Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Gustav Holst: A Research and Information Guide Mary Christison Huismann

To many lovers of classical music Gustav Holst is the composer of just one work- The Planets: to coin a deprecatory phrase used on Classic FM, he is ‘a one hit wonder.’ Alas, even enthusiasts are probably familiar only with a small portion of his massive catalogue of music. In spite of the enormous popularity of his defining masterpiece, the vast majority of music-lovers know comparatively little about his life and work.  Unfortunately, Holst has suffered neglect compared to his peers in both scholarly and ‘popular’ circles.  The preface to Mary Christison Huismann’s Gustav Holst: A Research and Information Guide suggests that this may be because either he did not found a ‘school’ or that he was a poor ‘self-publicist’.  As detailed information about Holst is likely to be well hidden in archives, both paper and digital, a guide is needed to assist with exploration of this material: Huismann’s book is an ideal companion to this search.

This book is not going to be purchased by the average classical music enthusiast: it is written, I believe, for two types of reader: the academic embarking on a major thesis, dissertation or monograph about the composer and his music, and the ‘populariser.’ By this, I mean the critic, the programme note writer or the scribblers of articles for the musical press and web pages. The ‘populariser’ may not have the resources available to someone studying at Harvard or Oxford. Information can be hard to track down: visits to the major libraries can be expensive and are likely to be infrequent. Instant access to Music Index, the RILM Abstracts of Musical Literature or the International Index to Music Periodicals may not be possible. He or she might be working at home or writing their thoughts on a train. What Huismann has achieved is to do much (but not all) of the searching in the archives for the researcher: they can then spend time following the clues rather than finding them. 

The present book is one of a series of ‘Research and Information Guides’ that have been published over the last couple of decades. These include a wide-range of composers and genres. Certainly the British music enthusiast has been well served by the volumes dedicated to Frederick Delius (2009) – also by Huismann, Benjamin Britten (1996), William Byrd (2005), and Edward Elgar (1993). Other publishers have provided similar material – one thinks of the ‘source books’ for John Ireland, Alan Hoddinott and Alan Bush, published by Ashgate Publishing. Then there are the excellent Bio-Bibliography series from Greenwood, which include volumes on Gerald Finzi, Frank Bridge and Alan Rawsthorne. All these volumes feature their own particular formats, which are largely reflected between books in the series. All are essential tools for anyone interested in these particular composers.

While the literature for Gustav Holst is relatively sparse –compared to a Mahler or an Elgar –it is of excellent quality. Anyone wishing to begin serious study of the composer could do worse than start with Michael Short’s Gustav Holst: The Man and His Music OUP 1990. This is currently out of print. In conjunction with this, Imogen Holst’s A Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst’s Music, Faber 1974 and Short’s Gustav Holst, 1874-1934: A Centenary Documentation, White Lion Publishers, 1974 are essential. For musical analysis, the reader may turn to Imogen Holst’s The Music of Gustav Holst 1951, revised 1986, or Holst's Music: A Guide by A.E.F Dickinson and Alan Gibbs, 1995. Most of these books have a bibliography and references to material needed for further study. However, the ‘catalogue’ and ‘documentation’ were written more than 35 years ago. In the succeeding years much (but not enough) has been written about Holst in particular and British music in general. This era has seen the advent of the Internet, with all its potential- good and bad. Music is now heard digitally and not on vinyl. Many works by the composer are available to the listener that would have been beyond their wildest dreams more than a third of century ago. The time had come for a major updating of all this information: Huismann’s book has provided wide-ranging bibliographical information about Gustav Holst up to the end of 2009 –with a few later inclusions.

Gustav Holst: A Research and Information Guide is presented in three principal parts. The first section is biographical, the second is the heart of the work and contains the bibliographical material, and the third section is the discography.
The core of the book is preceded by a preface, which sets out the purpose and scope of the book. This is important, as it could be very easy to expect something from the volume that it was not intended to deliver. For example, Huismann states that there are no references to CD or LP liner or sleeve notes, the newspaper reviews are limited to those easily available in ‘reprint or electronic format’ which in practice means The Times, the New York Times and the Manchester Guardian.

