Monday, 4 July 2016

Gustav Holst, by Edwin Evans

The music critic Edwin Evans was born in London on 1 September 1874. He received a general education in Lille and in Luxembourg. Evans had music lessons from his father, but was largely self-educated in the subject. After working in the Stock Exchange and banking he was destined to be a financial journalist, however, he turned to music, where he became an authority on Russian music. Evans was a champion of Debussy, and Ravel as well as the rising generation of British composers. He was music critic for the Pall Mall Gazette (1912-23) and then the Daily Mail, from 1933 onwards. Edwin Evans died on 3 March 1945.
The present article was written for the short-lived music journal The Dominant, which ran from November 1927 to November 1929. It was edited by Edwin Evans and was published by Oxford University Press.
The present article on Holst is a little prolix in its style, however it is worth presenting.

It is characteristic of the way in which Holst is regarded by his more intimate associates that those of them whom we approached with the request for a pen-portrait denied their competence, implying that the subject required greater eloquence than theirs. To his collaborators and his pupils he is somewhat like those revered figures of the remote East in which he once found stimulation: guru and musician in one. And the strangest thing is that he is the last man in the world to have sought or encouraged such reverent hero-worship. It may even have caused him some moments of irritation. He has too much common sense to be an exalté and would be entitled to regard as a peculiarly pernicious slander anything that implied pretensions beyond those of an honest and conscientious craftsman.

In the absence of the' close-up 'which an intimate associate could have given, the duty has devolved upon me. Holst and I were born within three weeks of each other [1], and have been acquainted very nearly half the time that has elapsed since then. A quarter of a century ago, to a month or two, I wrote my first article on the works of Vaughan Williams [2] —works some of which he has since discarded. The preparation of this article naturally brought me into personal relations with the composer, who roused my curiosity by the enthusiasm with which he spoke of the work of a confrère who had been a fellow-student with him at the R.C.M. This was Holst, who was then about to relinquish trombone-playing to take up teaching at Dulwich [3].

Though our respective occupations precluded close and constant meeting, we had many talks together, and my impressions of both the man and the musician date from then. Reviewing them for this occasion I find them strangely little altered. He has grown, his ideas have developed, his range has widened, but in all essentials his outlook is what it was then. For a young composer he was unusually free from all indefinite aspirations. He knew quite well what lay before him to do, and was concentrated upon the problem, technical and musical, how best to do it. This tenacity of purpose has remained with him, and is a more powerful factor in his make-up than the attribute which has impelled him to seek spiritual adventure—and texts—in Vedic or Gnostic hymns [4]. He has been credited with mysticism. To me he appears more of an idealist without ideals—far too practical to encumber his philosophy with imagined ideals, but at the same time so keyed as to be an idealist without them, serving a high purpose but always less conscious of its height than of the demands of its service. I find it difficult to imagine him carried away by any elation other than that of the artist content with his work. And here begins an apparent paradox, for, just as vagueness and diffidence are often associated with a morbid degree of self-criticism, one might imagine this calm self-possession to reflect a lack of it. But precisely because Holst knows his purpose so well he is a severe judge of the degree in which he has achieved it.
Some time ago I had occasion to ask him if there were any prospect of his reverting to chamber-music. He replied that he was then engaged upon something that might be chamber-music or might be rubbish,[5] and in due course he would let me know which form it had ultimately taken. Concerning a recent work [6], of which little has been heard, he confided to me that he had been in some doubt whether it was music or not, and was gradually inclining to the latter view. But I have preserved a card which came with a newly printed score: ' Hope you'll like it. I'm afraid I do'. There speaks, not the man who is sometimes querulously dissatisfied with his work because it does not fulfil an aspiration which is probably nebulous to himself, but the man who knows his task, is the best judge whether he has performed it well or ill, and at the same time sufficiently objective to be able to deliver either verdict without any disturbance of equilibrium. That this calm sense of values should be associated with an outward manner suggesting diffidence to the point of timidity is only the obverse aspect of the same apparent paradox, and equally explicable.
Gustav Holst, by Edwin Evans, The Dominant April 1928.

[1] Gustavus Theodore von Holst (Gustav Holst) was born on 21 September 1874. As noted above Evans was born in 1 September of that year. Holst died on 25 May 1934.
[2] Edwin Evans: Modern British Composers VI, Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Musical Standard, 25 July 1903.
[3] Holst taught at the James Allen School in Dulwich from 1903-05.
[4] For example, The Hymn of Jesus (1917) made use of the Gnostic and apocryphal The Acts of John. Holst also composed four groups of ‘Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda.’ The Hindu Vedas include some of the most ancient sacred texts that have come down to our age. Holst’s settings were composed between 1908 and 1912.
[5] It is not known exactly which work Evans was referring to here, however a good surmise would be the ‘Terzetto’ for flute, oboe and viola dating from 1925, or possibly the ‘Phantasy Quartet on British Folk Songs’ (1916). This latter work was withdrawn by the composer in 1919.
[6] Possibly Egdon Heath which was given a disastrous London performance on 23 February 1928. 

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