Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst was a pioneering composer who would have made a name for himself for his preferred choral pieces, such as The Hymn of Jesus. However, it was his rare endeavor into music for large orchestra, with The Planets, that launched him into the realm of the immortals. Not the most social man, Holst grew to immensely dislike the popularity of the legendary suite and the attention it brought him. However, it is considered one of the greatest works of the 20th century, performed with great frequency by orchestras worldwide. Even progressive rock bands of the late 60’s and beyond have incorporated the opening movement, Mars, The Bringer of War, into their repertoire, making Holst one of the few composers whose work reaches beyond classical circles.

Gustavus Theodor von Holst was born in the English spa town of Cheltenham at the height of the Victorian Era. A third generation musician, his family had a Swedish background with further roots in Russia and Latvia. Holst’s father, Adolph, was a piano teacher, as well as a choirmaster and organist at All Saints’ Church in Pittville. Clara, his mother, was a singer who passed away when Gustav was 8. Holst also had a brother, Emil, who became an established actor in Hollywood under the name Ernest Cossart, often playing prim and proper butlers.

Holst was in poor health for much of his life. As a child, he suffered from neuritis and asthma. He was introduced to music by his father for its therapeutic applications. It was believed practicing the piano would help his hands, and the trombone would strengthen his lungs. Holst’s first attempts at composition began at the age of 12, and some of his work won amateur competitions. As Holst reached adulthood, his poor health led him to experiment with unusual lifestyles for the time. He became a vegetarian, but did not improve upon his constitution due to less than sufficient nutritional options of the day. Holst also had a great interest in Hinduism and mysticism, which would eventually influence much of his work.

As a young man, he witnessed Gustav Mahler conducting Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, which opened Holst’s eyes to the epic possibilities of music. Holst entered the Royal College of Music where he befriended fellow student Ralph Vaughan Williams. The pair formed a lifelong friendship and, although their musical styles differed, acted as sounding boards for each other’s work. Holst soon left the Royal College of Music to take a position with the Carl Rosa Opera Company as a rehearsal pianist. His piano career was quickly cut short, though, due to his worsening neuritis.

Holst made a few attempts at a larger works, but met with little or no success. Incorporating his growing interest in Hinduism, his opera, Sita, was entered into the prestigious Ricordi competition, though it failed to win, much to the composer’s disillusionment. There were other large works, such as The Cloud Messenger and Beni Mora, but none of them captured the public’s imagination.

In 1903, with a career as a pianist no longer a possibility and his breakthrough as a composer not yet arrived, Holst turned his attention to teaching. Shortly after accepting a position as Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, the institution constructed a new music building, including a sound proof room for Holst so he could work in peace. In an expression of gratitude, Holst composed the now famous St. Paul’s Suite for Strings, which utilized the English and Scottish folk music of the day, even using Greensleeves as a countermelody during the Finale section. Although written for strings, Holst often adapted the piece for other instruments, establishing a long tradition of writing music for his students’ needs.

Adding to his interest in all things mystical, Holst was introduced to astrology by Clifford Bax (brother of Arnold, the composer). Holst began charting friends’ horoscopes, and soon his “pet vice”, as he referred to it, became a lifelong pursuit. In fact, it was astrology, not astronomy as many assume, that inspired The Planets, far and away his most celebrated work. The musical character of each movement was informed by the attributes of each ruling planet. Music, like the rest of the world, was changing in the early part of the 20th century. The Planets was an instant smash, and it placed Holst in the same company as Stravinsky, for The Rite of Spring, and Schoenberg, with his “extreme chromaticsm” of Five Pieces for Orchestra.

Each movement contains distinct characteristics unique to each section. Mars, the Bringer of War contains a determined, odd-metered march, likely alluding to military conflicts in Europe at the beginning of World War I. The rhythm is juxtaposed against bombastic horns and swaying strings, culminating in a big finish worthy of a finale, rather than a piece’s opening movement. Venus, the Bringer of Peace follows with a call and response between a gentle single trumpet/horn and lilting flutes. Mercury, the Winged Messenger playfully frolics in a triplet pattern that volleys between different wind parts. The centerpiece of the entire work is Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity. A flurry of strings introduces the movement, quickly joined by the rest of the orchestra as they launch into the now-familiar theme. It eventually settles into a stately English folksong that was ultimately used as the melody for I Vow to Thee, My Country, based on a poem by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, becoming a well known patriotic British song. As the suite travels further into the outer regions of the solar system, the mood become more nebulous. Alternating tones from the flutes introduce Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age. Featuring delicate interplay between the two harp parts, the movement was a personal favorite of Holst’s. The syncopated meter of Uranus, the Magician is often compared to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas. The final movement, Neptune, the Mystic (in 5/4 time, like Mars, thus bookending the piece), is altogether different from the rest of the larger work. Featuring a six piece women’s choir, it is the only section of the suite to contain vocal parts. Unusually, the choir was placed in a chamber adjacent to the stage, heard but not seen. As the piece concludes, the chamber door is slowly closed; the gloomy, sustained vocals symbolize the depths of deep space. This novel approach was unheard of to early 20th century audiences. The Planets, some claim, the first classical work to conclude with a fade out.

Like many large pieces, the music for The Planets was originally written as a piano duet. The exception being Neptune, which was written for organ, as the piano didn’t sound mysterious enough. Fleshing it out for large orchestra, Holst included many unusual instruments for the time, including bass oboe, celesta, and tubular bells. The subtitles, based on Roman mythology, were added for aesthetic purposed. Earth is not represented due to its being the “center” of the astrological universe. Also, Pluto (classified as a planet from 1930-2006) had not been discovered at the time, therefore it was not included in the suite. At the time of its discovery, Holst was often asked if he considered adding an additional movement, but he had long since moved on from the work. Despite the fame The Planets brought Holst, he grew tired of it quickly, wishing more people would pay attention to his choral work.

As World War I was underway, many friends and colleagues of Holst, including his brother and Ralph Vaughan Williams joined the fight. Fellow composer George Butterworth lost his life in the war. Holst, who had dropped the German sounding “von” from his name, was a very patriotic Briton and tried to enlist, but his poor health precluded him from joining. Instead, the YMCA offered him an opportunity to teach soldiers in Greece and Turkey, under the title of Musical Organizer, in an effort to take their minds off their otherwise difficult task. Upon his return from the war, Holst composed the choral piece Ode to Death, based upon Walt Whitman’s poem.

By the 1920’s, Holst had become something of a celebrity, a status he detested to the point of refusing to sign autographs. Never in the best of health, he started to slow down after suffering a concussion as he collapsed off a podium in 1923. Though he continued composing, his teaching days were over. Holst considered one of his final choral pieces, Ogdon Heath, to be his masterpiece, though some critics claimed his brand of music was now out of fashion. Enduring severe digestive problems the last four years of his life, Holst passed away following stomach surgery in May of 1934.

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