|Name:||Gustavus Theodore von Holst|
|Real Name:||Gustav Holst|
|Birth Day:||September 21, 1874|
|Death Date:||May 25, 1934|
|Birth Place:||Cheltenham, British|
|#1||Emily Isobel Harrison||Spouse||N/A||N/A||N/A|
As per our current Database, Gustavus Theodore von Holst died on May 25, 1934.
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Holst's father, Adolph von Holst, became organist and choirmaster at All Saints' Church, Cheltenham; he also taught, and gave piano recitals. His wife, Clara, a former pupil, was a talented singer and pianist. They had two sons; Gustav's younger brother, Emil Gottfried, became known as Ernest Cossart, a successful actor in the West End, New York and Hollywood. Clara died in February 1882, and the family moved to another house in Cheltenham, where Adolph recruited his sister Nina to help raise the boys. Gustav recognised her devotion to the family and dedicated several of his early compositions to her. In 1885 Adolph married Mary Thorley Stone, another of his pupils. They had two sons, Matthias (known as "Max") and Evelyn ("Thorley"). Mary von Holst was absorbed in theosophy and not greatly interested in domestic matters. All four of Adolph's sons were subject to what one biographer calls "benign neglect", and Gustav in particular was "not overburdened with attention or understanding, with a weak sight and a weak chest, both neglected—he was 'miserable and scared'."
After Holst left school in 1891, Adolph paid for him to spend four months in Oxford studying counterpoint with George Frederick Sims, organist of Merton College. On his return, Holst obtained his first professional appointment, aged seventeen, as organist and choirmaster at Wyck Rissington, Gloucestershire. The post brought with it the conductorship of the Bourton-on-the-Water Choral Society, which offered no extra remuneration but provided valuable experience that enabled him to hone his conducting skills. In November 1891 Holst gave what was perhaps his first public performance as a pianist; he and his father played the Brahms Hungarian Dances at a concert in Cheltenham. The programme for the event gives his name as "Gustav" rather than "Gustavus"; he was called by the shorter version from his early years.
In 1892 Holst wrote the music for an operetta in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, Lansdown Castle, or The Sorcerer of Tewkesbury. The piece was performed at Cheltenham Corn Exchange in February 1893; it was well received and its success encouraged him to persevere with composing. He 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 Adolph 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. He had recoiled from the music of Götterdämmerung when he heard it at Covent Garden in 1892, but encouraged by his friend and fellow-student Fritz Hart he persevered and quickly became an ardent Wagnerite. Wagner supplanted Sullivan as the main influence on his music, and for some time, as Imogen put it, "ill-assimilated wisps of Tristan inserted themselves on nearly every page of his own songs and overtures." Stanford admired some of Wagner's works, and had in his earlier years been influenced by him, but Holst's sub-Wagnerian compositions met with his disapprobation: "It won't do, me boy; it won't do". Holst respected Stanford, describing him to a fellow-pupil, Herbert Howells, as "the one man who could get any one of us out of a technical mess", but he found that his fellow students, rather than the faculty members, had the greater influence on his development.
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. Stanford emphasised the need for his students to be self-critical, but Holst and Vaughan Williams became one another's chief critics; each would play his latest composition to the other while still working on it. Vaughan Williams later observed, "What one really learns from an Academy or College is not so much from one's official teachers as from one's fellow-students ... [we discussed] every subject under the sun from the lowest note of the double bassoon to the philosophy of Jude the Obscure. In 1949 he wrote of their relationship, "Holst declared that his music was influenced by that of his friend: the converse is certainly true."
The year 1895 was also the bicentenary of Henry Purcell, which was marked by various performances including Stanford conducting Dido and Aeneas at the Lyceum Theatre; the work profoundly impressed Holst, who over twenty years later confessed to a friend that his search for "the (or a) musical idiom of the English language" had been inspired "unconsciously" by "hearing the recits in Purcell's Dido".
To support himself during his studies Holst played the trombone professionally, at seaside resorts in the summer and in London theatres in the winter. His daughter and biographer, Imogen Holst, records that from his fees as a player "he was able to afford the necessities of life: board and lodging, manuscript paper, and tickets for standing room in the gallery at Covent Garden Opera House on Wagner evenings". He secured an occasional engagement in symphony concerts, playing in 1897 under the baton of Richard Strauss at the Queen's Hall.
