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date: 08 December 2023

Holst, Gustav Theodorefree


Holst, Gustav Theodorefree

  • John Warrack

Gustav Theodore Holst (1874–1934)

by Herbert Lambert, pubd 1923

© Jenny Letton, administered by Composer Prints Ltd.; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Holst, Gustav Theodore (1874–1934), composer and teacher of music, was born on 21 September 1874 at 4 Pittville Terrace, Cheltenham, the elder son of Adolph von Holst (1846–1901) and his first wife, Clara Cox (1841–1882), daughter of Samuel Lediard, solicitor, of Cirencester. He was baptized Gustavus Theodore, but for the latter part of his career used the single forename Gustav professionally, and he dropped the ‘von’ (to which his branch of the family was never really entitled) by deed poll on 25 September 1918. His great-grandfather Matthias (c.1767–1854) was of Scandinavian origin; he lived in Riga, composed, and taught the harp to the imperial family in St Petersburg, but moved to London with his Russian wife, Katharina (née Rogge), and their son Gustavus Valentine (1799–1871) early in the nineteenth century. Gustavus Valentine became a pianist and composer, and married Honoria Gooderich; his younger brother Theodor became a painter. Gustavus Valentine settled in Cheltenham as a music teacher; his sons Gustavus Matthias and Adolph were also pianists and music teachers.

Early career

A weak child, suffering from asthma and poor eyesight, Holst showed musical aptitude and began studying the violin and the piano at an early age. From 1886 to 1891 he was at Cheltenham grammar school. Here, given Macaulay's Horatius to learn, he set it to music for an eccentric combination of instruments without any training apart from a reading of Berlioz's Treatise on Orchestration. He abandoned the work after attempting to play the results on the piano. His father discouraged composition, hoping he would become a pianist; nevertheless, when the neuritis that was to be a lifelong burden caused problems, he was allowed at the age of seventeen to spend four months in Oxford studying counterpoint with G. F. Sims, organist of Merton College. Failing to win scholarships to any London music colleges, he took up his first professional appointment, while still seventeen, as organist at Wyck Rissington, Gloucestershire, also conducting a choir at Bourton on the Water. The success of an operetta, Lansdowne Castle, on its performance at Cheltenham Corn Exchange on 7 February 1893 encouraged his father to borrow £100 and send him to the Royal College of Music in London.

Here Holst responded especially to the teaching of Stanford, above all the insistence on sincerity and on technical security. With a fellow pupil, Fritz Hart, he was overwhelmed by the experience of Wagner, later also by hearing Bach's B minor mass in Worcester. Troubled by his neuritis and hand cramps, which made it difficult to hold a pen, he abandoned the piano for the trombone, feeling that the instrument might both strengthen his lungs and give him inside orchestral experience. It also provided him with a modest income, and in February 1895 he won an open scholarship to the Royal College, together with a maintenance grant of £30 a year. This he continued to supplement with trombone playing, especially in Stanislaus Wurm's White Viennese Band. That autumn he met Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was to be a lifelong friend. According to Vaughan Williams, they 'would spend whole days discussing their compositions. Holst declared that his music was influenced by that of his friend: the converse is certainly true' (DNB).

Holst continued to compose, writing works including some short operas to texts by Fritz Hart, but much of the music of this early phase suggests that his intoxication with Wagner had left him unsteady on his own creative feet. He interested himself in the socialism of William Morris and Bernard Shaw, joining the Kelmscott House Socialist Club, and in 1896 became conductor of the Hammersmith Socialist Choir, giving them Morley and Purcell as well as Wagner to sing. Here he met (Emily) Isobel Harrison (1876–1969), to whom he became engaged. His music was beginning to be published and performed, he was organist at several London churches, and he continued to play in theatre orchestras, in 1898 becoming first trombonist and répétiteur with the Carl Rosa Opera Company. He also toured with the Scottish Orchestra, and while not a brilliant player was good enough to win praise from Hans Richter.

