Gustav Theodore Holst (1874–1934)
Gustav Theodore Holst (1874–1934)
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter pays tribute to Gustav Theodore Holst, composer, whose original name was Gustavus Theodore von Holst. At an early age Holst began to learn the violin and the pianoforte. His favourite composer in those days was Edvard Grieg. However, his father discouraged composition and wished him to be a virtuoso pianist, but neuritis prevented this and at the age of 17 he was allowed to study counterpoint with G. F. Sims of Oxford. In 1892, Holst obtained his first professional engagement as organist of Wyck Rissington, Gloucestershire. Meanwhile, he had made himself proficient on the trombone and was able to eke out his modest allowance by playing on seaside piers and in a “Viennese” dance band. The trombone took him right into the heart of the orchestra, an experience that was the foundation of his great command of instrumentation.
HOLST, GUSTAV THEODORE (1874–1934), composer, whose original name was Gustavus Theodore von Holst, was born at Cheltenham 21 September 1874, the elder son of Adolph von Holst, a music teacher in Cheltenham, by his first wife, Clara, daughter of Samuel Lediard, solicitor, of Cirencester. The von Holsts were of Swedish origin though long settled in England. The painter Theodor von Holst [q.v.] was Gustav’s great-uncle.
At an early age Holst began to learn the violin and the pianoforte. His favourite composer in these days was Grieg. Soon after entering Cheltenham Grammar School he read Berlioz’s Orchestration and with no further instruction started to set Macaulay’s Horatius to music for chorus and orchestra. However, his father discouraged composition and wished him to be a virtuoso pianist, but neuritis prevented this and at the age of 17 he was allowed to study counterpoint with G. F. Sims of Oxford.
In 1892 Holst obtained his first professional engagement as organist of Wyck Rissington, Gloucestershire. At the same time he conducted a choral society at the neighbouring Bourton-on-the-Water. Next year saw the first public performance of (p.304) his work in Cheltenham, the music for an operetta, Lansdowne Castle. As a result of this success his father sent him to the Royal College of Music where he studied composition with (Sir) C. V. Stanford [q.v.]. At this time he got to know the later works of Wagner and heard Bach’s B minor Mass; thenceforth Bach and Wagner became his passion until in later years the influence of English folk-song and of the Tudor composers tended to weaken the Wagnerian supremacy although Bach was never dethroned.
Meanwhile Holst had made himself proficient on the trombone and was able to eke out his modest allowance by playing on seaside piers and in a ‘Viennese’ dance band. The trombone took him right into the heart of the orchestra, an experience which was the foundation of his great command of instrumentation.
In 1895 the Royal College awarded Holst a scholarship. This meant free tuition but only £30 a year for ‘maintenance’ and his life at this time, partly on principle, but chiefly from necessity, was almost unbelievably frugal. Owing to this his neuritis became so bad that he could not hold an ordinary pen and his eyesight suffered severely. These two weaknesses persisted throughout his life. Out of his poverty, however, there grew indirectly his love of the English country. He could not afford train journeys and used to walk to his various destinations. His habit of long walks never left him. They were his relaxation after a spell of hard work and a prelude to new periods of inspiration.
In 1898 Holst became first trombone and répétiteur to the Carl Rosa Opera Company and shortly after joined the Scottish Orchestra as second trombone. Thus ended his status pupillaris. His student compositions had grown in competence but, although his intimate friends saw something beneath the surface, his work did not, in itself, show great originality or force. Strangely enough the germ of the future Holst seems to be found in his early children’s operettas; otherwise he was content, unconsciously perhaps, to lay the foundations of that incomparable sureness of touch and clarity of texture which mark his mature writing.
It was now that Holst discovered the feeling of unity with his fellow men which made him afterwards a great teacher. A sense of comradeship rather than political conviction led him, while still a student, to join the Kelmscott House Socialist Club in Hammersmith. Here he met Isobel, daughter of an artist Augustus Ralph Harrison, and he married her in 1901. They had one daughter, Imogen, who followed her father’s footsteps as composer and teacher.
Mysticism had always attracted Holst, and he had read Walt Whitman and Ibsen. In 1899 with no other training than a little ‘grammar school’ Latin he learnt enough Sanskrit to make translations of the Vedic hymns for musical setting. On these followed the opera di camera, ‘Savitri’ (1908), also on a Sanskrit subject: this (p.305) was first performed at the London School of Opera under Mr Hermann Grunebaum in 1916. These works, although mature, were but a foreshadowing of something greater—The Hymn of Jesus—written in 1917 and first performed at the Queen’s Hall in 1920.
