Holst’s catalogue of piano music is relatively small, numbering just over a dozen pieces. Of these only about half have entered the repertoire pianists and the recording studio. Four are reworkings of folk tunes, ‘Christmas Day in the Morning’, Two Northumbrian Folk Tunes: ‘O! I Hae Seen the Roses Blaw’ and ‘The Shoemakker’ and the present Toccata. The other works include an Arpeggio Study, a Nocturne and a Jig and a major arrangement of The Planets for two pianos.
The Toccata (1924) is an energetic and spirited work that explores a variety of rhymical and wayward key-changes which are interpolated onto a largely arpeggiated melody. It is a small set of variations on the Northumbrian pipe tune ‘Newburn Lads.’
Imogen Holst has suggested that the composer considered that he had ‘flattered the old man with a worn-out hurdy-gurdy who used to play ‘Newburn Lads’ in Cheltenham in 1879.’ One wonders if Holst truly was impressed by this rustic performance when he was only five years old. The inspiration is more likely to have derived from his friendship with the composer, musicologist and pedagogue, W.G. Whittaker (1876-1944), who published a collection of Countrie Ballads, Songs and Pipe-Tunes in 1922. This volume featured ‘Newburn Lads.’
The Toccata was dedicated to ‘Adine O’Neill and her pupils’. O’Neill (nee Ruckert, 1875-1947) was a celebrated pianist and music teacher. In 1899 she had married the composer Norman O’Neill.
Gustav Holst’s Toccata is available on SOMM CD011 (2012) with Mark Bebbington and also on Chandos CHAN8770 played by Kathron Sturrock.