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Gustav Holst (Composer, Arranger)

Born: September 21, 1874 - Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England
Died: May 25, 1934 - London, England

Gustav(us Theodore von) Holst was a significant English composer, mostly known for his orchestral suite The Planets.

Early Life

Gustav Holst, was born to a family of Swedish extraction (by way of Latvia and Russia). The house was opened as a museum of Holst's life and times in 1974. He was educated at Cheltenham Grammar School for Boys. Holst's grandfather, Gustavus von Holst of Riga, Latvia, a composer of elegant harp music, moved to England, becoming a notable harp teacher. Holst's father Adolph von Holst, an organist, pianist and choirmaster, gave both piano lessons and recitals; and his mother, Clara von Holst, who died when Gustav was eight, was a singer. As a frail child whose early recollections were musical, Holst had been taught to play piano and violin, and began composing when he was about 12.Holst's father was the organist at All Saints' Church in Pittville, and his childhood home is now a small museum, devoted partly to him and partly to illustrating local domestic life of the mid-19th century. Holst grew up in the world of Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gauguin, Monet, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Puccini. Both he and his sister learned piano from an early age, but Holst, stricken with a nerve condition that affected the movement of his right hand in adolescence, gave up the piano for the trombone, which was less painful to play.

Gustav Holst attended the Royal College of Music in London on a scholarship, studying with Charles V. Stanford, and there in 1895 he met fellow student and lifelong friend Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose own music was mainly quite different from Holstís, but whose praise for his work was abundant and who later shared an interest in Holst teaching the English vocal and choral tradition (folk song, madrigals and church music). Holst was influenced during these years by socialism and attended lectures and speeches by George Bernard Shaw, with whom he shared a passion for vegetarianism, and by William Morris, both of whom were among the UK's most outspoken supporters of the socialist movement.

To earn a living in the period before he had a satisfactory income from his compositions, he played the trombone in the Carl Rosa Opera Company and in a popular orchestra called the "White Viennese Band", conducted by Stanislas Wurm. The music was cheap and repetitive and not to Holst's liking, and he referred to this kind of work as "worming" and regarded it as "criminal". His need to "worm" came to an end as his compositions became more successful, and his income was given stability by his teaching posts. During these early years, he was influenced greatly by the poetry of Walt Whitman, as were many of his contemporaries, and set his words in The Mystic Trumpeter (1904). He also set to music poetry by Thomas Hardy and Robert Bridges.

It was also during these years that Gustav Holst became interested in Hindu mysticism and spirituality, and this interest led to the composition of several works set to translations of Sanskrit texts, including: Sita (1899-1906), a three-act opera based on an episode in the Ramayana; Sāvitri (1908), a chamber opera based on a tale from the Mahabharata; 4 groups of Hymns from the Rig Veda (1908-1914); and two texts originally by Kalidasa: Two Eastern Pictures (1909-10) and The Cloud Messenger (1913). The texts of these last three works were translated by Holst himself. In order to make these translations from Sanskrit to English, Holst had enrolled at University College London (UCL), as a 'non-matriculated' student, to study the language.

Musical Career

In 1905, Gustav Holst was appointed Director of Music at St Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith, London, where he composed the still popular St Paul's Suite for the school orchestra in 1913. In 1907, Holst also became director of music at Morley College. These were the most important of his teaching posts, and he retained both until the end of his life.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, musical society as a whole (and Holst's friend Ralph Vaughan Williams in particular) became interested in old English folksongs, madrigal singers, and Tudor composers. Holst shared in his friendís admiration for the simplicity and economy of these melodies, and their use in his compositions is one of his musicís most recognisable features.

Gustav Holst was an avid rambler. He walked extensively in Italy, France and England. He also travelled outside the bounds of Europe, heading to French-controlled Algeria in 1908 on doctor's orders as a treatment for asthma and the depression that crippled him after his submission failed to win the Ricordi Prize, a coveted award for composition. His travels in the Arab and Berber land, including an extensive cycling tour of the Algerian Sahara, inspired the suite Beni Mora, written upon his return.

After the lukewarm reception of his choral work The Cloud Messenger in 1912, Gustav Holst was again off travelling, financing a trip to Spain with fellow composers Balfour Gardiner and brothers Clifford and Arnold Bax with funds from an anonymous donation. Despite being shy, Holst was fascinated by people and society, and had always believed that the best way to learn about a city was to get lost in it. In Girona, Catalonia, he often disappeared, only to be found hours later by his friends having abstract debates with local musicians. It was in Spain that Clifford Bax introduced Holst to astrology, a hobby that was to inspire the later Planets suite. He read astrological fortunes until his death, and called his interest in the stars his "pet vice".

