“I’ve learned what ‘classical’ means. It means something that sings and dances through sheer joy of existence.” – Gustav Holst
Born: September 21, 1874 – Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England
Died: May 25, 1934 – London, England
10 Facts About Gustav (Gustavus Theodore von) Holst
- Holst was born in Cheltenham into the fourth generation of a family of professional musicians. His Swedish-born father Adolf was a well-known composer, teacher, and performer of harp music. He added the aristocratic “von” to the family name hoping to attract more pupils and to add prestige to the family name.
- His mother Clara died when he was 8 years old. After home tutoring his father enrolled the young Holst in the Cheltenham Grammar School for Boys. It was there that he learned how to play the piano and organ and began composing anthems and symphonies.
- A sicky child suffering from bad eyesight and asthma, he also developed neuritis in his right arm. A painful inflammation of the nerves it was to plague him the rest of his life and forced him to give up aspirations to a promising career as a pianist.
- At 21 he met Ralph Vaughan Williams who was to become his closest friend. The two composers were to prove to be each other’s strongest influence, inspiration and severest critics.
- William Morris encouraged him to join the Hammersmith Socialist Choir; it was there he met and fell in love with Isobel Harrison. They were married in 1901 and their only child Imogen was born in 1907. Perhaps best known in later life as the custodian of her father’s musical legacy she was a highly regarded composer, arranger and teacher in her own right.
- In today’s parlance Holst would probably be known as a “geek”. Highly intelligent, his interests were catholic not only in music but literature, language, history, astronomy and science. When he could not find a suitable version of the ancient Indian text of the Rigveda he learned Sanskrit and did his own translation.
- A vegetarian Holst never smoked or drank. He was a hiker and on more than one occasion his treks inspired his compositions. Music he heard in the streets and markets of Algeria were incorporated into his Beni Mora Suite. Vaughan Williams declared if the piece “had been played in Paris rather than London it would have given its composer a European reputation, and if played in Italy would have probably caused a riot.”
- When he and Isobel first married money was scarce. He tried to earn a living from his compositions, but publishers rejected his work. It was then that Holst took his first teaching post at Allen’s Girls School and to make ends meet Isobel took up dressmaking.
- He taught at several schools before becoming Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith and also Director of Music at Morley College. He remained in those posts until his death in 1934.
- In 1911 Holst conducted the first modern performance of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. No performance materials were available, so Holst commandeered a small army of 28 students from Morley College to set about copying scores. It took several months and produced 1500 pages of manuscript. He acknowledged each contributor in the house programme.
- The neuritis in his right arm, which the composer said felt “like a jelly overcharged with electricity”, made it necessary for him to conduct with the baton in his left hand. It also gave him trouble writing and often he had to dictate parts of his scores to his students.
- Holst was an extremely shy man and success only made him uncomfortable. He remarked to Clifford Bax: Every artist ought to pray that he may not be ‘a success’. If he’s a failure he stands a good chance of concentrating upon the best work of which he’s capable.
- As was the case with many of his contemporaries Holst was influenced by English folk melodies and forms. However, he also found inspiration for many of his works in themes and forms of music from Asia and the Sub-Continent.
- His extensive catalogue of choral works include a number of hymns that are included in the Anglican Hymns Ancient and Modern. He also composed four groups of hymns taken from the Rigveda, an ancient Indian collection of Vedic hymns. As mentioned Holst did the translations from Sanskrit himself.
- Though his most famous orchestral work is The Planets, he wrote twenty-six pieces for orchestra including The Green Brook Suite, The Cotswolds Symphony and The St. Paul’s Suite.
- Holst composed 8 operas, most to his own librettos. At The Boar’s Head and Sāvitri are still occasionally performed, the others have fallen into relative obscurity.
- In 1931 he composed his only film score for The Bells, a movie adaptation of the play made famous by Sir Henry Irving. The film has been lost and according to Holst’s daughter Imogen the score has also disappeared.
- During a cleanup of the archives at the Bay of Plenty Symphonia in New Zealand two original scores by Holst were discovered in their music library. Folk Songs from Somerset and Two Songs Without Words were composed in 1906. Neither work had been heard in over a century. How they made their way to New Zealand remains a mystery.
- A complete listing of the 200-odd works of Holst can be found at: Holst – A Catalogue of Compositions.
A Few Quotes from Gustav Holst
- “Always ask for advice, but never take it.”– Holst’s maxim according to Ralph Vaughan Williams.
- “One of the advantages of being over forty is that one begins to learn the difference between knowing and realising.” – in a letter to W. G. Whittaker
- “Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you.” – his favourite piece of advice according to his daughter Imogen.
- “Music-making as a means of getting money is hell.” – source unknown.