Drawn to Hindu literature and mysticism in 1899, Holst studied the Rig-Veda, the Ramayana, and the Bhagavad Gita, and in order to set parts of them to music began to learn Sanskrit at the School of Oriental Languages with Dr Mabel Bode. Though never proficient, he felt able to draw closer to the originals by laboriously making his own translations, and produced versions of twenty hymns from the Rig-Veda as well as poems by Kalidasa. In 1900 he also completed his largest work to date, the Cotswolds Symphony, whose slow movement, an elegy in memory of William Morris, 'has moments in it where the intensity of his thought breaks through the inadequacies of his language' (Holst, The Music of Gustav Holst, 6). Financially more secure, on 22 June 1901 he married Isobel Harrison. He gave up the trombone in 1903 and began teaching at James Allen's Girls' School, Dulwich, remaining until 1921; he also taught at the Passmore Edwards (later Mary Ward) Settlement, where he introduced Bach cantatas. From 1905 he was also director of music at St Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith, a post he filled with originality and distinction until his death, and from 1907 director of music at Morley College (until 1924).

Emergent individuality

Meanwhile, a more individual voice was beginning to be heard in Holst's music, not only the Sanskrit works but also the settings of poets who had begun to absorb him, Walt Whitman and especially Robert Bridges, who became a friend, and Thomas Hardy. In 1904 he composed The Mystic Trumpeter, a Whitman setting in which there begins to emerge his characteristic interest in bitonality, the use of two keys simultaneously. Another characteristic, born of his interest in the natural flow of words in setting English poetry, was the frequent use of uneven metres, with five or seven beats to a bar. The discovery of English folk-song, prompted by Vaughan Williams, added a love of modes other than the familiar major and minor keys. Attempts to compose original music making use of folk-song met with mixed results, being most successful when he did not try to incorporate them into larger forms for which they were little suited and in turn presented structural problems for which he had no answer. The unevenness of the Somerset Rhapsody reflects these fascinations and difficulties.

The influence of Wagner is still intrusive in Sita, the three-act opera based on the Ramayana, which Holst completed in 1906 and which he later dismissed as 'good old Wagnerian bawling'. Submitted for the Ricordi opera prize in 1908, it was placed second; his neuritis was causing much pain; he was seriously overworked; and it was difficult to concentrate at home, his only child, Imogen Holst, having been born on 12 April 1907. When his doctor ordered a holiday in a warm climate, he was given £50 by Vaughan Williams to go to Algeria at Easter, and here his musical impressions found an outcome in his suite Beni Mora (1910) as well as in later works.

The second of his Sanskrit operas was in complete contrast to the first. Savitri, based on an episode in the Mahabharata, uses only three singers, a small hidden chorus of female voices, and a dozen instruments. Death, coming for the woodman Satyavan, encounters instead his wife Savitri but is defeated by her love and forced to retreat. The economy of means extends to the musical language, which though spare is constructed with extraordinary expressive subtlety, so that the two unaccompanied vocal lines opening the work skilfully convey the relationship between Death, steadily advancing through the forest, and Savitri, her frightened answers fluttering round him, unable to escape his harmonic pull. It was the most original and also the most consistent work Holst had yet written, and was achieved during ten months in which he resumed teaching and conducting at his two schools (including a performance of Purcell's King Arthur at Morley). He also wrote the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda and The Cloud Messenger. Here, too, his characteristic style continues to assert itself more strongly over the weak or awkward passages that seldom quite left his music, witness to the struggle he had to affirm his true originality. Choirs and orchestras, apart from those with whom he worked, were as slow as publishers were to respond to this, though he was beginning to make some headway.

Another important enterprise at Morley College, in 1911, was the preparation of the first performance since 1697 of Purcell's The Fairy Queen. The effort bore heavily on his health, but he was enabled to pay for a short walking holiday in Switzerland with a commission to score some morris dances for the newly formed English Folk Dance Society. On his return he conducted the first performances of Beni Mora and The Cloud Messenger in two concert series organized by a new friend and generous patron, Henry Balfour Gardiner. Demands for occasional music, for military band suites, and especially for choir and school music were readily met, and found no lowering of creative standards in a composer whose work was always grounded in practical considerations. The volume of work did, however, affect his health, and once again he was grateful to accept the offer of a holiday, this time an invitation from Balfour Gardiner to accompany him with Clifford and Arnold Bax to Majorca, where they stayed from 27 March to 22 April 1913. On his return to St Paul's Girls' School, he found that in the new music wing (opened on 1 July) there had been built for him a specially heated and sound-proof music room. His gratitude was immediately expressed in the St Paul's Suite, but also in the amount of music he was henceforth able to compose in these favourable conditions.

