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Gustav Theodore Holst and His Music Essay (Biography)

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Updated: Jun 2nd, 2022

Gustav Holst (1874-1935), Vaughan Williams’s contemporary and friend, was born at Cheltenham and sprang from a milieu of professional musicians very different from Vaughan Williams’s. He was ‘a musician’s musician’ because he was fascinated by the technique of the art, indeed by any musical sounds or music from any race. Though his technical explorations were made at the prompting of creative desire they are often held to have hindered its realization. He produced no series of symphonies, nor indeed any large-scale undertakings which can easily be examined as a series. It is significant that Stravinsky fascinated Holst, who may well have had genius enough (if he had been born into another tradition and granted health and freedom) to compose equivalents of The Fire Bird or even The Rite of Spring, though he rarely achieved the effortless coherence found even in smaller Stravinsky works like Apollon Musagète. We cannot claim outright for Holst those symphonic qualifications that were conceded to Vaughan Williams.

However great our admiration of Holst’s achievement, in circumstances that would have frustrated most men, it seems clear that he commanded his musical materials better than their germinating processes, and could have found a convincing synthesis in more than two or three works if he had lived to be less interested in fertilizers than in the ground to which they were applied-often too liberally for immediate absorption. Vaughan Williams evolved large-scale contexts for ‘tune’ (as distinct from prose-like line) which was derived from folk-song, though often neither bucolic nor deliberately insular. (Warrack, p. I) Holst, having found in folk-music and modes, or in empirical and eastern scales and rhythms, an escape from Anglo German melody, continued with explorations that produced wholly individual flavors. Yet when he wanted a ‘tune’ he continued to the end of his life to introduce the contour of folk-song or dance into refractory and recalcitrant textures.

It seems fair to illustrate some of these points from The Hymn of Jesus. Near the opening the music passes from ‘Pange lingua’ to ‘Vexilla regis’ with an easy mastery remarkable from a British composer in 1917; the effect at the first performance in 1920 was as electrifying as that of full chorus. After a verse from each hymn in unaccompanied unison the orchestra makes its next transition. A short passage of routine imitation leads to the first of many six four chords, then more imitative work on the first half of the motive, the harmonies becoming just sufficiently biplanar to avoid commonplace.

Holst himself, for all his avoidance of publicity, was no more the recluse, no more austere than many a man whose work nobody has thought frigid; yet people once called him cold, severe, or ‘mystical’. If a mystic is one who expresses experiences that are incommunicable except by a language of symbolism it is difficult to see why Holst is more mystical than a host of others. His art is ill-suited to the sort of subjects that appealed to Verdi, but he is more often mysterious than mystical; and the more forbidding or abstract his theme the stronger his brush. ‘Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age’ and ‘Neptune, the Mystic’ are the best of The Planets, and Egdon Heath is his finest orchestral work. This reflection poses what is surely the ultimate problem about Holst, and it concerns the man rather than his technical experiments.

The Hymn of Jesus was greeted with an enthusiasm that bewildered the composer. He was unwise enough to concoct his own libretto and indulge in elaborate parody of German and Italian opera for The Perfect Fool (1923); but in the same year the brilliantly scored ballet music from this opera, together with The Planets and A Fugal Concerto raised the composer to a peak of popularity. Then, during the twelve years left to Holst, his new works were treated either with curious respect or frank dislike. His daughter (Imogen, 115-16) records such press comments as: ‘the chilly vacillations of its harmonies, where cerebration tamed and bridled inspiration’–referring to the Choral Symphony, for which even Vaughan Williams felt only ‘a cold admiration’. By 1931 Holst ‘was always feeling exhausted’ and ‘dreaded that his ideas were drying up’. (Imogen, 149).

Nevertheless the orchestral piece Egdon Heath (1927), the Lyric Movement for viola and orchestra (1933) and Scherzo for orchestra (1935) already show such ‘third period’ features as a simpler harmony and a new integration of purpose and style. Undoubtedly what we must call vision, for lack of another term, seems to have become intense and steady in Holst’s last major works. By the clock this is a short piece that merely suggests man’s reaction to the vast, inhospitable landscape. It does not relent to entertain the musician with points of technical interest as most of Holst’s works certainly do. Imogen Holst says: ‘There is no hint of exile in the loneliness of Egdon Heath: it is a home-coming.’ (Imogen, 128) Clear vision betokens the genuine mysticism that is less concerned to suggest mystery than to pierce it and reveal the truth which it obscures. (Tippett, 3-5).

Does the steady vision alone support belief in a ‘third period’? Holst defies chronological classification. Few of his published works fit into a ‘first period’ that reflects as much of the nineteenth century as Beethoven’s did of the eighteenth; and if penetration into regions (not necessarily of the mystic) where nobody can guide him puts a man’s music into a ‘third period’ then most of Holst’s major works belong to it. Classifications other than the chronological are also unsatisfactory. To speak of his ‘Sanskrit period’ is misleading unless we mean only that between 1907 and 1912. Holst taught himself to read Sanskrit and composed the Hymns from the Rig Veda and the one-act opera Sāvitri (from the Mahabharata) to his own translations. Their musical features –the spare texture, the recourse to quintuple time signatures, the reticent declamation–are not just of one period. (Rubbra, IX) His leaning towards the arabesque of eastern melodic lines does not belong only to one stage in his output or only to works like Beni Mora and Two Eastern Pictures. He needed it as he had needed folk-song, because its scales and rhythms took him away from convention.

Holst’s peculiar psychosis of austerity was purely artistic. It did not belong only to the last years when he sat ‘huddled over the fire… as if the spirit itself were numb’. Sāvitri dates from 1908, before the worst onset of neuritis or the effects of concussion after a fall, but its lack of sensuous appeal has earned it a reputation as ‘an opera for spiritual and intellectual aristocrats’.

Works Cited

Imogen, Holst: The Music of Gustav Holst (London, 1951)

Imogen, Holst: Gustav Holst–a biography (London, 2nd ed., 1969)

Imogen, Holst; The Music of Gustav Holst (London, 3rd ed., 1974)

Rubbra Edmund: ‘Gustav Holst as Teacher’, Monthly Musical Record, lx (1930)

Tippett Michael: “‘Holst, Figure of Our Time’”, Listener (1958). 3-5

Warrack John: “‘A New Look at Holst’”, Musical Times, civ (1963).I

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