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Holst, Gustav

Category: Musician or composer

Gustav Holtst by Martha Stern, bromide print late 1920s
6 3/4 in. x 5 in. (171 mm x 128 mm) Give by John Gay, 1975, NPG

Gustav Theodore Holst (born Gustavus Theodore von Holst; 21 September 1874 – 25 May 1934) was an English composer, arranger and teacher.

Best known for his orchestral suite The Planets, he composed a large number of other works across a range of genres, although none achieved comparable success.

His distinctive compositional style was the product of many influences, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss being most crucial early in his development, the subsequent inspiration of the English folksong revival of the early 20th century, together with the example of such rising modern composers as Arnold Schoenberg and Maurice Ravel, leading Holst to develop and refine his own individual style.

There were professional musicians in the previous three generations of Holst's family, and it was clear from his early years that he would follow the same calling. He hoped to become a pianist, but was prevented by neuritis in his right arm. Despite his father's reservations, he pursued a career as a composer, studying at the Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford. Unable to support himself by his compositions, he played the trombone professionally, and later became a teacher—a great one, according to his colleague Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Among other teaching activities, he built up a strong tradition of performance at Morley College, where he served as musical director from 1907 until 1924, and pioneered music education for women at St Paul's Girls' School, where he taught from 1905 until his death in 1934, raising standards and so laying the foundation for several professional musicians. He was the founder of a series of Whitsun music festivals, which ran from 1916 for the remainder of his life.

Holst's works were played frequently in the early years of the 20th century, but it was not until the international success of The Planets in the years immediately after the First World War that he became a well-known figure. A shy man, he did not welcome this fame, and preferred to be left in peace to compose and teach.

"In his later years, his uncompromising, personal style of composition struck many music lovers as too austere, and his brief popularity declined". Nevertheless, he was a significant influence on a number of younger English composers, including Edmund Rubbra, Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten. Apart from The Planets and a handful of other works, his music was generally neglected until the 1980s, since when recordings of much of his output have been available.

So where did he get his inspiration?

Holst was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the elder of the two children of Adolph von Holst, a professional musician.  The Holst side of the family was of mixed Swedish, Latvian and German ancestry, with at least one professional musician in each of the previous three generations.

Clara, Holst’s mother died in February 1882, when he was only 8, so I think we can say one of his drivers was early trauma.  His father’s sister Nina helped to raise the boys and Gustav recognised her devotion to the family and dedicated several of his early compositions to her.  In 1885 Adolph remarried.  Mary von Holst was absorbed in theosophy.  Wikipedia says she was “not greatly interested in domestic matters”, but her influence appears to have been very strong in Gustav, as there are clear intimations of theosophical ideas in his compositions.

Gustav was not a healthy little boy.  He had “weak sight and a weak chest, both neglected” and he suffered from asthma which left him “miserable and scared".  Holst's health played a decisive part in his musical future; he was never strong, and in addition to his asthma and poor eyesight he suffered from neuritis, which made playing the piano difficult. He said that the affected arm was "like a jelly overcharged with electricity".  Later his poor health saved him from the agonies of War.  At the outbreak of the First World War, Holst tried to enlist but was rejected as unfit for military service.

Holst received a great deal of support from his father who paid for him to spend four months in Oxford studying counterpoint with George Frederick Sims, organist of Merton College.  Gustav applied for a scholarship at the Royal College of Music (RCM) in London, but the composition scholarship for that year was won by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.  Holst was accepted as a non-scholarship student, and his father borrowed £100 to cover the first year's expenses.  Holst left Cheltenham for London in May 1893. Money was tight, and partly from frugality and partly from his own inclination he became a vegetarian and a teetotaller.  Two years later he was finally granted a scholarship, which slightly eased his financial difficulties, but he retained his austere personal regime.

Like many musicians of his generation, Holst came under Wagner's spell.  His daughter Imogen wrote that, "ill-assimilated wisps of Tristan inserted themselves on nearly every page of his own songs and overtures."  In 1895, shortly after celebrating his twenty-first birthday, Holst met Ralph Vaughan Williams, who became a lifelong friend and had more influence on Holst's music than anybody else.

At this time, he also met (Emily) Isobel Harrison (1876–1969), a beautiful soprano two years his junior. He fell in love with her; she was at first unimpressed by him, but she came round and they were engaged, though with no immediate prospect of marriage given Holst's tiny income.  But, later with a modest income secured, Holst was able to marry Isobel on 22 June 1901. Their marriage lasted until his death; they had one child, Imogen, born in 1907.

In order to earn a living, Holst took posts as organist at various London churches, and continued playing the trombone in theatre orchestras. In 1898 he was appointed first trombonist and répétiteur with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and toured with the Scottish Orchestra. His salary was only just enough to live on, and he supplemented it by playing in a popular orchestra called the "White Viennese Band", conducted by Stanislas Wurm. Holst enjoyed playing for Wurm, and learned much from him about drawing rubato from players.  Vaughan Williams thought it had been useful to Holst: "To start with, the very worst a trombonist has to put up with is as nothing compared to what a church organist has to endure; and secondly, Holst is above all an orchestral composer, and that sure touch which distinguishes his orchestral writing is due largely to the fact that he has been an orchestral player; he has learnt his art, both technically and in substance, not at second hand from text books and models, but from actual live experience."