War and The Planets

On the outbreak of war in 1914 Holst tried to enlist, but was rejected on health grounds. He had already begun work on what was to be his largest and most popular work, The Planets. A mild interest in astrology provided the idea of seven movements for full orchestra reflecting the astrological character of each planet. However, this served as no more than a stimulus to his invention and to solving the problem of creating an extended work, which had so far baffled him. Some of the aspects of his idiom are here put to brilliant new use. Uneven rhythms give an emphatic, disquietingly insistent impetus to 'Mars, the Bringer of War' but also sketch the speeding flight of 'Mercury, the Winged Messenger'. The bitonal opposition of unrelated keys provides an unresolved, discordant clash in 'Mars' and a swerving unpredictability in 'Mercury'; it also creates a mysterious, unresolved timelessness in the final movement, 'Neptune, the Mystic', with its haunting close on a receding wordless female chorus chanting two chords, never ending, since space does not end, but drifting away into eternal silence. 'Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age', Holst's preferred 'planet', also opposes chords, in an inexorable advance in what he called the 'sad procession' that occurs in much of his music. The noble central melody of 'Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity' has suffered from the association which later, exhausted and against his better judgement, he allowed to be made with Cecil Spring-Rice's poem 'The Two Fatherlands' ('I vow to thee, my country'). But Holst asserted the unity of The Planets when he resisted performance of individual movements. His own incapacity to master traditional methods of symphonic composition reflected a general crisis in the form to which the work is a positive and original response (Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces of 1909 had also confronted the problem, and partly influenced The Planets). The work's enduring stature owes more to this than to the appeal of its sensational orchestration and beguiling tunefulness.

A move in 1914 for weekends and school holidays to a cottage at Thaxted, in what was then still a rural part of Essex, brought not only conditions for work on The Planets but the opportunity to put into practice a new-found enthusiasm for Tudor music. The vicar, Conrad Noel, described by Imogen Holst as 'a socialist with a sense of humour' (Holst, The Music of Gustav Holst, 42), became a friend. His enthusiasm led to the first Whitsun festival on 10–12 June 1916, during which Byrd's three-part mass was sung liturgically by Holst's students from Morley and St Paul's augmenting the local choir, and much other music-making filled the weekend. He also wrote for the festival an unaccompanied motet, a setting of the medieval poem 'Tomorrow shall be my dancing day', which not only reflects the excitement that possessed him in the wake of his discovery of Tudor and Elizabethan music but touched on a latent interest in the connection between music, dance, and ritual. Composing music for Thaxted had a deep appeal for him, and Imogen Holst has written perceptively of:

one of his most far-reaching contributions to the musical life of England during the difficult first quarter of the century, this reminder that the fundamental necessities of music are shared alike by the original thinker piercing the distances and by the amateur struggling to learn his notes.

ibid., 44

December 1916 saw the first performance of the opera Savitri, at the London School of Opera, and the completion of The Planets. Persistent problems with his writing arm led to Holst's recruiting two of the music staff of St Paul's, Nora Day and Vally Lasker, and his pupil Jane Joseph, to act as what he called 'scribes' in preparing this and some later scores. Jane Joseph also helped him to learn some Greek when the interest in dancing and ritual led him to the early Christian poem known as The Hymn of Jesus. Forming part of the apocryphal New Testament writings, and almost certainly spurious, the text appealed to Holst for its atmosphere of mystic dance ritual, and he prefaced it with two plainchant hymns, Pange lingua and Vexilla regis. His liking for repeated figures in the bass, or ostinatos (in this case, steadily pacing scale figures), serves a ritual effect, but also made the physical pain of writing easier when the repeats could be simply indicated. Again, it is with an uneven metre (here, five beats to the bar) that the exultation of the dance is signified. Harmonically, the work is also very advanced, as when Holst reaches the words, 'To you who gaze, a lamp am I', and moves to a searing discord then clearing onto a plain chord—an extraordinary aural image of eyes at first blinded by an explosion of light and then, growing accustomed, discovering it to be new illumination. The Hymn is scarcely religious in any specific sense, but it uses various devices of ritual to create its own, completely individual atmosphere of mystery and celebration.

