Sunday, September 21, 2014

Gustavus von Holst

Today marks the 140th anniversary of the birth of Gustavus Theodore von Holst, British composer of The Planets, one of the Western world’s most famous and popular pieces of music. He was a consummate man of music, not only a composer, but a conductor, a concert trombone player, and a pioneering teacher. From his early 30s, he began to keep appointment diaries which, from the end of World War I, according to one biographer, ‘become true diaries’. The title of the biography promises ‘Diary Excerpts’, unfortunately there are so few quoted extracts, and none of any length, it is impossible to get a sense of Holst the diarist.

Holst was born in Cheltenham, England, on 21 September 1874. His father, a professional musician, was of mixed European ancestry with many musicians among his forefathers. His mother, too, was talented musically. When she died in 1882, his father remarried. Gustav was educated at Cheltenham Grammar School, where he learned various instruments and began composing. On leaving school, he studied counterpoint in Oxford for a short time with George Frederick Sims, before taking his first job as an organist and choirmaster. In late 1891, he gave a first public piano recital (by when he was using the shortened name Gustav), with his father, in Cheltenham. And, the following year, music he had written for a Gilbert and Sullivan-style operetta was performed in the town.

Holst moved to London in 1893, to study at the Royal College of Music, winning a scholarship in his third year, and supporting himself by playing trombone in London theatres, and at seaside resorts during the summers. At the College, he studied, in particular, composition under Charles Villiers Stanford. Richard Wagner’s music soon became an important influence on his emerging style; but, it was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who he met in 1895, and who become a lifelong friend, who would have more influence on his music than anyone else.

Although he had had some compositions performed and published, Holst needed to earn money, and he wanted to work as a performer. He took posts as organist in various London churches, and, on leaving the College in 1898, he played the trombone in the Carl Rosa Opera Company and toured with Scottish Opera. He married Isobel Harrison in 1901, and they had one child, Imogen. (Imogen, who died in 1984, was a successful composer and teacher in her own right, and also kept a diary for a while when she was working with Benjamin Britten - see The Visit Aldeburgh website).

By 1903, Holst had decided he wanted to focus on composing, but, as money was still tight, he took up various teaching posts, at girls’ schools in Dulwich and Hammersmith, at Morley College, and at Passmore Edwards Settlement (now the Mary Ward Centre). His teaching would come to be seen as pioneering new ways in musical education. In composing, Holst was often inspired by literary texts - Thomas Hardy, Walt Whitman, the Ramayana (having studied Sanskrit, he made his own translations). He also drew on national folk music (although his friend Williams became a more passionate exponent of folk song) and on new European music, such as that by Stravinsky. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘the cosmopolitanism of Holst’s style, rare in English music of his period, lends him a special historical significance’.

Holst tried to enlist at the outbreak of the First World War, but was rejected as unfit for military service. He continued teaching, and it was during this period (1914-1916) that he composed what would become his most famous piece of music - The Planets. In 1918, he was taken on by the YMCA to be a volunteer musical organiser for troops, based in Thessaloniki, Greece. His teaching employers gave him a leave of absence, but the YMCA were worried about his German-sounding name, von Holst, so he changed it by deed pole to Holst. On returning to Britain, he took up additional teaching posts, at Reading university, and, with Williams, at the Royal College of Music.

In the early 1920s, Holst found himself immensely popular, not only because of The Planets, which had found success across the Atlantic, but with The Hymn of Jesus and The Perfect Fool. He undertook a lecturing and conducting tour in the US, but then the strain of being in demand for conducting, teaching, and working on his compositions, led to a kind of breakdown. On the instructions of his doctor, he cancelled all professional engagements in 1924, after which he only resumed teaching at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith. Some later works, such as the First Choral Symphony and Egdon Heath, were not so well received by critics and audiences as his earlier works. In 1927, Cheltenham organised a Holst Festival.

In his final years, Holst continued to make gruelling conducting and lecturing tours to the US (including at Yale in 1929 and at Harvard in 1932) and to compose (A Choral Fantasia, for example, and, for the pupils at St Paul’s, Brook Green Suite). After his 1932 trip, however, he fell ill; and he died in early 1934. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, Kenric Taylor’s Holst website, or Music Sales Classical,

Holst left behind a large volume of letters which were employed by Jon Ceander Mitchell (professor at University of Massachusetts Boston) to construct a biography. This was published in 2001 by the New York-based Edwin Mellen Press (which describes itself as a non-subsidy academic publisher, but has also been described by others as a vanity press). In his book - A Comprehensive Biography of Composer Gustav Holst with Correspondence and Diary Excerpts - Mitchell states: ‘In addition to the letters, Holst left a plethora of other primary sources of information. Extant diaries begin in 1912. At first Holst used these simply as appointment books but, beginning with his eight-month stint with the British YMCA at the end of World War I, they become true diaries which give us details about daily events in the composer’s life. Closely related to the Diaries are Holst’s surviving Notebooks, which begin in 1913. These contain Holst’s “laundry lists,” often referring to plans for international travel, but sometimes containing some of the composer’s innermost thoughts.’

However, in apparent contradiction to his title, Mitchell rarely includes any diary excerpts in the book. He does use the diaries extensively to source facts about Holst’s movements and activities, and, very occasionally, includes a quoted phrase. As for actual excerpts, a sentence or more long, I could find only one! Here is that one diary excerpt, and a couple of extracts from Mitchell’s book where he mentions Holst’s diary.

16 November 1915 [waiting for a boat from southern Italy to Corfu]
‘Visit officials and buy food for boat in morning. Get on board 2PM via small boat.
Boat supposed to start at 5 PM
Passage [supposed to] last 15 hours
Boat does not start at all. Hung up all night.’

Mitchell says Holst took his teaching at Harvard seriously: ‘He followed through, keeping tabs not only with the progress of the individuals, but also with the progress of the classes as a whole. Diary entries confirm this, from “small class and little work” [23 February] to “good class with lots of work.” [25 February] Holst’s concerns for and frustrations incurred from his students affected him more and more as the term progressed. His diary entry for Wednesday, March 2 confirms this: “evening concert of my pupils’ music with subsequent bad nights.” ’

Mitchell says: ‘The classical symphonic cycle had always interested Holst, yet it had always befuddled him. To this point he had made four attempts [. . .] His fifth and final attempt was to have been an orchestral symphony. In late 1932, possibly at Durham Cathedral, he had written sketches for an Allegro, an Adagio, and a Finale. Preliminary sketches for the Scherzo came later, on March 22, 1933, when he was bedridden at Elm Crescent. According to his Diary entries, Holst began actual work on the rough draft on Sunday, July 30th and finished it on Friday, August 18th. One month later, on September 16th, he finished the two-piano version of the Scherzo. [. . .] In spite of a rather abrupt ending, the Scherzo, at just over five minutes, is long enough to stand on its own as an independent composition. As such, it is Holst’s last completed work.’

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