“Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you” — these words exemplify the depth and passion in which Gustav Holst chased the heights of music composition. A renowned composer, who is recognised today as the composer of ‘The Planets’, Gustav Holst exerted a major influence on the rock music of the mid 20th century. He was one of those few men who were referred to as post romantics. Along with his friend Vaughan Williams, he shared a common interest in English folk song and helped in the advancement of English orchestral music to leap beyond the boundaries of England. Holst excelled in all the areas, which he touched; he was not only a great composer, but also a gifted teacher who passed on his legacy of music to the posterity. Unlike his contemporaries, an eastern influence made his music unique and distinct. His forte extended from operas to chamber music to vocal and orchestral music, Sanskrit literature, astrology and more, thanks to his innovative and intriguing mind. No wonder Holst occupy an individual place in the history of 20th century music.
Gustavus Theodore von Holst’s Childhood And Early Life
Gustav Holst was born on September 21, 1874 in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in England as the first of two children to Adolph and Clara Von Holst. His father, Adolph was an established pianist, who taught and spent much of his time practising piano, much to the disregard of his wife, Clara and two children. Having a Swedish origin, one of Adolph’s ancestors served as a court composer in Russia till he fell out of favour and exiled to Germany. Soon, the family migrated to England. His mother had Spanish origin; her great grandmother married an Irishman and moved to Ireland.
Clara died soon after the birth of Gustav’s brother, Emil Gottfried (who became popular as Ernest Cossart, a film actor in Hollywood) when Gustav was only eight years old. Adolph’s sister Nina looked after the children. However, after the death of his wife, Gustav’s father married Mary Thorley Stone in 1885. Two children namely Matthias Ralph and Evelyn Thorley were born to the couple. Holst was christened Gustavus Theodore von Holst, after his grandfather and his great uncle, Theodor who was a painter.
Gustav was a physically weak child. He had poor eyes and a weak chest. However, his physical agonies were largely ignored by his father. He also had neuritis in his arm, which plagued him all through his life. As a child, he was given piano and violin and started composing at the age of twelve. He also started attending trombone classes as his father thought that this would improve his asthma. Gustav got his education from Cheltenham Grammar School for Boys. In the school, he started composing, writing piano pieces, songs, organ voluntaries, anthems and symphonies. He was also an organist and a choir master at Wyck Rissington in the Cotswolds.
He attended the Royal College of Music with a scholarship, where he was taught composition with Charles Villiers Stanford. It was from here that in 1895, he met fellow student Ralph Vaughan Williams, who became his all-time friend. Though the type of music both followed were quite different, they shared a healthy friendship, both personally and professionally. Vaughan praised Holst’ work wholeheartedly which resulted in both men developing a shared interest in exploring and maintaining the English vocal and choral tradition, primarily found in folk song, madrigals and church music. They also started healthy criticism on each other’s work when they were writing and never lost the mutual trust.
While studying at the Royal College of Music, Holst was deeply influenced by the music of Wagner, which he heard frequently at Cover Garden. He was also influenced by William Morris, who influenced him to join Hammersmith Socialist Choir. He was also invited to the Hammersmith Socialist Choir to teach Madrigals by Thomas Morley, choruses by Purcell, extracts from Wagner as well as works by Mozart and himself. There he fell in love with the youngest soprano, Isobel Harrison. By 1897, his first work as a student was ready – ‘Winter Idyll’ in which the influence of Wagner, Mendelsohn and Grieg was visible. By then, he was playing trombone in theatre orchestras and organs in churches in London. In the following year, he was offered an appointment as first trombone from Carl Rosa Opera Company, which resulted him in leaving the Royal College of Music regretfully. It was in the year 1895 that he was attracted towards Sanskrit literature and Hindu philosophy. He yearned to set some hymns from Rig Veda to music. As he found the English translations hopeless, he decided to learn Sanskrit, which opened a new world for himself. To study Sanskrit, Holst enrolled at University College London (UCL) to learn the language as a 'non-matriculated' student. From the years 1899 to 1906, he worked on an opera ‘Sita’, which was based on the epic Ramayana. Though the work was never performed in his lifetime, it made his musical style becoming more direct. In 1900, Holst wrote an elegy ‘Cotswold Symphony’ in memory of William Morris and also completed ‘Ave Maria which was his first published work. In 1903, he also penned ‘Indra’ which is a symphonic poem, narrating the vivid portrait of god, Indra and his battle with the drought. His other Sanskrit works include ‘Sâvitri’ (1908), a chamber opera based on a tale from the Mahabharata; 4 groups of Hymns from Rig Veda (1908–14); and two texts originally by Indian poet Kalidasa - Two Eastern Pictures (1909–10) and The Cloud Messenger (1913). In 1901, he married Isobel.
