It was a happy thought on the part of Cheltenham music-lovers to arrange a festival performance of the works of its distinguished son, Gustav Holst. Two concerts (with the same programme) were given in Cheltenham Town Hall by the City of Birmingham Orchestra on March 22, and they are entitled to the epithet 'festival,' in that they had received, one cannot say adequate rehearsal, but far more preparation than is usually possible for a single programme in this country.
Mr. Holst, in a short speech during the graceful ceremony which occupied the interval of the afternoon concert, expressed his gratification at this extra rehearsal, and said that what he most appreciated in the honour which his native town was paying him was the blow it dealt at the prevalent fallacies that music was a foreign language and that all composers were dead. A memento of the occasion was presented to him by the Mayor of Cheltenham in the shape of a picture by a local artist, Mr. Harold Cox, of the Cotswold sky showing the planets that were visible on the night when The Planets was first performed. By special dispensation from the Astronomer Royal they were nearly all there together!
Holst's orchestral work divides itself into two quite definite kinds of music which are distinguished by the sources of their inspiration. More than most composers he has gone consciously to other music for a starting-point for his own. Folk-song and Bach are the texts on which he writes his own musical commentary-the early Somerset Rhapsody, the two Songs without Words, and the Fugal Concerto were the examples given of this very personal side of his genius. Of the other class, music that is original in its conception and owes its origin to a wider experience of life than mere music, the ballet music from The Perfect Fool and that great work The Planets were representative. The Oriental influences that may be discovered in his vocal music found no illustrations in this purely orchestral programme.
One-composer concerts are sometimes a weariness. This Holst event was not, and it revealed in a single afternoon more light on the nature of Mr. Holst's musical personality than scores of isolated performances. One aspect has already been noted: Mr. Holst is certainly a composer who throws more light on the baffling problems of inspiration than almost any other. But beside this we could observe his delight in the contrast between a bare unaccompanied tune and a vast web of contrapuntal sound, mark his judgment in the employment of purposeful reiteration and a blunt full stop when enough has been said, and admire his infallible handling now of the simplest essentials, now of the richest detail.
Mr. Holst conducted most of the programme himself, leaving to Dr. Adrian Boult the Ballet Music and the two little Songs without Words. This was perhaps a matter for slight regret, in spite of its obvious appropriateness; for Mr. Holst, though an inspiring choral conductor, rarely sets an orchestra on fire, and at the afternoon concert the performance lacked that touch of electricity which is needed by Holst, perhaps even more than by most composers, to convert brilliant orchestration and peculiar turns of thought and phrase from a comfortable glow into a blazing incandescence of splendour. The evening concert, however, went with greater élan, and showed even more triumphantly the poetry of the smaller works, the greatness of The Planets, and the humanity of them all. F. S. H.
From the 1 May 1927 edition of The Musical Times, with minor edits.