The first section has a mini-biography of Gustav Holst. This is followed by a chronological table marking important events and compositions. Huismann has included a ‘List of Works’ which is based on the above-mentioned Thematic Catalogue. It is presented by genre: - ‘Dramatic works’, ‘Orchestral and band works’ etc. This includes the Opus number where provided, the ‘H’ number, the dates of composition and revision, and finally the reference to the Collected Facsimile Edition where appropriate. I would have rather had a little more discrimination in these lists – for example, ‘Ballets’ and ‘Incidental music’ separated from ‘Operas’ and ‘Concerted works’ from ‘Orchestral’. Included in these entries are the ‘Early Works’ (Horrors), incomplete and fragmentary sketches and finally Holst’s arrangements of other composer’s music.  This is rounded off with an alphabetical listing of works.

The main part of the book, some 168 pages out of 264, is devoted to the bibliographical references. This is ordered in a comprehensive manner and covers virtually every aspect of Holst’s life and works. It is worthwhile noting some of these headings.
Gustav Holst was not a litterateur, but he did write a number of articles for periodicals. Perhaps the most elusive are ‘The Education of a Composer’ published in The Beacon in 1921 and ‘The Mystic, the Philistine and the Artist’ that appeared in The Quest in 1920. Fortunately, this was reprinted in Imogen Holst’s now out-of-print biography of her father. More significantly are the published lectures delivered by the composer to a wide variety of institutions, including Yale University and The Musical Association.  Letters and journals are referenced, although I could not find any location for Holst’s personal diaries. The only allusion is to A Scrap-book for the Holst Birthplace Museum, which contains facsimiles of a number of diary entries.
Other useful source materials noted include listings of archives such the Holst Museum and the Holst Foundation collections. The location of the composer’s holographs is also given. A section on art and photographic images of Holst and his family will be helpful for writers and publishers.

The next major section is devoted to ‘Holst’s Life and Works.’ There is a comprehensive review of biographical sources, including dictionaries and encyclopaedias. This is then followed by the main monographs on the composer’s life. Interestingly, Josef Holbrooke’s chapter in his Contemporary British Composers is not mentioned. Further subdivisions include studies of Holst’s childhood, his death and burial and obituaries.  Family members, friends, colleagues and places associated with the composer all have their sub-sections.
The composer’s career is given considerable coverage, with categories on ‘Holst as Trombonist,’ ‘Holst as Teacher’ ‘Holst as Conductor and finally as a ‘Composer’. An important section is devoted to articles presenting his musical context with citations on ‘Early English Music’, ‘Folk-song’, ‘Literature’, ‘Socialism’ and ‘Orientalism’. There are references to assessments of the composer’s reputation and his music, his compositional style and his working process.

The section of the bibliography devoted to the musical works is divided into two parts.  Firstly, there are ‘Genre Studies’ and ‘Studies of Multiple Works’ which include histories of 20th century music containing sections on Holst, journalism such as Havergal Brian’s and Cobbett’s Cyclopedic Survey of Chamber Music.
The second part presents bibliographical ‘plus’ references for a large number of the composer’s works. For example, the fine First Suite in E flat (H105) has six separate sub-sections – Monographs & Chapters, Articles, Reviews, Dissertations and Thesis, Scores and Videos. The only actual ‘review’ of the Suite cited is found in the September 16 1920 edition of The Times which many people will have on-line’ at their local libraries.  Most of the other articles are contained in dedicated journals such as the Instrumentalist and the Music Educator’s Journal which are probably not on-line but available in University libraries. It was not difficult to find a number of other references to this work in the Musical Times and other magazines and newspapers, but I guess that a subjective decision has to be made somewhere as to what to include, and due to space limitations, omitted. Interestingly both the entries for the ‘scores’ are web-based resources.
However the very next entry in this section is for the relatively minor ‘Part-songs’ (H48): in this instance there are only two references – both in the Musical Times. Therefore, there is a considerable disparity in the citations given for individual pieces.
There is also an imbalance of content for the major works. For example, there is only one reference each for Beni Mora, the Brook Green Suite and the Lyric Movement. The Planets not surprisingly has 66!
I was surprised that there is no bibliographical reference to the delightful Japanese Suite (the Boult recording is noted, however). King Estmere seems to warrant no dedicated citations, apart from the choral score being available on-line at the Petrucci Music Library, even though there were important reviews in The Graphic and the Musical Times.
The bibliography of individual compositions is certainly not as comprehensive as John Dressler’s fine volume on Alan Rawsthorne. When I looked up Rawsthorne’s Concerto for String Orchestra in Dressler’s Bio-bibliography I found some 55 citations. In the present volume, the St Paul’s Suite earns a mere eight references. To be fair there are another 10 citations to this work in other sections of this book.  

