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Holst, Gustav (Theodore)

Holst, Gustav (Theodore) (b Cheltenham, 1874; d London, 1934). Eng. composer of Swed. descent. Trained as a pianist, his father being a pf. teacher. In 1892 he became organist and choirmaster at Wyck Rissington, Glos. His operetta Lansdowne Castle was prod. in Cheltenham in 1893, after which his father sent him to the RCM to study comp. under Stanford and the org. under Hoyte. At the same time he learned the tb., his pf.-playing being handicapped by chronic neuritis in the arm. In coll. holidays he played the tb. on seaside piers in the White Viennese Band. He left the RCM in 1898, having formed there a lifelong friendship with Vaughan Williams which extended to frank and detailed criticism of each other's comps. He worked as a trombonist in the Carl Rosa Opera 1898–1900 and Scottish Orch. 1900–3 and learned a smattering of Sanskrit in order to be able to trans. hymns from the Rig Veda which he wished to set to mus. His Cotswolds Symphony (unpubd.) was perf. in Bournemouth 1902 by Dan Godfrey and in 1905 his Mystic Trumpeter was perf. at the Queen's Hall. In 1903 he became mus. teacher at a Dulwich girls' sch., holding this post until 1920, and in 1905 he became dir. of mus. at St Paul's Girls' Sch., Hammersmith, retaining this appointment until his death. At this time, too, like Vaughan Williams, he became deeply interested in Eng. folksong, and in 1907 became mus. dir. at Morley Coll., holding this post until 1924. At all the schs. where he taught he raised both standards and taste. In 1908 he went on holiday to Algeria (bicycling in the desert), the direct mus. result of which was an orch. suite Beni Mora. On return he comp. his chamber opera Savitri. In 1911 he cond. at Morley College the f. modern p. of Purcell's The Fairy Queen, and in 1913 began work on a large-scale orch. suite The Planets, sketching Mars just before World War I began in 1914. In that year he set Whitman's Dirge for 2 Veterans for male vv., brass, and drums. At this time he went to live in Thaxted, Essex, where in 1916 he organized a Whitsuntide Fest., singing and performing mus. by Bach, Byrd, Purcell, and Palestrina. Later that year Savitri was prod. in London and in 1917 Holst began his choral work The Hymn of Jesus. He was unfit for war service, but in 1918 was offered the post of YMCA mus. organizer among the troops in the Near East. As a parting present a wealthy friend, Balfour Gardiner, arranged a private perf. of The Planets in Queen's Hall, cond. Adrian Boult. The f. public p. was in 1919 and was Holst's first major public success. On return to Eng. later in 1919 he was appointed prof. of mus. at University Coll., Reading, and joined the teaching staff of the RCM. His comic opera The Perfect Fool was perf. at CG in 1923 while Holst was conducting at a fest. at the Univ. of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In 1924 he comp. his Choral Symphony on poems by Keats which was f.p. at the 1925 Leeds Fest., the same year that his 1-act Falstaff opera At the Boar's Head was staged by the BNOC. The ill-health from which he had always suffered in some degree plagued him more after he fell from a platform while rehearsing at Reading in 1923 and comp. became an arduous burden. But in 1927 he wrote his tone-poem Egdon Heath (the title given by Thomas Hardy to a stretch of countryside in Dorset), to a commission from the NYSO. This was followed in 1929 and 1930 by 12 Songs by Humbert Wolfe, the Double Conc., an opera The Wandering Scholar, the Choral Fantasia (perf. 1931 at the Gloucester 3 Choirs Fest.), and the prelude and scherzo, Hammersmith, for orch. These works gave promise of a new, richer, and more lyrical phase, as did the Brook Green Suite and Lyric Movement of 1933. But in 1934, after an operation, Holst died in the plenitude of his powers. His mus., while owing something to folk-song influence and to the madrigalian tradition of Byrd and Weelkes, is intensely orig. and has a visionary quality similar to that found in Vaughan Williams but expressed with more austerity and greater natural technical facility. His Planets suite is markedly eclectic, but its finest movts., Mars, Venus, Saturn, and Neptune, show varied aspects of Holst's style. His genius as a teacher and his feeling for the community spirit engendered by mus. also contributed to the outstanding part he played in Eng. mus.