Gustav Holst – born Gustavus Theodore von Holst - (1874-1934), English composer; known for the “The Planets" suite; was of Latvian extraction – his great grandfather had arrived in Britain from Riga in the early 19th century. He studied with Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music, became a close friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams and like him became interested in the conservation of English folk song, and the choral tradition. (He was conducting village choirs in his teens.) He was a trombonist of professional standard. For the last 29 years of his life he taught at St. Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith, London.
Holst’s early works show influences of Wagner, Grieg and Dvorak; but his own voice can be heard, especially the exquisite little “Ave Maria” for female chorus. Like RVW he was a slow developer and he was into his late thirties before his music became consistent in quality. By then he had absorbed plainsong and medieval poetry and the modal harmonies of the past into what he called “the musical idiom of the English language”. Still, many of his songs, and folksong settings, and hymns and other works for the church are frequently performed today. Perhaps because of his long association with St. Paul’s, his use of the female voice in choral works is outstanding. His outstanding choral work in the eyes (ears?) of the music loving public - church-going or not - would be his setting of the Christina Rossetti poem, In the deep midwinter.
Holst’s step-mother was a theosophist. It may be her influence that led him to his abiding interest in eastern mysticism and astrology that was to find expression in “The Planets” and other works. Whilst that suite is the most popular of his music, and is a worldwide favourite, he wrote numerous other pieces with an “eastern flavour”, including settings of parts of the Rig Veda – he had learnt Sanskrit and did his own translations – and these are unique in Western music.
From an early age, when he helped his father organise and arrange the music of the local parish church, Holst participated in the musical life around him. Any lover of brass band music will probably have heard pieces of his - he wrote competition pieces and much else for that ensemble. Much of his music is suitable for performance by amateurs, be they church choirs, bands, or the young singers and instrumentalists at St. Paul’s, for whom he wrote some of his most popular works, including “St. Paul’s” and “Brook Green” suites for orchestra.
He considered “The Hymn of Jesus” to be his best work. The text is his own translation of the “dancing” hymn from the Acts of St. John, and the music is both passionate and quietly transcendent by turns. Audiences in the early 1920s had never heard anything like it.
“The Planets”, opus 32, is a suite for full orchestra and female chorus, first performed in 1918. It is in seven movements based on the astrological “characters” of the planets. It is a “tour de force” of the orchestral repertoire and there is nothing like it elsewhere, although hints of it occur in an earlier work, “Beni Mora”, conceived during a trip to North Africa. The movements are:
- Mars – the Bringer of War.
- Venus – the Bringer of Peace.
- Mercury the Winged Messenger.
- Jupiter – the Bringer of Jollity.
- Saturn – the Bringer of Old Age.
- Uranus – the Magician.
- Neptune – the Mystic.
Reference: Imogen Holst, writing in the New Grove Twentieth Century English Masters (1986) pp. 145–169