The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Gustav Holst (1874 -1934):

Biographical notes by Ian Lace

Gustav Holst was born on September 21st 1874 in Cheltenham. His ancestors were Russian immigrants from Riga. His father Adolph was an accomplished pianist who practiced all hours to the neglect of his wife and children. His mother's Spanish great, great grandmother had been an actress who was carried off to Ireland by an Irish peer. Holst's mother was sweet, gentle and unassuming but she was not strong. She died when Gustav was only 8. Adolph's sister, Nina, was brought in to look after the children but was equally distracted by the piano. She had strewn rose petals in the path of Liszt when she was young.

Photograph of Gustav HolstGustav appears to have been an over-sensitive somewhat miserable child. His eyes were weak but no one realized he had to wear spectacles. His chest was weak but no one bothered much about his asthma. He had to rest while climbing the stairs. He hated practicing the violin but enjoyed practicing the piano.

Later Adolph married another pupil and Gustav was sent to Cheltenham Grammar School. His father was determined that Gustav should be a really good pianist but he was troubled with neuritis in his hand which made long hours of practice a real strain. He tried composition but failed scholarships to Royal College of Music (RCM) and various other colleges in London.

Holst's first engagement was at Wyck Rissington, a small Cotswold village, as organist and choirmaster then as conductor of the choral society at Bourton on the Water. He composed an operetta Lansdowne Castle which was produced at the Cheltenham Corn Exchange in 1893. Adolph was sufficiently impressed to borrow money to send Gustav to the Royal College of Music. At the College, Holst (and Ralph Vaughan Williams [RVW]) studied under Stanford. Although he often disagreed with Stanford's opinions, Holst was always grateful to him, especially for teaching him how to become his own critic.

A fellow student, Fritz Hart, converted him to Wagner. The year before he had heard Gotterdammerung under Mahler at Covent Garden. Now he became an ardent enthusiast and after standing in the gallery to hear Tristan, he walked all night through the streets of London his mind in a whirl.

Another overwhelming experience was hearing the Bach B Minor Mass at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester. But the cramping neuritis in his right hand was perpetually defeating him. Prolonged practice was impossible and he realized he could no longer keep up his technique.

He therefore decided to take up the trombone. It would allow him to play in orchestras and provide him with an income. Also, the experience would be useful to him as a composer and, possibly playing the trombone might help to strengthen his chest and lungs.

As a student, he lived very frugally. He never smoked; never drank and since leaving home he had become a strict vegetarian. But vegetarianism was not encouraged in cheap lodgings in the 1890s. He was never given a really nourishing meal so his eyes became very weak while his arm remained as bad as ever. Although shy and solitary by nature, he already showed an absorbing interest in other people. He hated conventionality and rejoiced in any ideas that were fantastic or humorous. He enjoyed a good laugh.

He was thin and anaemic yet his movements were quick and he walked in long energetic strides. Being hard up, he used to walk or cycle much of the way home to Cheltenham from the RCM. He must have looked an odd figure with his trombone strapped over his back.

He won the open scholarship for composition which enabled him to continue his studies at the RCM, when money from home became tight. He augmented his college grant of L30 by playing the trombone on the pier at Brighton and other resorts during the summer holidays.

At this time he wrote his first opera The Revoke based on a card game episode in Beau Brummel. It was his Opus 1. Stanford was enthusiastic and it was very nearly staged at the Opera Comique in Paris but it never had a public performance.

In the Autumn of 1895 he met Ralph Vaughan Williams for the first time. They became lifelong friends and they formed a habit of playing their compositions to each other while they were still working on them.

He would walk along Chiswick Mall or by the River with his college friends discussing the poetry of Walt Whitman and the socialist works of William Morris.

He joined the Hammersmith Socialist Club and listened to Bernard Shaw's lectures. He conducted the Hanmmersmith Socialist Choir at William Morris's house in Hammersmith Mall. And he fell in love with his youngest soprano - Isobel Harrison, a pretty blue eyed blonde. She took him in hand. She persuaded him to eat properly, shave his beard and improve his dress sense.

One of his early student works dating from 1897 was the Winter Idyll. The influence of Wagner, Mendelsohnn and Grieg is clearly discernible. By now he was playing in theatre orchestras and playing the organ at several London churches. In the Autumn of 1898 the Carl Rosa Opera Company offered him an appointment as first trombone and repetiteur and so, regretfully, he left the RCM.