In 1898 the RCM offered Holst a further year's scholarship, but he felt that he had learned as much as he could there and that it was time, as he put it, to "learn by doing". Some of his compositions were published and performed; the previous year The Times had praised his song "Light Leaves Whisper", "a moderately elaborate composition in six parts, treated with a good deal of expression and poetic feeling".
Occasional successes notwithstanding, Holst found that "man cannot live by composition alone"; he 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. Though a capable rather than a virtuoso player he won the praise of the leading conductor Hans Richter, for whom he played at Covent Garden.; and Holst (1969), p. 20 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.
As a composer Holst was frequently inspired by literature. He set poetry by Thomas Hardy and Robert Bridges and, a particular influence, Walt Whitman, whose words he set in "Dirge for Two Veterans" and The Mystic Trumpeter (1904). He wrote an orchestral Walt Whitman Overture in 1899. While on tour with the Carl Rosa company Holst had 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.
Although Holst wrote many works—particularly songs—during his student days and early adulthood, almost everything he wrote before 1904 he later classified as derivative "early horrors". Nevertheless, the composer and critic Colin Matthews recognises even in these apprentice works an "instinctive orchestral flair". Of the few pieces from this period which demonstrate some originality, Matthews pinpoints the G minor String Trio of 1894 (unperformed until 1974) as the first underivative work produced by Holst. Matthews and Imogen Holst each highlight the "Elegy" movement in The Cotswold Symphony (1899–1900) as among the more accomplished of the apprentice works, and Imogen discerns glimpses of her father's real self in the 1899 Suite de ballet and the Ave Maria of 1900. She and Matthews have asserted that Holst found his genuine voice in his setting of Whitman's verses, The Mystic Trumpeter (1904), in which the trumpet calls that characterise Mars in The Planets are briefly anticipated. In this work, Holst first employs the technique of bitonality—the use of two keys simultaneously.
With a modest income secured, Holst was able to marry Isobel; the ceremony was at Fulham Register Office on 22 June 1901. Their marriage lasted until his death; there was one child, Imogen, born in 1907. In 1902 Dan Godfrey and the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra premiered Holst's symphony The Cotswolds (Op. 8), the slow movement of which is a lament for William Morris who had died in October 1896, three years before Holst began work on the piece. In 1903 Adolph von Holst died, leaving a small legacy. Holst and his wife decided, as Imogen later put it, that "as they were always hard up the only thing to do was to spend it all at once on a holiday in Germany".
While in Germany, Holst reappraised his professional life, and in 1903 he 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, where among other innovations he gave the British premieres of two Bach cantatas. 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.
Holst's settings of Indian texts formed only a part of his compositional output in the period 1900 to 1914. A highly significant factor in his musical development was the English folksong revival, evident in the orchestral suite A Somerset Rhapsody (1906–07), a work that was originally to be based around eleven folksong themes; this was later reduced to four. Observing the work's kinship with Vaughan Williams's Norfolk Rhapsody, Dickinson remarks that, with its firm overall structure, Holst's composition "rises beyond the level of ... a song-selection". Imogen acknowledges that Holst's discovery of English folksongs "transformed his orchestral writing", and that the composition of A Somerset Rhapsody did much to banish the chromaticisms that had dominated his early compositions. In the Two Songs without Words of 1906, Holst showed that he could create his own original music using the folk idiom. An orchestral folksong fantasy Songs of the West, also written in 1906, was withdrawn by the composer and never published, although it emerged in the 1980s in the form of an arrangement for wind band by James Curnow.
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 after his opera Sita failed to win the Ricordi prize. This trip inspired the suite Beni Mora, which incorporated music he heard in the Algerian streets. Vaughan Williams wrote of this exotic work, "if it had been played in Paris rather than London it would have given its composer a European reputation, and played in Italy would probably have caused a riot."
