Thursday, 28 June 2018

Gustav Holst—An Appreciation by Arnold Foster, 1934

Little comment is needed on this short appreciation written shortly after the death of English composer Gustav Holst on 25 May 1934. It was written by Sheffield-born Arnold (Wilfred Allen) Foster (1896?-1963) who was a conductor, composer and pedagogue. I will include a couple of notes where appropriate. The article appeared in the The Monthly Musical Record, July-August 1934.

It would be difficult adequately to express the deep sense of loss which the death of Gustav Holst has caused within the circle of his friends and pupils.
He inspired in them a love and devotion which was difficult for anyone outside this circle to understand. In uncongenial company Holst's reserve was so great as often to lead to a misconception of his true nature. His long struggle in early life against ill-health and adverse circumstances had helped to give him a deep insight into the difficulties which others had to contend with. In addition to this, his natural sympathetic qualities were a great asset to him in his capacity as a teacher. He got the very best out of keen amateurs and young people by making even the least gifted among them feel that their efforts were essential to the venture in hand.
The story of his sixteen years' directorship of the music classes at Morley College is an inspiring one. From the beginning he insisted on performing only the best music. This policy led at first to the disappearance of those who did not like hard work, but soon there gathered round him a devoted band of students who, under his leadership, did valuable and important work. To give only one instance, the revival of Purcell's works was undertaken. King Arthur was performed in 1909, The Fairy Queen in 1911, and Dioclesian [1] (arranged in the form of a pageant by one of his most gifted pupils, the late Jane Joseph) in 1921.[2]
The Fairy Queen performance was the first since Purcell's death in 1695. To make it possible the students copied out the entire vocal and instrumental parts-1500 pages of manuscript. The Dioclesian performance was the first since 1784, and again the parts were copied. The labour involved is an example of the willing service which Holst obtained from his students in the cause of music. This capacity of extracting willing and happy service from all kinds of people was one of the greatest characteristics of Gustav Holst, the man. They were eager to follow his own example.
Holst believed intensely in the social value of music and to this end began his Whitsuntide Festivals at Thaxted in 1916. The main purpose was to give pleasure to the performers and to influence them with the idea of making music together for the pure joy of it. The plan followed at first was for players and singers to assemble for the Whitsuntide week-end at some country town or village to provide music for the church services and any other occasion that arose. It is typical of Holst's thoroughness of organization and delicacy of feeling that he always used any local talent and was very careful to work in harmony with the church organist. Saturday was spent in rehearsing, Sunday morning and evening in the church, Sunday afternoon in informal music or a performance at the local hospital or other institution. On Monday morning the parts of a chosen work of a dramatic nature which gave opportunity for pageantry and costume were given out and rehearsed, out of doors if possible. A performance was given in the afternoon.
Holst was by no means a dry academician; in his make-up there was a love of simple fun, and he was fond of ending his festival with some carefully planned item of a humorous nature. After his return from Salonica the festivals were held in London for several years. The places visited were Dulwich, Isleworth, Blackheath, All Hallows (Toc H church) and Camberwell, with the garden belonging to St. Paul's Girls' School as a centre for some of the Whit Monday performances.
One reason for stressing these festivals is that they had an important influence on Holst's own career as a composer. He wrote many works expressly for them. 'A Festival Chime,' 'Turn back O man,' 'Let all mortal flesh,' ' All people that on earth do dwell,' and 'This have I done,' were all written for the Thaxted Festivals in 1916-18. 'A Short Festival Te Deum' was written for Blackheath in 1922 and ‘The Coming of Christ' for Canterbury Cathedral in 1928. Monday programmes included 'Opera as she is Wrote,' a brilliant skit on various operatic styles (Thaxted), 'Seven Choruses from the Alcestis of Euripides,' incorporated into a reading of the play (Blackheath), and The Golden Goose, a choral ballet specially written for the 1926 Festival. These Whitsuntide Festivals will have to be taken into account when a full-length study of Holst comes to be written. They had an essential influence on his career as a composer, and they also show how he put into practice his belief in the social value of music. It is to be hoped that someone will shortly collect the necessary material, a great part of which exists in the memories of people who attended them.
Holst's name will surely always figure on the small list of really great English composers. He was a pioneer and, together with his friend Vaughan Williams, he helped English music to break away finally from a long German domination. His powerful and original mind was influenced by Purcell and our Tudor composers, especially in regard to the problem of the marriage of words and music. His knowledge of choral effect is amazing; writing that often looks dubious on paper comes off magnificently in performance. There is a bleakness about his later works that may prevent their appealing to a large public. The tragedy of his early death is that he seemed to be evolving a new technique, and, had he regained his health, there is no knowing what such an original mind would have achieved.
Holst's favourite Tudor composer was Weelkes. [3] The two men had much in common. Their works are conspicuous for originality and boldness of harmonic outlook, and it is fitting that the ashes of Gustav Holst should have been interred near to the Weelkes tablet in Chichester Cathedral.
The Monthly Musical Record, July-August 1934 (with minor edits).

[1] Henry Purcell wrote King Arthur in 1691, The Fairy Queen in 1692, and Dioclesian on 1690.
[2] Jane Joseph (1894-1929) was an English composer, arranger and music teacher. She had been pupil and latterly a colleague of Gustave Holst. See Holst’s appreciation of her on this blog.
[3] Thomas Weelkes (?1576–1623), was an important English writer of madrigals and liturgical pieces. He contributed to the Elizabethan The Triumphs of Oriana.

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