-making in the first two decades of the 20th cent. Prin. works:OPERAS: Savitri, Op.25 (1908); The Perfect Fool, Op.39 (1918–22); At the Boar's Head, Op.42 (1924); The Wandering Scholar, Op.50 (1929–30).BALLET: The Lure (1921, ed. for orch. by I. Holst and C. Matthews, 1981).ORCH.: Suite de Ballet in E♭, Op.10 (1899); A Somerset Rhapsody, Op.21b (1906–7); 2 Songs Without Words, Op.22 (1906); Beni Mora, Oriental Suite in E minor, Op.29 No.1 (1909–10, rev. 1912); Suite No.1 in E♭, Op.28a, military band (1909), Suite No.2 in F, Op.28b (1911); Invocation, vc., orch. (1911); St. Paul's Suite, Op.29 No.2, str. (1912–13); Japanese Suite, Op.33 (1915); Suite, The Planets, Op.32 (1914–16); Ballet mus. from The Perfect Fool, Op.39 (1918); A Fugal Overture, Op.40 No.1 (1922); Fugal Concerto, Op.40 No.2, fl., ob. (or 2 vn.), str. (1923); Egdon Heath, Op.47 (1927); A Moorside Suite, brass band (1928); conc., 2 vn., orch., Op.49 (1929); Hammersmith, Op.52, prelude and scherzo for military band and for orch. (1930–1); Capriccio, jazz-band piece (1932, ed. Imogen Holst 1967); Brook Green Suite, str., optional ww. (1933); Lyric Movement, va., orch. (1933); Scherzo (from unfinished sym.) (1933–4).CHORAL: 5 Part-Songs Op.9a (1899–1900); Ave Maria, Op.9b, female vv. (1900); 5 Part-Songs, Op.12 (1902–3); King Estmere, Op.17, Old English ballad, ch., orch. (1903): The Mystic Trumpeter, Op.18, scena, sop., orch. (1904, rev. 1912); Songs from ‘The Princess’, Op.20a, female vv. (1905); 3 Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Op.26 No.1, ch., orch. (1908–10), Op.26 No.2 (3 Hymns), female vv., orch. (1909), Op.26 No.3 (4 Hymns), female vv., hp. (1909–10), Op.26 No.4 (4 Hymns), male vv., str., brass (1912); Hecuba's Lament, Op.31 No.1, cont., female ch., orch. (1911); The Cloud Messenger, Op.30, ode, ch., orch. (1910, rev. 1912); 2 Psalms, ch., str., org. (1912); Hymn to Dionysus, Op.31 No.2, female ch., orch. (1913); Dirge for 2 Veterans, male vv., brass, perc. (1914); This have I done for my true love, Op.34, unacc. ch. (1916); 6 Choral Folksongs, Op.36, unacc. ch. (1916); 3 Festival Choruses, with orch. (1916); The Hymn of Jesus, Op.37, 2 ch., women's semi-ch., orch. (1917); Ode to Death, Op.38, ch., orch. (1919); I vow to thee, my country, unison song with orch. (to central melody from Jupiter, No.4 of The Planets) (1921); First Choral Symphony, Op.41, sop., ch., orch. (1923–4); 2 Motets, Op.43, unacc. ch. (1924–5); 7 Part-Songs, Op.44 (to poems by Bridges), female vv., str. (1925–6)—No.7 is Assemble, all ye maidens; The Golden Goose, Op.45 No.1, choral ballet with orch. (1926); The Morning of the Year, Op.45 No.2, choral ballet with orch. (1926–7); Choral Fantasia, Op.51, sop., ch., org., brass, perc., str. (1930); 12 Welsh Folksongs, unacc. ch. (1930–1); 6 Choruses, Op.53 (to words trans. from Lat. by Helen Waddell), male vv., str. (or org., or pf.) (1931–2); 6 Canons (to words trans. from Lat. by H. Waddell), equal unacc. vv. (1932).CHAMBER MUSIC: pf. trio in E (1894); 6 Instrumental pieces (variously for 2 vn., vn. (or vc.), and pf.) (1902–3); wind quintet (1903); Terzetto, fl., ob., va. (1925).PIANO: 2 Pieces (1901); Toccata (1924); Chrissemas Day in the Morning, Op.46 No.1 (1926); 2 Folksong Fragments, Op.46 No.2 (1927); Nocturne (1930); Jig (1932).SOLO SONGS: 4 Songs, Op.4, v., pf. (1896–8); 6 songs, Op.15, bar., pf. (1902–3); 6 Songs, Op.16, sop., pf. (1903–4); 9 Hymns from the Rig Veda, Op.24, v., pf. (1907–8); 4 Songs, Op.35, v., vn. (1916–17); 12 Songs by Humbert Wolfe, Op.48, v., pf. (1929); 2 Canons (to words trans. from Lat. by H. Waddell), 2 equal vv., pf. (1932).