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, British musical circles had experienced a new interest in national folk music. Some composers, such as Sullivan and Elgar, remained indifferent, but Parry, Stanford, Stainer and Alexander Mackenzie were founding members of the Folk-Song Society. Parry considered that by recovering English folk song, English composers would find an authentic national voice; he commented, "in true folk-songs there is no sham, no got-up glitter, and no vulgarity". Vaughan Williams was an early and enthusiastic convert to this cause, going round the English countryside collecting and noting down folk songs. These had an influence on Holst. Though not as passionate on the subject as his friend, he incorporated a number of folk melodies in his own compositions and made several arrangements of folk songs collected by others. The Somerset Rhapsody (1906–07), was written at the suggestion of the folk-song collector Cecil Sharp and made use of tunes that Sharp had noted down. Holst described its performance at the Queen's Hall in 1910 as "my first real success". A few years later Holst became excited by another musical renaissance—the rediscovery of English madrigal composers. Weelkes was his favourite of all the Tudor composers, but Byrd also meant much to him.
In June 1911 Holst and his Morley College students gave the first performance since the seventeenth century of Purcell's The Fairy-Queen. The full score had been lost soon after Purcell's death in 1695, and had only recently been found. Twenty-eight Morley students copied out the complete vocal and orchestral parts. There were 1,500 pages of music and it took the students almost eighteen months to copy them out in their spare time. A concert performance of the work was given at The Old Vic, preceded by an introductory talk by Vaughan Williams. The Times praised Holst and his forces for "a most interesting and artistic performance of this very important work".
According to Rubbra, the publication in 1911 of Holst's Rig Veda Hymns was a landmark event in the composer's development: "Before this, Holst's music had, indeed, shown the clarity of utterance which has always been his characteristic, but harmonically there was little to single him out as an important figure in modern music." Dickinson describes these vedic settings as pictorial rather than religious; although the quality is variable the sacred texts clearly "touched vital springs in the composer's imagination". While the music of Holst's Indian verse settings remained generally western in character, in some of the vedic settings he experimented with Indian raga (scales).
In the years before the First World War, Holst composed in a variety of genres. Matthews considers the evocation of a North African town in the Beni Mora suite of 1908 the composer's most individual work to that date; the third movement gives a preview of minimalism in its constant repetition of a four-bar theme. Holst wrote two suites for military band, in E flat (1909) and F major (1911) respectively, the first of which became and remains a brass-band staple. This piece, a highly original and substantial musical work, was a signal departure from what Short describes as "the usual transcriptions and operatic selections which pervaded the band repertoire". Also in 1911 he wrote Hecuba's Lament, a setting of Gilbert Murray's translation from Euripides built on a seven-beat refrain designed, says Dickinson, to represent Hecuba's defiance of divine wrath. In 1912 Holst composed two psalm settings, in which he experimented with plainsong; the same year saw the enduringly popular St Paul's Suite (a "gay but retrogressive" piece according to Dickinson), and the failure of his large scale orchestral work Phantastes.
In 1913, St Paul's Girls' School opened a new music wing, and Holst composed St Paul's Suite for the occasion. The new building contained a sound-proof room, handsomely equipped, where he could work undisturbed. Holst and his family moved to a house in Brook Green, very close to the school. For the previous six years they had lived in a pretty house overlooking the Thames at Barnes, but the river air, frequently foggy, affected his breathing. For use at weekends and during school holidays, Holst and his wife bought a cottage in Thaxted, Essex, surrounded by mediaeval buildings and ample rambling opportunities. In 1917 they moved to a house in the centre of the town, where they stayed until 1925.
Holst conceived the idea of The Planets in 1913, partly as a result of his interest in astrology, and also from his determination, despite the failure of Phantastes, to produce a large-scale orchestral work. The chosen format may have been influenced by Schoenberg's Fünf Orchesterstücke, and shares something of the aesthetic, Matthews suggests, of Debussy's Nocturnes or La mer. Holst began composing The Planets in 1914; the movements appeared not quite in their final sequence; "Mars" was the first to be written, followed by "Venus" and "Jupiter". "Saturn", "Uranus" and "Neptune" were all composed during 1915, and "Mercury" was completed in 1916.
