Gustav Holst

(1874—1934) composer and teacher of music

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(b Cheltenham, 1874; d London, 1934).

Eng. composer of Swed. descent. Trained as a pianist, his father being a pf. teacher. In 1892 he became organist and choirmaster at Wyck Rissington, Glos. His operetta Lansdowne Castle was prod. in Cheltenham in 1893, after which his father sent him to the RCM to study comp. under Stanford and the org. under Hoyte. At the same time he learned the tb., his pf.‐playing being handicapped by chronic neuritis in the arm. In coll. holidays he played the tb. on seaside piers in the White Viennese Band. He left the RCM in 1898, having formed there a lifelong friendship with Vaughan Williams which extended to frank and detailed criticism of each other's comps. He worked as a trombonist in the Carl Rosa Opera 1898–1900 and Scottish Orch. 1900–3 and learned a smattering of Sanskrit in order to be able to trans. hymns from the Rig Veda which he wished to set to mus. His Cotswolds Symphony (unpubd.) was perf. in Bournemouth 1902 by Dan Godfrey and in 1905 his Mystic Trumpeter was perf. at the Queen's Hall. In 1903 he became mus. teacher at a Dulwich girls' sch., holding this post until 1920, and in 1905 he became dir. of mus. at St Paul's Girls' Sch., Hammersmith, retaining this appointment until his death. At this time, too, like Vaughan Williams, he became deeply interested in Eng. folksong, and in 1907 became mus. dir. at Morley Coll., holding this post until 1924. At all the schs. where he taught he raised both standards and taste. In 1908 he went on holiday to Algeria (bicycling in the desert), the direct mus. result of which was an orch. suite Beni Mora. On return he comp. his chamber opera Savitri. In 1911 he cond. at Morley College the f. modern p. of Purcell's The Fairy Queen, and in 1913 began work on a large‐scale orch. suite The Planets, sketching Mars just before World War I began in 1914. In that year he set Whitman's Dirge for 2 Veterans for male vv., brass, and drums. At this time he went to live in Thaxted, Essex, where in 1916 he organized a Whitsuntide Fest., singing and performing mus. by Bach, Byrd, Purcell, and Palestrina. Later that year Savitri was prod. in London and in 1917 Holst began his choral work The Hymn of Jesus. He was unfit for war service, but in 1918 was offered the post of YMCA mus. organizer among the troops in the Near East. As a parting present a wealthy friend, Balfour Gardiner, arranged a private perf. of The Planets in Queen's Hall, cond. Adrian Boult. The f. public p. was in 1919 and was Holst's first major public success. On return to Eng. later in 1919 he was appointed prof. of mus. at University Coll., Reading, and joined the teaching staff of the RCM. His comic opera The Perfect Fool was perf. at CG in 1923 while Holst was conducting at a fest. at the Univ. of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In 1924 he comp. his Choral Symphony on poems by Keats which was f.p. at the 1925 Leeds Fest., the same year that his 1‐act Falstaff opera At the Boar's Head was staged by the BNOC. The ill‐health from which he had always suffered in some degree plagued him more after he fell from a platform while rehearsing at Reading in 1923 and comp. became an arduous burden. But in 1927 he wrote his tone‐poem Egdon Heath (the title given by Thomas Hardy to a stretch of countryside in Dorset), to a commission from the NYSO. This was followed in 1929 and 1930 by 12 Songs by Humbert Wolfe, the Double Conc., an opera The Wandering Scholar, the Choral Fantasia (perf. 1931 at the Gloucester 3 Choirs Fest.), and the prelude and scherzo, Hammersmith, for orch. These works gave promise of a new, richer, and more lyrical phase, as did the Brook Green Suite and Lyric Movement of 1933. But in 1934, after an operation, Holst died in the plenitude of his powers. His mus., while owing something to folk‐song influence and to the madrigalian tradition of Byrd and Weelkes, is intensely orig. and has a visionary quality similar to that found in Vaughan Williams but expressed with more austerity and greater natural technical facility. His Planets suite is markedly eclectic, but its finest movts., Mars, Venus, Saturn, and Neptune, show varied aspects of Holst's style. His genius as a teacher and his feeling for the community spirit engendered by mus. also contributed to the outstanding part he played in Eng. mus.‐making in the first two decades of the 20th cent. Prin. works:


Subjects: Music.