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Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was one of the most important English composers of his time, even though little of his music continued to be played.

Gustav Holst's paternal great-grandfather was born in Sweden, but all his other forebears were English. For four generations they were professional musicians, his father being organist and choirmaster in Cheltenham. Gustav wrote compositions as soon as he was able to hold a pen and played various instruments as fast as they came his way. When he was 12, he was already studying Hector Berlioz's orchestration treatise.

Holst received his formal training at the Royal College of Music in London. When neuritis prevented his becoming a pianist, he took up the trombone, and for many years he supported himself by playing in opera and symphony orchestras, an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with a wide variety of music and to learn orchestration through practical experience. Beginning in 1903 he became a teacher at several London schools and, eventually, at the Royal College of Music. He knew Sanskrit and Hindu literature and composed several choral works and an opera based on Hindu epics.

During World War I Holst was sent to Salonika, Greece, and to Constantinople to organize musical activities among the British soldiers stationed there. In 1923 he conducted and lectured at the University of Michigan, and he lectured at Harvard in 1932.

Holst composed about 50 works. Because of the importance of choral singing in England, many of his compositions are for choir. The best known of these are The Hymn of Jesus (1917) and the Ode to Death (1922). He also wrote many songs and several operas, including The Perfect Fool (1923) and At the Boar's Head (1925).

Holst's most important piece, and the one that is most often played, is the orchestral suite The Planets (1914-1917). It is a large-scale, brilliantly orchestrated series of tone poems devoted to seven of the planets: Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. He uses polytonality and polyrhythms and treats the orchestra with great skill and freedom.

English composers of Holst's generation were at a disadvantage in that they wrote at a time when Igor Stravinsky began to dominate the international musical scene. In the late 1920s, when Stravinsky turned to neoclassic ideals, composers who wrote symphonic poems and folk-based choral pieces were considered old-fashioned. Holst was an honest, if unfashionable, composer, and he did not follow the musical fashions of his day. He was always true to his background and convictions, and his music impresses by its sincerity and highly professional workmanship.

Further Reading

The best studies of Holst were written by his daughter, Imogen, who followed the family tradition of being a composer and critic. They are Gustav Holst (1938) and The Music of Gustav Holst (1951). Another study, by an English composer, is Edmund Rubbra, Gustav Holst (1947).

Additional Sources

Holst, Imogen, Gustav Holst: a biography, Oxford Oxfordshire; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Holst, Imogen, Holst, London; Boston: Faber & Faber, 1981.

Short, Michael, Gustav Holst: the man and his music, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. □

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Holst, Gustav

Holst, Gustav (1874–1934). Of German/Swedish ancestry (Gustavus Theodore von Holst), he was one of the most original English composers of his day and an influential teacher, particularly of amateurs. Holst studied composition with Stanford at London's Royal College of Music alongside his lifelong friend Vaughan Williams, with whom he shared a passionate interest in folk-song. Other influences included plainsong and Hindu culture, the latter apparent in his own translations of Sanskrit texts for the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (four groups, 1908–12) and in his libretto for the much underrated chamber opera Sāvitri (1908–9, first performed 1916). The sparse economy of his later works, together with their adventurous harmonies and use of bi-tonality, was regarded by many contemporaries as unnecessarily cerebral. The Planets (1914–16, first performed 1919), however, was an immediate and lasting success, not least for its masterly orchestration, the pounding 5/4 rhythms of ‘Mars’, and the haunting female voices in the final movement ‘Neptune’.

Eric Cross

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Holst, Gustav

Gustav Holst (hŏlst), 1874–1934, English composer, studied at the Royal College of Music. Grieg, Richard Strauss, and Ralph Vaughan Williams influenced his early work, but most of his music is highly original. Outstanding compositions are The Planets (1918), a suite for orchestra; The Hymn of Jesus (1920), for chorus and orchestra; The Perfect Fool (1923), an opera; and Egdon Heath (1928), an orchestral piece.

See biography (1938) and study (2d ed. 1968) by his daughter, Imogen Holst.

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Holst, Gustav

Holst, Gustav ( Gustavus Theodore von) (1874–1934) English composer. His early works were often influenced by Hinduism, as in the opera Sita (1906), and English folksong, as in Somerset Rhapsody (1907). Among his works are several operas, including The Perfect Fool (1922), songs, chamber music, and the popular orchestral suite The Planets (1914–16).

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