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Gustav Holst and “The Planets”

Gustav Theodore Holst (September 21, 1874–May 25, 1934) was an English composer, arranger and teacher, who composed a large number of works across a range of genres but is best known for his orchestral suite The Planets. Holst was born on September 21, 1874, in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the first of two children of Adolph von Holst, a professional musician, and his wife, Clara Cox, née Lediard, a talented singer and pianist. She was of mostly British descent, daughter of a respected Cirencester solicitor. The Holst side of the family was of mixed Swedish, Latvian and German ancestry, with at least one professional musician in each of the previous three generations. Holst’s great-grandfather, Matthias Holst, born in Riga, Latvia, was of German origin; and served as composer and harp-teacher to the Imperial Russian Court in St Petersburg. Matthias’s son Gustavus, who moved to England with his parents as a child in 1802, was a composer of salon-style music and a well-known harp teacher. Holst’s father became organist and choirmaster at All Saints’ Church, Cheltenham. He also taught, and gave piano recitals.

Adolph and Clara, a former pupil, had two sons, Gustav and his younger brother Emil Gottfried, who became known as Ernest Cossart, a successful actor in the West End, New York and Hollywood. Clara died in February 1882, and the family moved to another house in Cheltenham, where Adolph recruited his sister Nina to help raise the boys. In 1885 Adolph married Mary Thorley Stone, another of his pupils. They had two sons, Matthias (known as “Max”) and Evelyn (“Thorley”). As a child, Gustav was characterize by both weak sight and a weak chest. He was taught to play the piano and the violin, enjoying the former very much more than the latter. At the age of twelve he took up the trombone at Adolph’s suggestion, thinking that playing a brass instrument might improve his asthma. Educated at Cheltenham Grammar School between 1886 and 1891, he started composing in or about 1886. Inspired by Macaulay’s poem Horatius he began, but soon abandoned, an ambitious setting of the work for chorus and orchestra.

Holst’s early compositions included piano pieces, organ voluntaries, songs, anthems and a symphony (from 1892). His main influences at this stage were Mendelssohn, Chopin, Grieg and above all Sullivan. Adolph tried to steer his son away from composition, hoping that he would have a career as a pianist. However, Holst’s health played a decisive part in his musical future. He had never been strong, and in addition to his asthma and poor eyesight he suffered from neuritis, which made playing the piano difficult. After Holst left school in 1891, Adolph paid for him to spend four months in Oxford studying counterpoint with George Frederick Sims, organist of Merton College. On his return Holst obtained his first professional appointment, aged seventeen, as organist and choirmaster at Wyck Rissington, Gloucestershire. The post brought with it the conductorship of the Bourton-on-the-Water Choral Society, which offered no extra remuneration but provided valuable experience that enabled him to hone his conducting skills. In November 1891 Holst gave what was perhaps his first public performance as a pianist. He and his father played the Brahms Hungarian Dances at a concert in Cheltenham.

In 1892 Holst wrote the music for an operetta in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, Lansdowne Castle, or The Sorcerer of Tewkesbury. The piece was performed at Cheltenham Corn Exchange in February 1893; it was well received and its success encouraged him to persevere with composing. He applied to the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London and left Cheltenham for London in May 1893. It was soon after accepting the scholarship to the Royal College of Music that Holst wrote his first opera. Under the guidance of his composition professor, Charles Stanford, Holst set to music a libretto written by Fritz Hart based on a card game episode in Beau Brummel. He called it The Revoke and gave it his Opus 1. Holst’s professors at the RCM were Frederick Sharpe (piano), William Stephenson Hoyte (organ), George Case (trombone), George Jacobi (instrumentation) and the director of the college, Hubert Parry (history). After preliminary lessons with W. S. Rockstro and Frederick Bridge, Holst was granted his wish to study composition with Charles Villiers Stanford. To support himself during his studies Holst played the trombone professionally, at seaside resorts in the summer and in London theatres in the winter. He secured an occasional engagement in symphony concerts, playing in 1897 under the baton of Richard Strauss at the Queen’s Hall. One of Gustav Holst’s early student works dating from 1897 was the Winter Idyll.

In 1895, shortly after celebrating his twenty-first birthday, Holst met Ralph Vaughan Williams, who became a lifelong friend and had more influence on Holst’s music than anybody else. Another influence was William Morris of Hammersmith. Holst was invited to conduct the Hammersmith Choir, teaching them madrigals by Thomas Morley, choruses by Purcell, and works by Mozart, Wagner, and himself. One of his choristers was (Emily) Isobel Harrison (1876–1969), a beautiful soprano two years his junior. He fell in love with her. In 1898 the RCM offered Holst a further year’s scholarship, but he felt that he had learned as much as he could there and that it was time, as he put it, to learn by doing. He took posts as organist at various London churches, and continued playing the trombone in theatre orchestras. In 1898 he was appointed first trombonist and répétiteur with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and toured with the Scottish Orchestra. Though a capable rather than a virtuoso player he won the praise of the leading conductor Hans Richter, for whom he played at Covent Garden. He also played in a popular orchestra called the “White Viennese Band”, conducted by Stanislas Wurm. With a modest income secured, Holst was able to marry Isobel in June of 1901. Their marriage lasted until his death, and there was one child, Imogen, born in 1907. In 1902 Dan Godfrey and the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra premiered Holst’s Cotswold Symphony. Holst also completed his Ave Maria, which was his first published piece. In 1903 he also wrote a symphonic poem titled Indra, which was a vivid portrait of the god, Indra, and his battle with the drought. In 1903 Adolph von Holst died, leaving a small legacy.