As the war moved into its third year, Holst became increasingly frustrated at being repeatedly rejected for any form of service, especially with his wife finding employment as a hospital driver, Vaughan Williams serving in France, and several friends, among them George Butterworth, having been killed in action. Eventually the YMCA offered him the post of musical organizer for troops in the Near East. As a parting present, Balfour Gardiner gave him a private performance of The Planets with the New Queen's Hall Orchestra under Adrian Boult on 29 September 1918. On 31 October Holst sailed for Salonika, from where he later moved on to Constantinople. His work, on which he reported enthusiastically in his letters home, included teaching and putting on concerts for demobilized troops; he set out for home again on 17 June. In his absence, The Planets received its first public performance on 27 February 1919, omitting 'Venus' and 'Neptune' since the conductor, again Adrian Boult, felt that the music was too novel for the public to absorb at a first hearing. The first complete performance was given by the London Symphony Orchestra under Albert Coates at a Queen's Hall Promenade Concert on 15 November 1920.

Later works

Back in England, Holst resumed his teaching at Morley College and St Paul's Girls' School, but gave up his post at James Allen's Girls' School on being appointed professor at University College, Reading (a post he held until 1923). Also in 1919 he joined the teaching staff of the Royal College of Music (until 1924). Returning to Whitman's poetry, he composed a setting of the Ode to Death (1919), a work which reflects some of the choral writing in The Hymn of Jesus and also expresses, in a brief space, the mood of aloof tranquillity that was increasingly a central part of his idiom. He conducted the first performance of The Hymn of Jesus in a Royal Philharmonic Society concert on 25 March 1920, to wide acclaim. He then turned his attention to an opera. The idea for The Perfect Fool had occurred to him as early as 1908, and he had composed in 1918 music for a play by Clifford Bax, The Sneezing Charm, which he now converted into a ballet opening the opera, also incorporating some scenes he had devised for his Morley students. However, the libretto is cumbersomely arch, the music uneven; and he was honest enough to admit later to Jane Joseph that 'the libretto of the Fool wants a light touch, and I find I haven't one' (Holst, Gustav Holst, 79).

In February 1923 Holst had a fall from the rostrum while conducting in Reading, an accident from which he took some time to recover. However, he accepted an invitation to travel to America and conduct at a festival at the University of Michigan. He sailed with his wife in April. In his absence the opera was poorly received at its first performance, at Covent Garden, London, on 14 May 1923. Much though he enjoyed himself in America, he felt unable to accept the offer of a professorship, and returned in June. The autumn brought more performances of his music than he had ever had, with huge acclaim for The Planets. However, this popularity brought him, characteristically, little pleasure, though an anonymous admirer (in fact, Claude Johnson, a director of Rolls-Royce) presented him with enough money to enable him to cut down on his teaching. Having already composed A Fugal Overture (played as the overture to The Perfect Fool) and A Fugal Concerto for flute, oboe, and strings, he retreated, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, to Thaxted to work on his first choral symphony (he began but never completed a second). Here, a recluse for a year, he at last lived what he called 'the life of a real composer'.

The symphony is entirely based on Keats. The finest music in it, the movement setting the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn', can match the best in Holst's whole output, and there is much to admire in the scherzo ('Ever let the fancy roam') and parts of the first movement. But his structural problems with extended movements admitted some slack passages after the fine prelude, 'Invocation to Pan'; and he was not the only symphonic composer to find insuperable problems with a finale. It is still an impressive achievement, and, as has often been the case with his music, time diminishes the weaknesses and renders them more acceptable as part of his idiom.

Declaring that 'as the critics have decided that I can't write a libretto, the words of my new opera have been written by Shakespeare', Holst conceived the idea of compressing the tavern scenes from the two Henry IV plays, with minor additions, into a Falstaff opera, drawing for his musical sources on folk tunes, mostly from Playford's English Dancing Master (1651). The idea is ingenious, and Holst's musical ingenuity is admirable, but there is a dramatic problem in compressing originally separate scenes that leave little room for more expansive, lyrical comic qualities. The opera was first performed in Manchester by the British National Opera Company under Malcolm Sargent.