At Carl Rosa he coached soloists in unfamiliar repertoire; and by playing the trombone in the Carl Rosa orchestra, he came to know an orchestra from the inside - invaluable training for a composer. In his mind's ear, he always heard the orchestration of a work from the first moment when he began composing it.

It was in 1899 that he first became interested in Hindu philosophy and Sanskrit literature. His immediate impulse was to set some hymns from the Rig Veda (the most important of the Hindu scriptures) to music. Finding the English translations hopelessly stilted, he decided to learn Sanskrit so that he could translate the words to his own satisfaction. In doing so he opened an entirely new world for himself.

He began work on an opera Sita in 1900 based on the Hindu epic Ramayana. He worked on it, on and off, from 1900 to 1906 and although it was never performed he learned a great deal from it, his musical style becoming more simple and direct. In 1903 he also composed a Symphonic Poem Indra a vivid portrait of the God Indra and his battle with the drought.

In 1899/1900 he also wrote his Cotswold Symphony with its Elegy, In Memorium to William Morris and his first mature work, the Ave Maria.

In 1901 he married Isobel. They lived at first in lodgings in Shepherds Bush.

Gustav came into a small legacy when his father died so he and Isobel went to Berlin for a holiday. He returned to London vowing to give up the trombone and concentrate on composing. Like Elgar before him he was to be disappointed. He wrote a good many songs but they were refused by publisher after publisher. His wife copied his music and made clothes for her friends to keep make ends meet. Then, just as his resolution was wavering, he was asked to deputize for the singing teacher at James Allen School in Dulwich. His career as a gifted teacher had begun.

In 1905, the year Holst was appointed Director of Music at St Paul's School for Girls in Hammersmith, he was asked to conduct his The Mystic Trumpeter at Queens Hall. The Mystic Trumpeter, based on Walt Whitman's poetry, shows strong influences of Wagner an influence he was to soon to purge.

At this time he became aware of the English folksong revival. The tunes had a simplicity and economy that greatly appealed to him. It was the impact and influence of folksongs that finally banished traces of Wagner from his works.

By 1907 he had finished the music for Sita and was beginning work on the first group of hymns from the Rig Veda. He also composed his Somerset Rhapsody in that year. Composing became easier now that they had a small house in Richmond and at weekends they escaped to a 2 room cottage on the Isle of Sheppey, solitary and remote.

He was also appointed Musical Director at the Morley College for Working Men & Women. They had never bothered much about music there. His exacting demands drove many students away but then, thankfully, several new enthusiastic students joined to turn the classes into a success.

He won the open scholarship for composition which enabled him to continue his studies at the RCM, when money from home became tight. He augmented his college grant of L30 by playing the trombone on the pier at Brighton and other resorts during the summer holidays.

But Holst failed to win the Ricordi opera prize with Sita - a bitter blow.

Perpetual overwork had also reduced him to such a state of nerves that his doctor ordered him to take a holiday in a warm climate. He decided to go to Algeria and bicycle in the desert. This colourful world would gave him the inspiration for Beni Mora. When it was first performed in 1912 one critic complained, "We do not ask for Biskra dancing girls in Langham Place."

At home again he began working on another Indian opera Savitri. This was a much smaller work lasting little over half an hour with only three soloists, a small hidden chorus and a very small orchestra. Holst was now at the height of his Sanskrit period. From 1908 to 1912 came the four sets of hymns from the Rig Veda, the Vedic Hymns for voice and piano, and the large scale choral work The Cloud Messenger

In the Summer of 1911, Morley College gave the first performance since the 17th Century of Purcell's The Fairy Queen (the full score had been lost since soon after Purcell's death. Holst got permission for several of the Morley students to copy out the complete vocal and orchestral parts. It was a colossal task. There were 500 pages of manuscript and it took those inexperienced copyists nearly a year to write them out in their spare time. For Holst the performance was probably the most exciting thing he had yet done.

In 1912 came the first performance of The Cloud Messenger which was not a success. Its failure depressed him and he went to Spain for a holiday with Balfour Gardiner and Clifford and Arnold Bax. Whilst there Clifford Bax encouraged his growing interest in Astrology and long after The Planets he would cast horoscopes for his friends. "My pet vice!", he would call it.

