rissington, Gloucestershire. Although he was offered no remuneration but getting the opportunity to hone his skills as a choirmaster and a conductor there.

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Higher Education & Early Career

Gustavus gave his first public performance in Cheltenham when he and his father performed at the Brahms Hungarian Dances. In the 1890s, he also applied for a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in London. He didn’t earn a scholarship on the first attempt but somehow entered the esteemed college as a non-scholarship admission. His father supported Gustavus financially during the first year. But soon, Gustavus earned the scholarship and the pressure of finances eased on him a little bit.

But even then, the money was a persistent problem. Hence, he began playing the trombone professionally and supported himself financially. It is also said that he became a vegetarian owing to his financial difficulties in college.

College was also the formative time of his life. He became interested in Hindu mysticism and socialism during his college years. He also met Ralph Vaughan Williams in college, who was his fellow student. Both of them had vastly different philosophies about music but they remained close friends throughout their lifetime.

Professional Career

In 1898, the Royal College of Music offered Gustavus a scholarship to stay and study music for a few more years. But he had realized that he had learned everything he wanted to learn at a music school. He was keen on embarking on a career as a professional musician. However, most of his early compositions were mostly hits or misses. His song Light Leaves Whisper found a good reception though and was praised in The Times, one of the biggest British daily newspapers.

In 1898, he got a job with the Carl Rosa Opera Company as the first trombonist. However, he was only earning enough to get by and was making most of his money by playing in another popular band named White Viennese band.

Gustavus began serving as the director of St. Paul’s  Girls’ School in Hammersmith in 1905. His famous St. Paul’s Suite was composed around this time. It was one of his few early compositions which became hugely successful. In 1907, he also agreed to become the director of music at Morley College. He took both his positions seriously and remained on them till the end of his life.

Holst and his friend Vaughan Williams became interested in rejuvenating the old English folk songs and Tudor compositions and began including them in their music. It thus became an essential part of teaching music to the young students in schools.

Most of his work as a composer was also heavily influenced by popular literature. He set music to the poems of Walt Whitman, Thomas Hardy and Robert Bridges. The songs thus composed were titled Dirge for Two Veterans and The Mystic Trumpeter. He was also inspired by Sanskrit hymns and enrolled at the University College, London, just to learn Sanskrit so that he can fully grasp the message of the text.

In 1911, Gustavus and his Morley College students delivered a stage performance on The Fairy Queen, which was widely recognized. However, he kept fluctuating between a great critical reception and widespread disinterest regarding his work. He was extremely hopeful about his composition titled The Cloud Messenger, but it was a gigantic failure.

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During the First World War, Holst attempted to enlist himself. His application was rejected due to poor eyesight and far-from-ideal general health.

Following the end of WW1, his popularity saw a major jump, mostly owing to his widely successful compositions such as The Planets and The Hymns of Jesus. He became extremely busy with his work and hence, he left his teaching positions, except at St. Paul’s Girls’ School.

In the later years of his life, Gustavus took the help of technology to promote his works and collaborated with BBC on multiple projects.

Gustavus was a shy man and he preferred composing in peace. The lack of public image also caused his popularity to wane over time and he passed away in relative obscurity. Apart from some of his compositions such as The Planets, most of his music didn’t find acceptance until the 1980s. Currently, he is considered one of the most influential musicians from the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Personal Life & Death

Gustavus Theodore von Holst married Isobel on June 22, 1901. The couple had one child together, named Imogen, who also went on to become an esteemed musician and a music teacher.

Despite his shy nature, Gustavus was an avid traveller. He covered a lot of areas of France and Italy. It was also said that he had walked through every path in England during his lifetime.

Gustavus passed away on May 25, 1934.

Facts About Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst's birth name was actually Gustavus Theodore von Holst, but he later dropped the "von" to simplify his name.

Holst's most famous work, "The Planets," was inspired by astrology and the mystical qualities associated with each planet.

Holst was a dedicated educator and taught music at St Paul's Girls' School in London for nearly 3 decades.

Holst was a self-taught trombonist and often included the trombone as a prominent instrument in his compositions.

Holst was known for his interest in Eastern philosophy and spirituality, which influenced his compositions and worldview.

See the events in life of Gustav Holst in Chronological Order

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