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Gustav Holst Biography And Visits

Holst Birthplace Museum, Cheltenham

Gustav Holst was born on 21st September 1874 in Cheltenham. After his initial schooling in Cheltenham, he moved to London in 1893 to study at the Royal College of Music. This formal environment contrasted with that of Hammersmith where he lodged as a student. While the Royal College of Music taught music in a traditional manner as a serious pursuit, Hammersmith represented music as part of a rapidly developing popular culture. The nineteenth century saw many democratic social changes, such as wider voting rights and universal education. Music saw similar changes. Mass production had reduced the price of musical instruments and improved their quality, allowing far more people to make music. Audiences for music were also growing rapidly. While London's population between 1848 and 1898 increased two fold, newspaper advertisements suggest a five fold increase in the provision of orchestral and choral concerts (see Arthur Sullivan, A Victorian Musician, by Arthur Jacobs P3). Musical forms were also changing to cater for the new bigger audience. Hammersmith in the 1890s was "filled with a happy and perhaps vulgar culture; music halls, varieties and all forms of popular music" (Holst, The Planets by Richard Greene P9). Holst was attracted to both the popular music of Hammersmith and to the classical tradition of his college.


So music was changing and the young Holst found himself pulled in different directions. At the Royal College of Music there was an earnest sense of reverence about music. This was an echo of the pre eighteenth century era when the Church had held a virtual musical monopoly. Into the nineteenth century this religious aura had evolved into an idea that the best music referred not to the vulgar outside world, but only to its own inner logic. This kind of music did not lower itself to telling stories or painting recognisable pictures, or even in being attractive in any accepted way. In the words of Deems Taylor who introduces Walt Disney's Fantasia this kind of music "exists only for its own sake... what we call 'absolute music' ". As Fantasia begins Taylor introduces Bach's Toccata and Fugue, and comments that this is an example of absolute music: "Even the title has no meaning beyond the description of the form of the music." Music in this sense aspired to be a universal language. But there's only so far you can go with this. A language designed to make no reference to anything other than itself can end up meaning nothing to anyone - least of all to those who are looking for a good night out in Hammersmith. Holst knew this, since to make ends meet he played trombone in bands providing entertainment to tourists in Brighton and elsewhere. As a jobbing trombone player Holst played music that did not aspire to be a universal language. On a Saturday night in Brighton he experienced music as something rather different.



Statue of Gustav Holst in Cheltenham

After graduating from the Royal College of Music, school teaching paid the bills. By 1907 Holst was teaching at the James Allen School, at St Paul's Girls School, and also at Morley College of Working Men and Women. It was at this time that Holst submitted an ambitious work called Sita for the Ricordi Opera Prize, but did not win. This caused great upset, and resulted in his friend and fellow composer Vaughan Williams offering a gift of money to pay for a holiday. Holst accepted the gift and decided to go to Algeria. Even before the trip he had been interested in Hindu philosophy, and his time in Algeria only strengthened this fascination. Holst's ambitions in music now widened. He had success with Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, the folk song based Somerset Rhapsody, and 1912's Besi Mona, An Oriental Suite. Then came The Cloud Messenger of 1913. And this piece was particularly interesting if we are thinking about music as a language. What language would a Cloud Messenger speak, and what message would they bring? People see shapes in clouds but those shapes aren't always apparent, and are always changing. If music is a language then perhaps Holst is suggesting we see it as cloud shapes, which change almost as soon as they form. This was the kind of balance the Cloud Messenger was looking for, between music that spoke to people in a recognisable way they understood, and Deems Taylor's 'absolute music' which went beyond such limitations. But as with earlier works The Cloud Messenger was not received with the acclaim that its composer had hoped for. Again Holst went on holiday to recover. He travelled with a few friends on a tour through Spain and Majorca. It seems it was in conversations with travelling companion Clifford Bax that a mutual interest in astrology was discovered. Work on Holst's most famous work The Planets Suite began soon after. In the summer of 1914 Holst and his family moved out of London to the Essex village of Thaxted, and it was at this house in Thaxted, and in the music room at St Paul's Girls School that The Planets was written.


Astrology was an interesting starting point for someone looking for a balance between a normal language that meant something to a certain set of people, and an ideal musical language that was free enough to have meaning for everyone. In astrology the planets represent a set of signs which mean this or that. But these signs are always being combined in new ways so that the outcome of the message they give to an astrologer is different. So it is in the music of The Planets. These are passages where a listener can recognise a reference to something definite, such as the military sounding snare drums in Mars. But before long, like a cloud changing shape, the picture changes. It is important that the qualities of each planet described in the suite change in relation to one another, just as in astrology. You could get bogged down in technicalities at this point, but suffice to say that the effect of pieces on their own in the suite is not quite the same as their effect in contrast with other pieces. Venus has a peaceful sound in its place after Mars, but as Richard Greene says in his book on The Planets, in comparison with music for the other planets Venus's "palpable qualities, so seductive at first, will be heard as weak and insufficient" (The Planets by Richard Greene P48). The identity of planets seemingly so clear, is actually fluctuating all the time. Themes are shared between planets, and similar themes are allowed to produce completely opposite effects. For example there are themes in Saturn that recall passages in Mars, and in Venus. Joyful passages suggesting a march in Jupiter recall much darker marching music in Mars. Critics at the time tended to look at The Planets in terms of astronomy, in terms of clear cut science. But this is astrology, which by its very nature is not suitable for scientific investigation. In science you would study the effect of one variable while keeping all others the same. In astrology all the variables are changing and interacting all the time, and it is clearly impossible to study one variable in isolation from all the rest. In this way Holst found the resolution between the two types of music he had encountered as a student, the 'absolute music' at college which has no specific meaning, and the popular music of Hammersmith where the stories told are much more recognisable. The Planets Suite was the highpoint of Holst's popular success. Ironically for such an indefinable piece, The Planets became associated with "English" music in the intensely patriotic age during and following World War One. In 1921 Holst agreed to set the theme from Jupiter to a hymn called I Vow To Thee My Country by diplomat Cecil Spring Rice. But of course there was much in The Planets that made a nonsense of fixed identities like nationality.

In the post war years other works followed - Choral Symphony (1923 - 24), Egdon Heath (1927), and Double Concerto (1929), but none of these pieces won the acclaim that met The Planets. By now Holst's delicate health was failing. He had retired from school teaching in 1923 to dedicate his time to composing, and turned more towards absolute music than he had before. But even in his later years, when his writing was more austere, Holst continued to be open to new influences and ideas which would involve a wide audience. He was interested in new recording technology, and conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in 1924 in recordings of his work for the Columbia record company. Poignantly one of the last pieces he wrote, a piece for brass band commissioned by the BBC, was inspired by Hammersmith where he had lodged as a student and enjoyed all the colour and fun of popular music.

Holst died in London following stomach surgery on 25th May 1934. There is a memorial to him at Chichester Cathedral in West Sussex.