In 1913, the new music wing of St Pauls was opened and he was given the large sound proof room for his work. On weekdays he would teach in it but on Sundays and throughout the holidays it was his own. The first thing he wrote there was the St Paul's Suite.

It was at about this time that Holst became wildly excited over the rediscovery of the English madrigal composers. Weelkes was his favorite of all the Tudor composers but he also adored Byrd and Purcell.

His first composition after the outbreak of the World War, was a setting of Walt Whitman's Dirge for Two Veterans It was his comment on that year of tragedy. (Vaughan Williams also set these verses and they were included in his Dona Nobis Pacem).

He was also commencing work on The Planets. Some of the orchestration of the composition was sketched during long weekends at their country cottage at Thaxted in Essex. The church at Thaxted was like a cathedral - incredibly spacious and bright inside. Holst dreamt of a festival that might be held there one day. He dreamt of bringing down his pupils from Morley and St Pauls. The dream was realized during the Whitsun weekend of 1916 when there were four days of perpetual singing and playing, either properly arranged in church, or impromptu in various houses, or in the countryside. Thus, from these beginnings, the Whitsuntide Festival became a tradition.

In 1917, came The Hymn of Jesus based on the Apocryphal gospels. With his usual thoroughness, Holst learnt sufficient Greek to translate the original hymn. He then pondered at length over the meaning of the words so that he could maintain the spirit of the poem as much as possible.

Holst was declared unfit for active service in the Great War. He was depressed because he was unable to contribute to the war effort. His brother Emile had left the New York stage to join the army and his wife was driving lorry loads of wounded soldiers to hospital. Vaughan Williams was fighting in France and fellow musicians like George Butterworth were dying in the battlefields.

At last he got his chance. During the closing stages of the War, the YMCA offered him the post of Musical Organiser in their educational work among the troops in the Near East. First, he got rid of the von in his name and sailed for Salonica but not before Balfour Gardiner had given him a private performance of The Planets conducted by Adrian Boult.

He arrived back home in the middle of 1919 and soon took up more teaching posts at University College, Reading and at the Royal College of Music. Back in his sound proof room, he set text by Walt Whitman again - Ode to Death for chorus and orchestra.

He conducted the first public performance of The Hymn of Jesus. Like The Planets it was very successful. Life was becoming easier by the end of 1922. He found that for the first time he had earned more than L1000 a year. However, he was to have no more major popular successes.

In early 1923 he was conducting a rehearsal at University College, Reading when he slipped off the platform and fell on the back of his head. The concussion was fairly slight but it happened at an unfortunate time when he was already feeling depressed and overworked. The damage was more deadly than he could realize and it was many years before he recovered from the after-effects of the accident.

But, at the time, he seemed to recover quickly, and he accepted an invitation to go to America to conduct at the musical festival at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. During the voyage out, he scored his Fugal Concerto for flute oboe and strings.

While he was in America, The Perfect Fool was produced by the British National Opera. Although its ballet music was enjoyed, it failed because the story line was so enigmatic. Several people in the audience demanded their money back. Holst was beginning to loose touch with his audience. Meanwhile in America he was basking in adulation

Back in England, he received a tremendous ovation after a performance of The Planets but it brought him no joy. His nerves were very bad and he was finding it impossible to sleep at night. By the end of term, he was on the verge of a serious nervous breakdown. Then an anonymous rich man gave him several hundred pounds so that he might have more leisure for composing.

He decided to give up all his teaching for three months. He retired to Thaxted spending only one day a week in London. It was not entirely successful for he was never one to be lazy. His nerves got worse instead of better; although it was a year since his accident, he began to have violent pains in the back of his head; even when the pains ceased he could not bear anything touching his head - not even a hat or a pillow. Noise was a torture to him: people talking, applause, traffic. He had nightmares about making mistakes or about his creativity drying up. His doctor ordered him to give up all work for the rest of that year. Afterwards, he wasn't able to resume any regular teaching except for a very little at St Pauls where he continued to teach to the end of his life.

He lived for nearly a year in a comfortable house in the middle of Thaxted - alone except for an ex-army batman who became Holst's cook, valet and guardian. He worked on his Choral Symphony and a new opera At The Boars Head based on the Falstaff scenes from Henry IV.

