Thursday 25 January 2024

Introducing Gustav Holst

If Classic fM is taken as the benchmark, then Gustav Holst is a “one work wonder” – The Planets. And even here they typically programme only three of the seven movements: Mars, Venus, and Jupiter. To be fair, there are occasional outings on that wireless station for the St Paul’s Suite and the beloved Christmas carol In the Bleak Mid-Winter. Holst wrote a vast catalogue of music, covering most genres, including opera. The problem seems to be that listeners who love the ubiquitous Planets have been unable to find “more of the same” in the composer’s other pieces. A little unprejudiced exploration will discover much that is interesting, inspiring, and enjoyable.
In 2024 Gustav Holst celebrates the sesquicentennial of his birth.

Brief Biography of Gustav Holst:
  • Gustav von Holst was born at 4 Pittville Terrace, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire on 21 September 1874.
  • Early instruction from his father, who wished him to become a violinist or pianist.
  • Served as an organist, aged seventeen. Also conducted several choirs and orchestras.
  • Entered the Royal College of Music, in 1893, aged 19 years.
  • First meeting with Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1895, formed a lifelong friendship.
  • Began to play the trombone and performed in the Carl Rosa Opera Company and the Scottish Orchestra.
  • Married Isobel Harrison on 22 June 1901.
  • Appointed Musical Director at the Passmore Edwards Settlement in 1904.
  • Taught at St Paul’s Girls School from 1905 until his death.
  • Director of Music at Morley College from 1907 to 1924.
  • Only child Imogen, born on 12 April 1907.
  • Travelled to Salonica in 1918 on behalf of the Y.M.C.A to organize music for the troops stationed there.
  • Further postings to Macedonia and Asia Minor.
  • Returned to England in 1919.
  • The first complete performance of The Planets at a public concert was on 15 November 1920.
  • Peak of his composing, teaching, and conducting.
  • Suffered a severe nervous breakdown in 1923.
  • In 1924, he relinquished his teaching and conducting duties.
  • Spent the remainder of his life writing music.
  • Gustav Holst died at Beaufort House, Grange Park, Ealing on 25 May 1934.  
Twelve Selected Works:
Gustav Holst’s compositional achievement divides into three clearly defined, but sometimes overlapping periods. The first lasted from his student days until about 1906. This was largely experimental, on occasion post Wagnerian, with pieces such as the Ballet Suite (1899, 1912), The Mystic Trumpeter (1904) and the Cotswold Symphony (1899-1900). The second phase was his “Sanskrit” period, which was exemplified by an interest in the literature and mysticism of Eastern philosophy and, to a certain extent, Eastern music. Works from this period includes the opera Sāvitri (1908), the Hymns from the Rig Veda (Vedic Hymns) (1907-08) and the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (1908-12). The major orchestral piece from this period was the Asian suite for orchestra, Beni Mora (1909-10). The final phase saw Holst writing “Western music stamped with his own individuality.” This was when The Planets (1914-16) appeared. Other important works from this period include the St Paul’s Suite (1912-13), the opera The Perfect Fool (1918-22), the Ode to Death (1919) and the Choral Symphony (1923-24).

  1. Ballet Suite (1899, 1912)
  2. Somerset Rhapsody (1906-07)
  3. Beni Mora Suite (1909-10)
  4. St Paul’s Suite (1912-13)
  5. The Planets (1914-16)
  6. Hymn of Jesus (1917)
  7. The Perfect Fool, ballet suite (1918-22)
  8. Choral Symphony (1923-24)
  9. Fugal Concerto for flute, oboe, and strings (1923)
  10. Egdon Heath (1927)
  11. Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo (orchestral version) (1930-31)
  12. Brook Green Suite (1933)

While the literature for Gustav Holst is sparse – compared to a Mahler or an Elgar –it is of excellent quality. Anyone wishing to begin serious study of the composer could do worse than start with Michael Short’s Gustav Holst: The Man and His Music (OUP 1990). In conjunction with this, Imogen Holst’s A Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst’s Music (Faber, 1974), and Short’s Gustav Holst, 1874-1934: A Centenary Documentation, (White Lion Publishers, 1974) are essential. For analysis, the reader may turn to Imogen Holst’s The Music of Gustav Holst (OUP, 1951), revised 1986, or Holst's Music: A Guide by A.E.F. Dickinson and Alan Gibbs (Thames, 1995). Most of these books have a bibliography and references to material needed for further study. However, the ‘catalogue’ and the ‘documentation’ were published more than 35 years ago. Much has happened since then.
The most recent major resource for scholars is Mary Christison Huismann’s Gustav Holst: A Research and Information Guide (Routledge Musical Bibliographies, 2011). This volume brings bibliographical information up to 2010.
In addition, there are the usual reference sources such as Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and Wikipedia.

If you can only hear one CD:
First things first. There are plenty of outstanding recordings of Gustav Holst’s music – including most of his opus. The Planets has been released on vinyl, cassette, CD, and streaming dozens of times over the past century. Any recommendation is purely subjective. I would suggest the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Mark Elder on Hyperion CDH55350 (2008). This was the first recording of The Planets which included the additional sphere, Pluto, composed by Colin Matthews in 2000. This object was discovered in 1930, some fourteen years after Holst completed his masterpiece. The additional Planet has not always been greeted enthusiastically. This disc also includes the ruminative Lyric Movement for viola and small orchestra.

The single recommended CD would be Richard Hickox on Chandos (CHAN 9420) issued in 1996. This disc includes the important Thomas Hardy inspired Egdon Heath and the Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo. But it also features Holst’s final work, the Scherzo which was to have been part of a projected Symphony. Slightly more obscure but equally rewarding are Hickox’s account of the Fugal Overture and the Somerset Rhapsody. To end, there is the orchestral Capriccio (1932), arranged by Holst’s daughter Imogen, which was originally to have been played by a jazz band.

Finally, if you can only listen to one work:
Most commentators would choose The Planets. It can be taken as read that most readers of this post will know it well – often from music appreciation days at school. To be different, I suggest the Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo (orchestral version) (1930) is an interesting alternative. 
Holst received a commission from the BBC Military Band. This piece was devised as a tribute to the district of London where he had spent much of his life. In part, it is an impression of the sights and sounds and images and moods of the river Thames as it passes through Hammersmith. Imogen Holst has written that it was the result of considerable meditation on the “changing crowds and the changing river.” It is not as programmatic as parts of Vaughan Williams' London Symphony, but the Scherzo certainly reveals a bustling quarter of the capital. Little imagination is required to conjure up pictures of crowds at the University Boat Race or the ‘buzz’ of Broadway on market day. But it is the Prelude that sets the scene of this work. Critics have long insisted that it suggests the river flowing past Hammersmith Bridge and the pubs on the riverside. Holst has stated that the Thames “goes on its way unnoticed and unconcerned.” As we listen to the opening pages of Hammersmith, we must imagine the Blue Anchor and The Dove are closed for business: it is early on a Sunday morning and two lovers are slowly walking beside the river enjoying a few precious moments before they part. Or is it a dark winter’s night, and the mist is rolling past the embankment and the moored houseboats…ghosts of the past linger…

The Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo was rescored for full orchestra, and it was this version that was premièred in London in 1931. The band edition was not heard in public until 14 May 1954.

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