While on holiday in Germany, Holst reappraised his professional life, and in 1903 he decided to abandon orchestral playing to concentrate on composition. However, his earnings as a composer were too little to live on, and two years later he accepted the offer of a teaching post at James Allen’s Girls’ School, Dulwich, which he held until 1921. He also taught at the Passmore Edwards Settlement. The two teaching posts for which he is probably best known were director of music at St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith, from 1905 until his death, and director of music at Morley College from 1907 to 1924. As a composer Holst was frequently inspired by literature. He set poetry by Thomas Hardy and Robert Bridges and, a particular influence, Walt Whitman, whose words he set in “Dirge for Two Veterans” and The Mystic Trumpeter (1904). He wrote an orchestral Walt Whitman Overture in 1899. The Somerset Rhapsody (1906–07), was written at the suggestion of the folk-song collector Cecil Sharp and made use of three tunes that Sharp had noted down. His settings of translations of Sanskrit texts included Sita (1899–1906), a three-act opera based on an episode in the Ramayana (which he eventually entered for a competition for English opera set by the Milan music publisher Tito Ricordi); Savitri (1908), a chamber opera based on a tale from the Mahabharata; four groups of Hymns from the Rig Veda (1908–14); and two texts originally by Kālidāsa: Two Eastern Pictures (1909–10) and The Cloud Messenger (1913).

Holst was a keen rambler. He walked extensively in England, Italy, France and Algeria. In 1908 he travelled to Algeria on medical advice as a treatment for asthma. This trip inspired the suite Beni Mora, which incorporated music he heard in the Algerian streets. In June 1911 Holst and his Morley College students gave the first performance since the seventeenth century of Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen. In 1913, St Paul’s Girls’ School opened a new music wing, and Holst composed St Paul’s Suite for the occasion. In 1917 Holst and his family moved to a house in the center of the town of Thaxted, Essex, where they stayed until 1925. Holst became an occasional organist and choirmaster at Thaxted Parish Church and also developed an interest in bell-ringing. He started an annual music festival at Whitsuntide in 1916; students from Morley College and St Paul’s Girls’ School performed together with local participants works such as Holst’s carol, “This Have I Done For My True Love.” At the outbreak of the First World War, Holst tried to enlist but was rejected as unfit for military service. He continued to teach and compose; he worked on The Planets and prepared his chamber opera Savitri for performance. In 1917 he wrote The Hymn of Jesus for chorus and orchestra, which remained unperformed until after the war.

In 1918, as the war neared its end, Holst finally had the prospect of a job that offered him the chance to serve. The music section of the YMCA’s education department needed volunteers to work with British troops stationed in Europe awaiting demobilization. Morley College and St Paul’s Girls’ School offered him a year’s leave of absence. He was appointed as the YMCA’s musical organizer for the Near East, based in Salonica. He returned to England in June 1919 to resume his teaching and composing. In addition to his existing work he accepted a lectureship in composition at Reading University and joined Vaughan Williams in teaching composition at their alma mater the RCM. In his soundproof room at St Paul’s Girls’ School he composed the Ode to Death, a setting of a poem by Whitman, which according to Vaughan Williams is considered by many to be Holst’s most beautiful choral work. Holst, in his forties, suddenly found himself in demand. His comic opera The Perfect Fool (1923) was widely seen as a satire of Parsifal. At a concert at University College in Reading in 1923, Holst slipped and fell, suffering concussion. He seemed to make a good recovery, and he felt up to accepting an invitation to the US, lecturing and conducting at the University of Michigan. During the voyage, he scored his Fugal Concerto for flute, oboe, and strings. However, the damage from his fall was more serious than Holst realized at the time, and it was many years before he recovered from the after effects of the accident.

After he returned Holst found himself more and more in demand, to conduct, prepare his earlier works for publication, and, as before, to teach. The strain caused by these demands on him was too great; on doctor’s orders he cancelled all professional engagements during 1924, and retreated to Thaxted. In 1925 he resumed his work at St Paul’s Girls’ School, but did not return to any of his other posts. Holst’s productivity as a composer benefited almost at once from his release from other work. His works from this period include the First Choral Symphony to words by Keats (a Second Choral Symphony to words by George Meredith exists only in fragments). A short Shakespearian opera, At the Boar’s Head, followed; as well as A Moorside Suite for brass band of 1928. In 1927 Holst was commissioned by the New York Symphony Orchestra to write a symphony. Instead, he wrote an orchestral piece Egdon Heath, inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. It was first performed in February 1928. Towards the end of his life Holst wrote the Choral Fantasia (1930) and he was commissioned by the BBC to write a piece for military band; the resulting prelude and scherzo Hammersmith was a tribute to the place where he had spent most of his life. Holst wrote a score for a 1931 British film, The Bells, and a “jazz band piece” that Imogen later arranged for orchestra as Capriccio.

Having composed operas throughout his life with varying success, Holst found for his last opera, The Wandering Scholar, the right medium for his oblique sense of humor. Harvard University offered Holst a lectureship for the first six months of 1932. Arriving via New York he was pleased to be reunited with his brother, whose acting career had taken him to Broadway. He enjoyed his time at Harvard, but was taken ill while there: a duodenal ulcer prostrated him for some weeks. He returned to England, joined briefly by his brother for a holiday together in the Cotswolds. His health declined, and he withdrew further from musical activities. One of his last efforts was to guide the young players of the St Paul’s Girls’ School orchestra through one of his final compositions, the Brook Green Suite, in March 1934. Holst died in London on May 25, 1934, at the age of 59, of heart failure following an operation on his ulcer. His ashes were interred at Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, close to the memorial to Thomas Weelkes, his favorite Tudor composer.

My collection contains the following works by Gustav Holst:

Brook Green Suite (1933).
First Suite for Military Band in E-flat Major, op. 28, no. 1: March (Movt. 3).
The Planets, op. 32 (1918).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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