By the beginning of 1925 he was well enough to return to London and almost immediately he was plunged into rehearsals for At the Boars Head. But it was not well received. It was too clever. Audiences felt cheated because as soon as they began to get hold of a tune it was snatched away from them and woven into a restlessly changing pattern that baffled the ear. And the performers could not cope with the music's complexities and their acting.

Then The Choral Symphony failed too. Listeners found it difficult to take any delight in the work. Most critics savaged it; complaining of dreary wastes of dullness and the chilly vacillations of its harmonies. "Holst presents the melancholy spectacle of a continuous and unrelieved decline," said one reviewer.

Holst was unimpressed but he was worried when RVW wrote to confess that he felt a cold admiration for it. It should be noted, of course, that what seemed difficult to audiences in the 1920s is accepted much more easily today and modern recordings of Holst's works, from this period, now allow us to assess them anew.

In 1926 he was lecturing at Liverpool and Glasgow Universities.

He now had a beautiful home in Thaxted - Brook End - but he only went there on occasional weekends. He was restless and seemed to have no desire for a fixed home. In London he was happy enough going for solitary walks.

He was not writing any large scale works now. The Golden Goose was a light hearted choral ballet. Another choral ballet The Morning of the Year was more ambitious.

In the spring of 1927 the citizens of Cheltenham organised a Holst festival, two hours of music which included A Somerset Rhapsody which had not been performed for years and, of course, The Planets. Afterwards, as an antidote to so much honour and glory he went off on a walking tour of Yorkshire. As we have seen, he was a prodigious walker. He must have walked over most of the counties of England in all seasons and in all weathers. He also covered appreciable tracts of Italy, France, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia and he had explored Constantinople and Athens during his war service. When he visited Chichester, to discuss programme details for the Whitsuntide Festivals, he would walk over to Chichester from Midhurst and, afterwards, across the Downs to Pulborough before taking the train back to London. It was his habit to carry a train timetable in one pocket and bus route details in another.

<Picture>In 1926 Holst was walking in Dorset. As a result he was stimulated to commence work on Egdon Heath dedicated to Thomas Hardy and inspired by the opening chapter of Hardy's Return of the Native and the desolate stretch of country between Wool and Bere Regis.

The music was stark and austere and at its London premiere in February, 1928, a little more than a month after Hardy's death, listeners were profoundly uncomfortable. But, Holst, as usual, was unmoved. This time he knew it was the best thing he had ever written.

In October, 1927, had received an invitation from Dr George Bell the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral to write some music for a dramatic production called The Coming of Christ. In later years when Dr Bell had become Bishop of Chichester the Whitsuntide Festivals were held in his Cathedral. In Chichester, they reached the glory of that first weekend in Thaxted.

The other composition which occupied Holst in 1928 was The Moorside Suite for brass band. This became the test piece for the brass band competition at the Crystal Palace that year. The winners were the Black Dyke Mills Band and one of the cornet players in the band was Harry Mortimer.

In March 1929 Holst returned from an extended Italian holiday to travel to America again where was to be guest of honour at the 21st Anniversary celebrations of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He would be representing British art. He would also lecture on the Teaching of Art at Yale.

On returning home he began composition again - on The Dream City - the first of twelve Humbert Wolfe songs. The Dream City spoke of that part of London which he knew and loved Kensington, Richmond Hill and Kew and of the long purples of the Thames.

The Dream City was sung magically by Dorothy Silk at the first public performance in the Wigmore Hall, but Holst sat in despair. After the songs the concert ended with the Schubert Quintet in C. The warmth of this music prompted the beginnings of Holst's thaw but it was a long and painful process. Quoting Imogen Holst: "As he listened to it, he realized what he had lost not only in his music but in his life. He could cling to his austerity. He could fill his days with kindliness and good humor. He could write music that was neither commonplace, unmeaning nor tame. And he could grope after ideas that were colossal and mysterious. But he missed the warmth of the Schubert Quintet."

In 1930 his contrapuntal and bitonal Double Concerto for two violins drew mixed reviews. One critic's verdict was "highly intellectualised" while The Daily Telegraph said it had outstanding qualities and moments of rare beauty. It should present little difficulty to today's audiences and is in fact an appealing work. He received the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society after the first performance of the Double Concerto.