Above:  Imogen Holst in her youth and later years

In 1903, Holst decided to abandon orchestral playing to concentrate on composition. His earnings as a composer were too little to live on, and two years later he accepted the offer of a teaching post at James Allen's Girls' School, Dulwich, which he held until 1921. He also taught at the Passmore Edwards Settlement.  The two teaching posts for which he is probably best known were director of music at St Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith, from 1905 until his death, and director of music at Morley College from 1907 to 1924. Vaughan Williams wrote: "Here he did away with the childish sentimentality which schoolgirls were supposed to appreciate and substituted Bach and Vittoria."

What is perhaps best about this is that he taught girls as equals to boys.  Several of Holst's pupils at St Paul's went on to distinguished careers, notably the soprano Joan Cross, and the oboist and cor anglais player Helen Gaskell, who made history by becoming the first woman to join the woodwind section of the New Queen's Hall Orchestra, subsequently joining the BBC Symphony Orchestra on its foundation.  Holst also tried to pioneer music education for women by proposing to the High Mistress of St Paul's Girls' School that he should invite Adrian Boult to give classes the school: "It would be glorious if the SPGS turned out the only women conductors in the world!"

Another influence on Holst was literature and particularly poetry.  He set poetry by Thomas Hardy and Robert Bridges to music and  Walt Whitman’s poems were set to music in "Dirge for Two Veterans" and The Mystic Trumpeter (1904). He also wrote an orchestral Walt Whitman Overture in 1899.

Holst read some of Max Müller's books, which inspired in him a keen interest in Sanskrit texts, particularly the Rig Veda hymns.  He found the existing English versions of the texts unconvincing, and decided to make his own translations, despite his lack of skills as a linguist. He enrolled in 1909 at University College, London to study the language. Imogen commented on his translations: "He was not a poet, and there are occasions when his verses seem naïve. But they never sound vague or slovenly, for he had set himself the task of finding words that would be 'clear and dignified' and that would 'lead the listener into another world'."  His settings of translations of Sanskrit texts included Sita (1899–1906), a three-act opera based on an episode in the Ramayana; Savitri (1908), a chamber opera based on a tale from the Mahabharata; four groups of Hymns from the Rig Veda (1908–14); and two texts originally by Kālidāsa: Two Eastern Pictures (1909–10) and The Cloud Messenger (1913).  The combined influence of Ravel, Hindu spiritualism and English folk tunes enabled Holst to get beyond the once all-consuming influences of Wagner.

Holst was a keen rambler. He walked extensively in England, Italy, France and Algeria. In 1908 he travelled to Algeria on medical advice as a treatment for asthma and the depression that he suffered.  Later he accepted an invitation from Balfour Gardiner to join him and the brothers Clifford and Arnold Bax in Spain. During this holiday Clifford Bax introduced Holst to astrology, and it was this that later inspired his suite The Planets. Holst cast his friends' horoscopes for the rest of his life and referred to astrology as his "pet vice".

After the Planets had been premiered in London, Holst, in his forties, suddenly found himself in demand. The New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony vied to be the first to play The Planets in the US. The success of that work was followed in 1920 by an enthusiastic reception for The Hymn of Jesus.  To his surprise and dismay, Holst was becoming famous.  Celebrity was something wholly foreign to his nature. As the music scholar Byron Adams puts it, "he struggled for the rest of his life to extricate himself from the web of garish publicity, public incomprehension and professional envy woven about him by this unsought-for success." He turned down honours and awards offered to him, and refused to give interviews or autographs.

At a concert in Reading in 1923, Holst slipped and fell, suffering concussion. This and the strain caused by his public engagements was too great; and on doctor's orders he cancelled all professional engagements during 1924, and retreated to his home at Thaxted.  Holst's productivity as a composer benefited almost at once from his release from other work. His works from this period include the First Choral Symphony to words by Keats.

Harvard University offered Holst a lectureship for the first six months of 1932. Holst was dismayed by the continual attentions of press interviewers and photographers. He enjoyed his time at Harvard, but was taken ill while there: a duodenal ulcer prostrated him for some weeks. He returned to England. His health declined, and he withdrew further from musical activities. One of his last efforts was to guide the young players of the St Paul's Girls' School orchestra through one of his final compositions, the Brook Green Suite, in March 1934.

Holst died in London on 25 May 1934, at the age of 59, of heart failure following an operation on his ulcer.


The picture below shows his daughter Imogen with the composers Britten and Pears  in the garden at Aldeburgh in 1955.  Imogen wrote:

  • Gustav Holst: A biography. London: Oxford University Press. 1938. OCLC 852118145. (revised edition 1969)
  • The Music of Gustav Holst. London: Oxford University Press. 1951. OCLC 881989. (revised editions 1968 and 1985, the latter with Holst's Music Reconsidered added)


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