At Thaxted, Holst became friendly with the Rev Conrad Noel, known as the "Red Vicar", who supported the Independent Labour Party and espoused many causes unpopular with conservative opinion. Noel also encouraged the revival of folk-dancing and processionals as part of church ceremonies, innovations which caused controversy among traditionally-minded churchgoers. Holst became an occasional organist and choirmaster at Thaxted Parish Church; he also developed an interest in bell-ringing. He started an annual music festival at Whitsuntide in 1916; students from Morley College and St Paul's Girls' School performed together with local participants.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Holst tried to enlist but was rejected as unfit for military service. He felt frustrated that he could not contribute to the war effort. His wife became a volunteer ambulance driver; Vaughan Williams went on active service to France as did Holst's brother Emil; Holst's friends the composers George Butterworth and Cecil Coles were killed in battle. He continued to teach and compose; he worked on The Planets and prepared his chamber opera Savitri for performance. It was first given in December 1916 by students of the London School of Opera at the Wellington Hall in St John's Wood. It attracted no attention at the time from the main newspapers, though when professionally staged five years later it was greeted as "a perfect little masterpiece." In 1917 he wrote The Hymn of Jesus for chorus and orchestra, a work which remained unperformed until after the war.
Holst's first major work after The Planets was the Hymn of Jesus, completed in 1917. The words are from a Gnostic text, the apocryphal Acts of John, using a translation from the Greek which Holst prepared with assistance from Clifford Bax and Jane Joseph. Head comments on the innovative character of the Hymn: "At a stroke Holst had cast aside the Victorian and Edwardian sentimental oratorio, and created the precursor of the kind of works that John Tavener, for example, was to write in the 1970s". Matthews has written that the Hymn's "ecstatic" quality is matched in English music "perhaps only by Tippett's The Vision of Saint Augustine"; the musical elements include plainsong, two choirs distanced from each other to emphasise dialogue, dance episodes and "explosive chordal dislocations".
Holst's a cappella carol, "This Have I Done For My True Love", was dedicated to Noel in recognition of his interest in the ancient origins of religion (the composer always referred to the work as "The Dancing Day"). It received its first performance during the Third Whitsun Festival at Thaxted in May 1918. During that festival, Noel, a staunch supporter of Russia's October Revolution, demanded in a Saturday message during the service that there should be a greater political commitment from those who participated in the church activities; his claim that several of Holst's pupils (implicitly those from St Paul's Girls' School) were merely "camp followers" caused offence. Holst, anxious to protect his students from being embroiled in ecclesiastical conflict, moved the Whitsun Festival to Dulwich, though he himself continued to help with the Thaxted choir and to play the church organ on occasion.
In 1918, as the war neared its end, Holst finally had the prospect of a job that offered him the chance to serve. The music section of the YMCA's education department needed volunteers to work with British troops stationed in Europe awaiting demobilisation. Morley College and St Paul's Girls' School offered him a year's leave of absence, but there remained one obstacle: the YMCA felt that his surname looked too German to be acceptable in such a role. He formally changed "von Holst" to "Holst" by deed poll in September 1918. He was appointed as the YMCA's musical organiser for the Near East, based in Salonica.
The performance was given on 29 September to an invited audience including Sir Henry Wood and most of the professional musicians in London. Five months later, when Holst was in Greece, Boult introduced The Planets to the general public, at a concert in February 1919; Holst sent him a long letter full of suggestions, but failed to convince him that the suite should be played in full. The conductor believed that about half an hour of such radically new music was all the public could absorb at first hearing, and he gave only five of the seven movements on that occasion.
Holst enjoyed his time in Salonica, from where he was able to visit Athens, which greatly impressed him. His musical duties were wide-ranging, and even obliged him on occasion to play the violin in the local orchestra: "it was great fun, but I fear I was not of much use". He returned to England in June 1919.
Holst, in his forties, suddenly found himself in demand. The New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra 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, described in The Observer as "one of the most brilliant and one of the most sincere pieces of choral and orchestral expression heard for some years." The Times called it "undoubtedly the most strikingly original choral work which has been produced in this country for many years."
In the Ode to Death (1918–19), the quiet, resigned mood is seen by Matthews as an "abrupt volte-face" after the life-enhancing spirituality of the Hymn. Warrack refers to its aloof tranquillity; Imogen Holst believed the Ode expressed Holst's private attitude to death. The piece has rarely been performed since its premiere in 1922, although the composer Ernest Walker thought it was Holst's finest work to that date.
Holst made some recordings, conducting his own music. For the Columbia company he recorded Beni Mora, the Marching Song and the complete Planets with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in 1922, using the acoustic process. The limitations of early recording prevented the gradual fade-out of women's voices at the end of "Neptune", and the lower strings had to be replaced by a tuba to obtain an effective bass sound. With an anonymous string orchestra Holst recorded the St Paul's Suite and Country Song in 1925. Columbia's main rival, HMV, issued recordings of some of the same repertoire, with an unnamed orchestra conducted by Albert Coates. When electrical recording came in, with dramatically improved recording quality, Holst and the LSO re-recorded The Planets for Columbia in 1926.