In 1903, although still comparatively unknown, Holst decided to give up the trombone and devote himself to writing music. He soon found that man cannot live by composition alone and he became music teacher at the James Allen Girls’ School, Dulwich, and at the Passmore Edwards (later the Mary Ward) Settlement, where he gave the first English performances of several Bach cantatas. In 1905 he was appointed director of music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith. Here he did away with the childish sentimentality which schoolgirls were supposed to appreciate and substituted Bach and Vittoria; a splendid background for immature minds. In 1913 a sound-proof music room was built at the school where he could work undisturbed. The first work written in these rooms was the St. Paul’s Suite for strings (1913) dedicated to the school orchestra.
St. Paul’s was a clean slate, but at Morley College for Working Men and Women in South London, where Holst became musical director in 1907, a bad tradition had to be broken down. The results were at first discouraging, but soon a new spirit appeared and the music of Morley College, together with its off-shoot the ‘Whitsuntide festival’ held at Thaxted, Essex, and elsewhere, became a force to be reckoned with. The ‘Holst’ room stands as a memorial to his work there which was carried on in the same spirit by his successors.
The year 1914 marked the inception of Holst’s most famous work, The Planets, a suite for orchestra, each movement being suggested by the astrological attribute of a planet. This was completed in 1917. A private performance was given in 1918 under (Sir) Adrian Boult as a parting present to the composer on his departure to the Near East. The war had brought Holst great misery; he tried in vain to enlist and he began to think that he was useless; then the Young Men’s Christian Association invited him to organise music for the troops in Salonika. In view of this official appointment he decided to discard the prefix ‘von’ from his name. He returned after a successful year abroad to find, rather to his dismay, that he was becoming a popular composer. The American orchestras were fighting for the first public performance of The Planets which was produced at the Queen’s Hall in 1919 and followed there by The Hymn of Jesus in 1920.
Holst went back to his sound-proof room and in 1919 composed the Ode to Death (a setting of a poem by Whitman), considered by many to be his most beautiful choral work. He also finished in 1922 his opera The Perfect Fool. This was played to a crowded house at Covent Garden in 1923. The audience was puzzled (p.306) and did not understand his peculiar sense of humour, so well appreciated by his friends. However, the splendid ballet music has remained in the repertoire.
From 1919 to 1924 Holst was professor of composition at the Royal College of Music and he held a similar post at University College, Reading, from 1919 to 1923. An accident while conducting at Reading caused concussion. Disregarding this he went to America in 1923 in order to conduct at the musical festival at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, but on his return his old enemy, insomnia, became alarming and he was ordered complete rest. This enabled him soon to restart composing, first an opera, At the Boar’s Head, founded on the Falstaff scenes of Henry the Fourth, and set almost entirely to English dance tunes (produced by the British National Opera Company at Manchester in 1925), and second and more important, the ‘Keats’ Choral Symphony, written for the Leeds Festival of 1925. Its strength and power were obvious but it had no popular success and an entirely inadequate performance in London did not help it. Holst’s dread of popularity seemed to drive him back upon himself. A certain aloofness appeared in his music; for instance, in Egdon Heath (1927, first performed in 1928), written as a homage to Thomas Hardy. Even those who understood him best found it difficult to assimilate at first, although they are gradually coming round to the composer’s own opinion, that this was his best work. However, some gracious smaller compositions belong to this period, notably the Seven Part-Songs for women’s voices (1925–1926), settings of poems by his friend Robert Bridges.
Holst’s position as a composer is testified to by the Holst festival held in his native town of Cheltenham in 1927 and by the award of the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1930. He was also invited to lecture at Harvard University and to conduct his own compositions in Boston. This (his third) visit to the United States of America (1932) was interrupted by illness, but he recovered quickly and he returned to England apparently well though without some of his old energy. At this time he wrote the Six Choral Canons which are a puzzle to many although some have succeeded in plucking out the heart of their mystery.
In these later years Holst’s constant companion was his daughter, and whenever they could meet, he and his lifelong friend, Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams, would spend whole days discussing their compositions. Holst declared that his music was influenced by that of his friend: the converse is certainly true.
Holst again fell ill in 1932, although he was able in 1933 to write the ‘Lyric Movement’ for Mr Lionel Tertis, the violist. He died in London of heart failure following an operation 25 May 1934. His ashes were buried in Chichester Cathedral, close to the memorial to Thomas Weelkes [q.v.] whose music he greatly loved.
(p.307) Holst’s music has been called cold and inhuman: it is only cold from its burning intensity. It is true that he sometimes seemed to be living in a world removed from human beings, but he never lost touch with his fellow men.
A portrait of Holst, by Bernard Munns, is in Cheltenham Public Library, and a drawing, by Sir William Rothenstein (1920), is at Morley College.
Source: Dictionary of National Biography 1931–1940 (London: Oxford University Press, 1949), 441–3.