Shortly after his return, St Paul's Girls School opened a new music wing, and Gustav Holst composed St Paulís Suite for the occasion. In 1913, Stravinsky premiered The Rite of Spring, sparking riots in Paris and caustic criticism in London. A year later, Holst first heard Arnold Schoenbergís Five Pieces for Orchestra, an "ultra-modern" set of five movements employing "extreme chromaticism" (the consistent use of all 12 musical notes). Although he had earlier lampooned the stranger aspects of modern music, the new music of Igor Stravinsky and A. Schoenberg influenced his work on The Planets. Holst's compositions for wind band, though relatively small in number, guaranteed him a position as the medium's cornerstone, as seen in innumerable present-day programmes featuring his two Suites for Military Band. His one work for brass band, A Moorside Suite, remains an important part of the brass band repertoire.

Gustav Holst and wife Isobel bought a cottage in Thaxted, Essex and, surrounded by medieval buildings and ample rambling opportunities, he started work on the suite that would become his best known work, the orchestral suite The Planets. Holst conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in the very first electrical recording of The Planets, in 1926, for HMV. Although, as his daughter Imogen noted, he couldn't quite achieve the gradual fade-out of women's voices and orchestra he had written (owing to the limitations of early electrical recording), it was a landmark recording of the work. The performance was later issued on LP and CD format.

At the onset of World War I, Gustav Holst tried to enlist but was rejected because of his bad eyes, bad lungs and bad digestion. In wartime England, Holst was persuaded to drop the "von" from his name, as it aroused suspicion. His new music, however, was readily received as "patriotic" and English music was demanded at concert halls, partly due to a ban on all "Teutonic" music. Towards the end of the war he was offered a post within the YMCAís educational work programme as musical director and he set off for Salonica (present day Thessaloniki, Greece) and Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1. While he was teaching music to troops eager to escape the drudgery of army life, The Planets Suite was being performed to audiences back home. Shortly after his return after the warís end, Holst composed Ode to Death, based upon a poem by Walt Whitman.

During the years 1920-1923, Gustav Holst's popularity grew through the success of The Planets and The Hymn of Jesus (1917) (based on the Apocryphal gospels), and the publication of a new opera, The Perfect Fool (a satire of a work by Wagner). Holst became something of "an anomaly, a famous English composer", and was busy with conducting, lecturing and teaching obligations. He hated publicity; he often refused to answer questions posed by the press and when asked for his autograph, handed out prepared cards that read, "I do not hand out my autograph". Always frail, after a collapse in 1923 he retired from teaching to devote the remaining (eleven) years of his life to composition.

Later Life

In the following years, Gustav Holst took advantage of new technology to publicise his work through sound recordings and the BBCís "wireless" broadcasts. In 1927, he was commissioned by the New York Symphony Orchestra to write a symphony. He took this opportunity to work on an orchestral piece based on Thomas Hardyís Wessex, a work that would become Egdon Heath and which would be first performed a month after Hardyís death, in his memory. By this time, Holst was "going out of fashion", and the piece was poorly reviewed. However, Holst is said to have considered the short, subdued but powerful tone poem his greatest masterpiece. The piece has been much better received in recent years, with several recordings available.

Towards the end of his life, Gustav Holst wrote Choral Fantasia (1930), and he was commissioned by the BBC to write a piece for military band; the resulting Hammersmith was a tribute to the place where he had spent most of his life, a musical expression of the London borough (of Hammersmith), which begins with an attempt to recreate the haunting sound of the River Thames sleepily flowing its way. He then made an orchestral version of this work for its first performance, sharing the programme with the London premiere of William Walton's Belshazzar's Feast. This unlucky coincidence may account for its subsequent obscurity as an orchestral work.

Gustav Holst had a lifetime of poor health, which worsened due to a concussion during a backward fall from the conductor's podium, from which he never fully recovered. In his final four years, Holst grew ill with stomach problems. One of his last compositions, the Brook Green Suite, named after the land on which St Paulís Girlsí School was built, was performed for the first time a few months before his death. Holst died on May 25, 1934, of complications following stomach surgery, in London. His ashes were interred at Chichester Cathedral in West Sussex, with Bishop George Bell giving the memorial oration at the funeral. On Sunday September 27, 2009, after a weekend of concerts at Chichester Cathedral in memory of Holst, a new memorial will be unveiled to the public. On it is inscribed Holst's dates, and an epitaph, taken from the text of The Hymn of Jesus, reading "the heavenly spheres make music for us".

Selected Works

First Suite in E-flat for Military Band (1909)
Second Suite in F for Military Band (1911)
Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo H178, Op. 52
St Paul's Suite, Op.29 No.2 (Finale is another arrangement of the 4th movement in Second Suite) (1913)
The Planets Suite, Op. 32 (1916)
Brook Green Suite

For a fuller list, see: List of compositions by Gustav Holst (Wikipedia)

Source: Mostly Wikipedia Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (September 2009)

Gustav Holst: Short Biography | Orchestral Transcriptions: Works | Recordings

Links to other Sites

Gustav Holst Website
Gustav Holst (Classical Net)

Gustav Holst (Wikipedia)



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