A Great Teacher
Inheriting some riches from his father when he died, Gustav began to concentrate more on composing. However, most of his songs were rejected by the publisher and his wife had to make clothes for her friends to make the ends meet. It was at this time that he took up the first teaching job as a music master at James Allen’s Girls School in Wets Dulwich in South London. In 1905, he was made the Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith in London. In 1907, Gustav became the Director of Music at Morley College – these were the two teaching posts, which he retained till his end.
The 20th century witnessed Holst and his friend Vaughan Williams sharing an interest in old English folk songs, madrigal singers and Tudor composers. In 1908, he travelled to Algeria on doctor’s orders for a treatment for asthma and also due to a depression which crippled him after he failed to win the Ricordi Prize, a popular honour for composition. After an indifferent response to his choral work ‘The Cloud Messenger’ in 1912, he travelled to Spain along with fellow composers Balfour Gardiner and brothers, Clifford and Arnold Bax. In 1913, Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ sparked riots in Paris and caustic criticism in London. In the following year, Gustav heard Schoenberg’s ‘Five Pieces for Orchestra’. These two works influenced Gustav’s work on ‘The Planets’. Holst’s compositions at this time include works for ‘wind band’ which set the standards in the repertoire. His well known works at this time are ‘First Suite in E-flat for Military Band’ (1909) and ‘Second Suite in F for Military Band’ (1911). He also wrote the ‘Moorside Suite’ for brass band in 1928. Following this, Holst also started working on his most famous work ‘The Planets’.
During World War I, Holst tried to enlist himself, but was rejected due to his poor eyesight and the bad condition of the lungs. In 1916, he dropped ‘von’ from his name in response to the anti-German sentiment. However, his music benefitted due to the growing popularity of English music. Towards the end of the war, Holst was offered a post in YMCA’s educational work programme as music director. During this time ‘The Planets’ was performed in London. Gustav also taught music to army troupes on a trip to Salonica (present day Thessaloniki, Greece) and Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1918. After he returned, Holst composed ‘Ode to Death’, which is based on a poem by Walt Whitman.
The period from 1920-1923 witnessed a huge rise in his popularity due to the success of ‘The Planets’ and ‘The Hymn of Jesus’ (1917). He was acknowledged as one of the most famous English composers of his time. Leading a hectic life with conducting, teaching and lecturing obligations, his already frail health deteriorated when he had a collapse in 1923. This led him to retire from all forms of teaching (other than from St.Paul’s School) to devote the rest of his time to composition.
Holst’s retirement resulted in ‘First Choral Symphony’ to words by Keats. A short Shakespearian opera, ‘At the Boar's Head’, followed quickly, though neither had the instant popular appeal of ‘A Moorside Suite for Brass Band’ of 1928. Holst also publicized his work through sound recordings and wireless broadcasts of BBC. He conducted London Symphony Orchestra for Columbia company in 1922 with the help of acoustic process. In 1927, he was commissioned by the New York Symphony Orchestra to write a symphony though he wrote an orchestra based on Thomas Hardy's ‘Wessex’. The work ‘Egdon Heath’ was purely reviewed and was performed a month after Hardy’s death. Holst regarded it as his best work. Towards the later phase of his life, he was commissioned by BBC to pen a work for military band. The result was ‘Hammersmith’, which was a musical tribute to the London borough, the place where he spend most of his life. As Holst was always interested to be part of new mediums, he wrote a score for 'The Bells' though the film became a victim of poor marketing and no copy of the film is traced. Gustav also wrote ‘Jazz band piece’ which his daughter arranged for orchestra. In 1932, a late pinnacle in academic life came when Harvard University offered him a lectureship for six months. One of his last works, ‘Brook Green Suite’, named after the land on which St Paul’s Girls’ School was built, was performed a few months prior to his death.
Holst died of complications following a stomach surgery in London on 25 May 1934. His ashes were interred at Chichester cathedral in West Sussex, with Bishop George Bell giving memorial speech at the funeral.
The list of Gustav Holst’s works is long and innumerable. Some of the major works on Gustav include:
- The Revoke (1895)
- The Idea (1896)
- ‘Cotswold Symphony’ (1900)
- ‘Ave Maria (1900)
- Youth's Choice (1902)
- Indra (1903)
- Sita (1899–1906)
- A Somerset Rhapsody (1906-07)
- Sâvitri (1908)
- A Song of London (1909)
- Philip the King (1910)
- St Paul’s Suite (1913)
- The Planets (1916)
- The Hymn of Jesus (1917)
- The Moth and the Flame (1921)
- Perfect Fool (1918–1922)
- A Fugal Overture, Op 40, No 1 (1922)
- Golden Goose (1926)
- The Morning of the Year (1926–1927)
- Egdon Heath (1927)
- The Song of Solomon (1933–1934)