His Choral Fantasia drew dire press notices when it was premiered in Gloucester at the 1931 Three Choirs Festival but RVW was moved by it.

In 1930 he also wrote his sixth and last opera, another chamber opera, The Tale of The Wandering Scholar from the book by medievalist Helen Waddell. Also in that year came the brilliant Hammersmith a Prelude and Scherzo originally commissioned by the BBC Military Band.

He was invited to lecture in composition at Harvard University for the first six months of 1932. Once in America, he undertook a grueling program of conducting and lecturing including a talk on his beloved Haydn at the Library of Congress in Washington. But immediately afterwards, he was hospitalized with hemorrhagic gastritis caused by a duodenal ulcer. Back in England he convalesced for much of the rest of 1932. He had to consume vast quantities of milk and his walking became, as he described it, even more middle aged than before.

The next year he was at work again. For Lionel Tertis he composed the Lyric Movement for Viola and Orchestra and for the pupils at St Pauls he wrote The Brook Green Suite. In both works he was returning to the ease and spontaneity that had so often deserted him during the previous ten years.

At the end of 1933, he entered a nursing-home and was given the choice of a minor operation and a restricted life afterwards or a major operation and the freedom to do what he liked. He chose the latter. The operation was planned for the early spring.

During the early months of 1934, he listened to broadcasts of his music and scored the Scherzo he had began the previous year. It was to be part of a symphony but there was no time left for the other movements. The operation, in May, was successful but his heart was unequal to the strain. He died two days later on the 25th of May.

Elgar had died on February 24th and Delius was to pass away on June 10th of that year.

Holst's ashes were buried in the Cathedral in Chichester. A few feet from the grave was the memorial to Weelkes who had been the organist of the Cathedral more than 300 years before.

After his death, came the inevitable decline in performances. The Planets, had, of course, secured his international reputation. And, largely due to the untiring work of his daughter, Imogen Holst,* and the enterprise of a number of enthusiasts and record companies like Lyrita, Chandos and Hyperion, modern audiences have been able to assess his larger legacy of music. His contribution to the development of musical education in schools and adult education is also widely acknowledged.

Despite his initial training at the Royal College of Music, he was largely self taught as a composer; learning by experience and pondering deeply on his art. He avoided preconceived systems and academic theory. He went his own way experimenting; constantly searching for the right notes. Sometimes he was successful; at other times he wasn't. He refused the safe, easy answer.

He was impervious to whims and fashion. Although he was naturally delighted with success he was wary of it and he was not put off by failure. "If nobody likes your work, you have to go on for the sake of the work," he said. "And you're in no danger of letting the public make you repeat yourself." Holst's personality was a remarkable combination of opposing characteristics. He was friendly, gregarious, jolly and rumbustious but he was also solitary, aloof and remote. He was perceptive and business-like but he could also be quite naive in life and music. He was a practical realist but he was also a dreamer and visionary. There was a strong logical clarity of expression with a capacity to create the most complex contrapuntal forms; and there was the irrational, romantic creativity. These contrasts in his personality are apparent in his music.

He was not conventionally religious. He believed strongly in supra-human forces and besides dabbling in astrology, he was much influenced by Eastern religious theory - particularly the doctrines of Dharma and reincarnation.

He believed that the duty of a composer is to fulfill practical needs and if music were needed for his school classes he did not hesitate to supply it. He could quite easily write mundane arrangements of Christmas carols or hymn tunes as well as major so called serious works without any sense of incongruity. He would devote as much time and care to a song for voice and violin as to a full scale choral symphony.

Photograph of Gustav HolstHe died at the tragically early age of 59. He seemed to be entering a new creative phase and the old spontaneity and warmth was returning. Given the techniques he had been developing through the 1920s, one wonders what else he might have achieved.

*Imogen Holst, of course, was a distinguished conductor, scholar, teacher and composer in her own right. Her recordings of her father's music have an irresistible sense of enthusiasm and an exhilarating rhythmic vivacity. From 1964 when she ceased working as Benjamin Britten's assistant until her death in 1984, most of her energies were devoted to promoting the wider knowledge and dissemination of her father's music.


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