The final part of the book is the discography. It has been ‘designed to pick up from where the comprehensive discography compiled by Eric Hughes leaves off’.  Hughes work was published in Recorded Sound No. 59, July 1975 and is deemed to have listed ‘all known commercial recordings of Holst’s music (plus BBC tapes etc.) from the earliest 78rpm through 1974.  Huismann qualifies her discography by suggesting hers is a ‘selective list’ limited to commercially available discs issued between 1975 and 2009: it does not include performance by school groups, ‘music clinics!’ self-issued recordings and streamed audio. This seems reasonable. However, I do worry about the ‘selective’ bit. Furthermore, it would have been good if it had been possible to include Eric Hughes listings – even as a facsimile. I imagine that it might be quite hard for most people to find a copy. I notice that Google have ‘digitalised’ this publication, but it is only available in ‘snippet view,’ which is worse than useless.  Perhaps the copyright laws prohibited ‘full view’?

The book concludes with a comprehensive index, which is divided into three parts. The first is a listing of all the music, in alphabetical order. The second is a general index of names of authors, editors and subjects. Finally, there is a Keyword Index. I find this extremely helpful as it includes a whole host of relevant entries. Some examples are ‘bitonality’ ‘correspondence’ ‘literary sources’ ‘obituaries’ ‘reminiscences’ and ‘Thaxted.’ It is a good place to begin any study of the composer or his milieu.

The book is expensive: £95 is a lot of money by any standards –although Amazon appears to have knocked a ‘fiver’ off the price. The Kindle edition is just shy of £60.  Yet, the sheer volume of up-to-date information makes this book difficult to ignore if one wishes to engage in any kind of ‘Holst Studies.’ It will become the first point of call for all research in the coming decade or so. However, institutions will retain this as a ‘reference only’ book so barring access to the e-book version, all work will have to be done in the library – unless one invests in a copy of this volume.
The book is well bound, printed with a clear type on ‘environmentally friendly’ paper. It is easy to use with the well-thought-out indices quickly guiding the reader to the relevant citations.  
Finally, (and unfortunately) I was unable to find much in the way of the author’s details, save to say that Mary L. Huismann is the Music Original Cataloger at the University of Minnesota.

I do have one huge concern about this book –and many others like it. More and more references to web-based information are included. I looked up one webpage and it had ‘disappeared’. Fortunately, it was possible to find it on the Internet Archive ‘Wayback Machine’ but not everyone will bother to do this. There seems to be a dichotomy here. As more information – journals, newspapers and scores are digitalised, the source documents are in grave danger of being archived, sold off or even destroyed. Let us hope that in 20 years time most of the excellent webpages mentioned are still accessible. The author does suggest that this element of the book is a ‘snapshot’ in time, however, more and more people will expect the web pages to remain as a permanent record. Academia will eventually have to resolve this issue.
Meanwhile, I will be putting this book to considerable use over the coming years: I guess that other people will find it equally worthwhile. In spite of the price, and the reservations noted above, especially about the citations of reviews, this is an essential tool for all who wish to dig deeper into the life and times and music of Gustav Holst. 

Gustav Holst: A Research and Information Guide Mary Christison Huismann
Routledge Musical Bibliographies
Routledge, hardback 264 pages
IBSN 978-0-415-99525-2


Angus said...

Thanks for this review - a book published by Routledge, no less! I love Holst - The Hymn of Jesus, The Wandering Scholar, the Vedic hymns, St. Paul's Suite, Egdon Heath, and many others... his deep imagination and enthusiasm come through every time - no one hit wonder in my world.

John France said...


Thanks for the comment. Appreciated. J