I was reading Imogen Holst’s biography (1958/1988) of her father the other day and came across the story of the 1927 Holst Festival in Cheltenham, she writes: ‘Instead of waiting until he died, and then putting up a stone monument to his memory, they [the citizens of Cheltenham] decided to honour him while he was still living. ‘Michael Short (1990) elaborates. He states that the idea had originated with the local pianist Dorothy Treseder and the ornithologist W. Lock Mellersh who subsequently invited Lewis Hann, the director of Cheltenham Ladies College to chair an ‘organising committee.’ The original idea was to commission a portrait of Gustav, however when this was mooted to him, he suggested that a concert would be more appropriate and would allow townspeople to hear some of his music, played by a highly professional orchestra. Mayoral agreement was reached, and the Holst Festival was pencilled in for March 1927.
The Times (7 March 1927) reported that two concerts of Holst’s music will be presented in the Town Hall at Cheltenham – both on March 22 at 3pm and 8pm. The Birmingham City Orchestra had been engaged and ‘Mr Holst had accepted the invitation to conduct the two concerts with the same programme.’ It noted that the works to be given were The Planets (complete), a Somerset Rhapsody, the ballet music from The Perfect Fool, the Two Songs Without Words and the Fugal Concerto for flute and oboe.
The orchestra was augmented to 75 players and a 30-member voice choir. The rehearsal took place in Birmingham, with Holst travelling there to conduct.
Imogen Holst (1958/1988) reported that her father ‘was not very strong the time.’ It was considered unlikely that he would be able to conduct the whole of The Planets Suite. Fortunately, Adrian Boult was present at the concert, and he was placed on stand-by and ‘was prepared to take charge at a moment’s notice if he [Holst] should find the strain too great.’ Imogen Holst reported that her father was ‘grateful for the way that Boult held himself in readiness to conduct if wanted.’ Due to this potential support, the entire concert went well, with Holst conducting throughout.
The concert was a huge success, as various reviews report. The Birmingham City Orchestra had only nine hours of rehearsal with the composer, for a two-hour concert. Clearly, they would have known some of the works such as The Planets and The Perfect Fool. However, pieces such as the Fugal Concerto for flute and oboe may well have lacked familiarity.
During the interval, messages of congratulation and goodwill were read out. These included contributions from Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sir Henry Wood, Henry Walford Davies, Landon Ronald, Sir Hugh Allen, the British Music Society and the Incorporated Society of Musicians.
Holst was presented with a picture by Harold Cox. This was a painting of Saturn, Neptune, Jupiter and Venus as seen over the Cotswold hills during May 1919. Apparently, the Astronomer Royal had been consulted about this conjunction of the planets. It is painting I would love to see!
The day of the festival was set fair. Many friends and colleagues of Holst turned up at the concerts, including former choir members from Wyck Rissington where Holst had his first musical appointment as organist, and contemporary school friends of the composer from Cheltenham Grammar School. Imogen Holst recalls that ‘There were violinists who had played sonatas with Adolph [Holst’s Father]. And little old ladies who had been passionately in love with Gustavus Matthias [uncle]. There were even one or two, still older and more fragile, who had learnt their notes form Gustavus Valentine.’ [Grandfather]. (Holst, 1958/1988)
The proceedings opened with the arrival of Holst, the Mayor, the Town Clerk, Aldermen and Councillors at the Town Hall. The audience were already seated. The concert began with the Somerset Rhapsody, followed by the Perfect Fool and the Fugal Concerto. At the interval, the Mayor made a speech congratulating the composer, and presenting him with the Cox painting. The Mayor concluded his remarks by suggesting that Holst compose a ‘Cheltenham Idyll’ – he had already composed a Cotswold Symphony and the Somerset Rhapsody. Holst never delivered on this suggestion. Short (1990) reports that Holst thanked the various parties for organising the event, made plea on behalf of ‘living composers in preference to dead ones’ and expressing gratitude for the generous amount of rehearsal time given to him.
The second part of the concert featured one work: The Planets.
When the festival was over, the committee discovered that it had ‘a surplus of funds’ so it decided to commission the painting of the composer from Bernard Munns of Birmingham, which had been the original plan.
Short, Michael Gustav Holst: The Man and His Music (Oxford University Press, 1990
Holst, Imogen, Gustav Holst: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1958/1988)