Gustav(us Theodore von) Holst


The enormous, and deserved, success of his orchestral work, The Planets, has tended to overshadow Holst's other achievements as a composer of undoubted originality. An introverted character with an unpredictable streak, his style had little precedent and influenced few, yet he can be regarded as one of England's most individual composers.

Born in Cheltenham on 21 September 1874, Holst was taught piano by his father from an early age, and learned the trombone to counter the effects of asthma. Suffering from neuritis in his right arm, it soon became clear that a career as a pianist was out of the question. Having learned counterpoint with George Frederick Sims, Holst returned to Cheltenham in 1891 to become organist and choirmaster at a local church.

In 1893 he gained admission to the Royal College of Music, where he entered Stanford's composition class and also received tuition from Parry. Two years later, Holst was awarded a composition scholarship and met Vaughan Williams, a lifelong friend and influence.

Holst's musical influences at this time were primarily Wagnerian, though he also showed an interest in the revival of Purcell. His interest in the philosophies of Walt Whitman and William Morris gained a practical outlet when, in 1896, he became conductor of the Hammersmith Socialist Choir which met in Morris's house. An early member of the choir was Isobel Harrison, whom Holst would marry in 1901.

Holst's continuing interest in Sanskrit literature would eventually result in the chamber opera, Savitri in 1908, and his part in the English folk song revival, with works such as A Somerset Rhapsody, should not be underestimated either.

Upon leaving the RCM, Holst began his career as a trombone player, firstly in the Carl Rosa Opera Company, and later in the Scottish Orchestra. However, in 1903, he gave up an orchestral career to begin a lifetime of teaching, gaining positions in Dulwich and, in 1905, as Head of Music at St Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith, a post he would occupy for the rest of his life. The popular St Paul's Suite and the Brook Green Suite were written for the school orchestras to perform.

Composing primarily at weekends and during school holidays in a soundproof room at St Paul's, Holst's reputation grew steadily. However, it was not until The Planets had its first performance in 1918 that he achieved genuine recognition as a composer. Its success prompted performances and publications of his earlier works and whetted the public's appetite for new creations.

However, much of his new music, such as the excellent Egdon Heath, was received coolly; Holst, unimpressed by the public's adulation, refused to pander to their wishes and write what was expected of him. He continued to teach, taking on positions at the RCM and University College, Reading, but after a fall was forced to restrict himself to St Paul's.

In 1932, he was appointed visiting lecturer in composition at Harvard, but was taken ill and returned to England. The last 18 months of his life were spent as a virtual invalid, though he continued to compose. He died on 25 May 1934, following an operation, from heart failure.  

Aside from The Planets and a handful of orchestral works, much of Holst's output remains relatively unknown. He attempted opera eleven times, for example, albeit with mixed degrees of success. However, his abiding legacy will rightly be the remarkable achievement of The Planets, a work of stunning originality and importance.

Related Composers: Vaughan Williams, Ravel, ButterworthStravinsky

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