Holst's comic opera The Perfect Fool (1923) was widely seen as a satire of Parsifal, though Holst firmly denied it. The piece, with Maggie Teyte in the leading soprano role and Eugene Goossens conducting, was enthusiastically received at its premiere in the Royal Opera House. At a concert in Reading in 1923, Holst slipped and fell, suffering concussion. He seemed to make a good recovery, and he felt up to accepting an invitation to the US, lecturing and conducting at the University of Michigan. After he returned he found himself more and more in demand, to conduct, prepare his earlier works for publication, and, as before, to teach. The strain caused by these demands on him was too great; on doctor's orders he cancelled all professional engagements during 1924, and retreated to Thaxted. In 1925 he resumed his work at St Paul's Girls' School, but did not return to any of his other posts.
Before his enforced rest in 1924, Holst demonstrated a new interest in counterpoint, in his Fugal Overture of 1922 for full orchestra and the neo-classical Fugal Concerto of 1923, for flute, oboe and strings. In his final decade he mixed song settings and minor pieces with major works and occasional new departures; the 1925 Terzetto for flute, violin and oboe, each instrument playing in a different key, is cited by Imogen as Holst's only successful chamber work. Of the Choral Symphony completed in 1924, Matthews writes that, after several movements of real quality, the finale is a rambling anticlimax. Holst's penultimate opera, At the Boar's Head (1924), is based on tavern scenes from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. The music, which is largely derived from old English melodies gleaned from Cecil Sharp and other collections, has pace and verve; the contemporary critic Harvey Grace discounted the lack of originality, a facet which he said "can be shown no less convincingly by a composer's handling of material than by its invention".
In 1927 Holst was commissioned by the New York Symphony Orchestra to write a symphony. Instead, he wrote an orchestral piece Egdon Heath, inspired by Thomas Hardy's Wessex. It was first performed in February 1928, a month after Hardy's death, at a memorial concert. By this time the public's brief enthusiasm for everything Holstian was waning, and the piece was not well received in New York. Olin Downes in The New York Times opined that "the new score seemed long and undistinguished". The day after the American performance, Holst conducted the City of Birmingham Orchestra in the British premiere. The Times acknowledged the bleakness of the work but allowed that it matched Hardy's grim view of the world: "Egdon Heath is not likely to be popular, but it says what the composer wants to say, whether we like it or not, and truth is one aspect of duty." Holst had been distressed by hostile reviews of some of his earlier works, but he was indifferent to critical opinion of Egdon Heath, which he regarded as, in Adams's phrase, his "most perfectly realized composition".
Harvard University offered Holst a lectureship for the first six months of 1932. Arriving via New York he was pleased to be reunited with his brother, Emil, whose acting career under the name of Ernest Cossart had taken him to Broadway; but 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, joined briefly by his brother for a holiday together in the Cotswolds. 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. His ashes were interred at Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, close to the memorial to Thomas Weelkes, his favourite Tudor composer. Bishop George Bell gave the memorial oration at the funeral, and Vaughan Williams conducted music by Holst and himself.
In the early LP era little of Holst's music was available on disc. Only six of his works are listed in the 1955 issue of The Record Guide: The Planets (recordings under Boult on HMV and Nixa, and another under Sir Malcolm Sargent on Decca); the Perfect Fool ballet music; the St Paul's Suite; and three short choral pieces. In the stereo LP and CD eras numerous recordings of The Planets were issued, performed by orchestras and conductors from round the world. By the early years of the 21st century most of the major and many of the minor orchestral and choral works had been issued on disc. The 2008 issue of The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music contained seven pages of listings of Holst's works on CD. Of the operas, Savitri, The Wandering Scholar, and At the Boar's Head have been recorded.
On 27 September 2009, after a weekend of concerts at Chichester Cathedral in memory of Holst, a new memorial was unveiled to mark the 75th anniversary of the composer's death. It is inscribed with words from the text of The Hymn of Jesus: "The heavenly spheres make music for us". In April 2011 a BBC television documentary, Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter, charted Holst's life with particular reference to his support for socialism and the cause of working people.
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