Holst had by now returned from his Thaxted isolation. He was awarded Yale University's Howland memorial prize, and elected (before he could refuse) a fellow of the Royal College of Music. A terzetto for flute, oboe, and viola is an interesting experiment in writing in three keys at once, a drier exercise than the succeeding set of partsongs setting Robert Bridges. After a failed attempt at another choral symphony (on Meredith), a number of lesser and occasional pieces followed, among them the Moorside Suite for brass band, but also his late masterpiece Egdon Heath (1927). Based on Hardy's description in The Return of the Native, this short tone poem drew the criticism of bleakness which Holst was increasingly encountering, for all the subtlety and refinement of the ideas. The year also saw a Holst festival in his native Cheltenham. As antidote to an event which overwhelmed him, he went on a walking tour of Yorkshire, and that August was driven round Dorset by Hardy (who, typically, regretted that they were not seeing it in November). He also went on a prolonged holiday to Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, and on an Italian tour in the winter of 1928–9 before accepting an invitation from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

There followed in 1929 a group of songs setting poems by Humbert Wolfe—one of which, at least, 'On Betelgeuse', recaptures the sense of uncanny peace in 'Neptune'—and a bitonal double concerto for two violins, somewhat in the manner of the earlier Fugal Concerto and the terzetto, before Holst's last opera, The Wandering Scholar. Clifford Bax's libretto, taking a story in Helen Waddell's study of medieval wandering scholars, provided Holst with a fast-moving narrative of a young man frustrating a portly friar's seduction of a vigorous young wife. Though the racy tale may seem little suited to the weary, increasingly remote Holst, he responded to its liveliness with some of his sharpest and most swiftly paced music.

Death and reputation

The works of Holst's last few years were slow to win full appreciation, but have come to be recognized as among his finest achievements. They include the Choral Fantasia (1930) on a text by Robert Bridges; Hammersmith (1930), a brilliantly original portrait of the Thames and its lively bank-dwellers (originally for military band, later rescored for orchestra); some beautifully written partsongs and canons on Helen Waddell translations; the Brook Green Suite for the St Paul's Girls' School junior orchestra (1933); a Lyric Movement for viola and orchestra (1933); and finally a vigorous scherzo that was part of a planned symphony. Holst refused to accept most titles and honours—other than the gold medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society (1930) and Yale University's Howland memorial prize for distinction in the arts.

Following a duodenal ulcer with attendant complications in March 1932 while at Harvard University as visiting lecturer, Holst returned home to eighteen months spent largely in clinics, with his activity much restricted. Despite a successful operation for the ulcer on 23 May 1934, he died of heart failure on 25 May at Beaufort House, Grange Park, Ealing. He was cremated at Golders Green three days later, and his ashes were buried in the north transept of Chichester Cathedral on 24 June.

Holst was short and slight, with thick spectacles and hair that whitened and receded with the increasingly haggard appearance that came to affect him through overwork and illness. This belied the vitality of his personality, as a St Paul's pupil testified: 'He was thin and looked shy; he was rather short-sighted, and his voice was so exceedingly quiet in class that his laughter came as a surprise. It was the most robust thing about him' (Bonnett). He resisted, even feared, publicity and success, once encouraging a pupil who had failed a scholarship with a kindly letter including the advice, 'The truth is that failure is a most important part of an artist's training, and one that you cannot afford to do without'. He had a gift for drawing his pupils into practical music-making, always insisting on learning by doing, and the music through which he taught introduced them to the Tudor and Elizabethan composers which meant much to him, and especially to Purcell. Vaughan Williams wrote that 'intense idealism of conception coupled with complete realism in practice, guided by his strong sense of humanity … made Holst a great teacher as they made him a great composer' (Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst: man and musician, 79).

These qualities inform Holst's music even where there are flaws in the realization of the vision. Such flaws never arise from a failure in honesty or craftsmanship, but occasionally from some error of artistic judgement, perhaps admitting a cliché alongside a passage of astonishing originality. That a certain coldness entered his idiom cannot be denied, though it could be turned to effects of extraordinary beauty, as in 'Saturn' and 'Neptune', or the 'Grecian Urn' movement of the choral symphony and the whole of Egdon Heath. Towards the end of his life he became aware of this, and there are signs, for instance in the Lyric Movement, that a new manner might have lain ahead. He was, in fact, in a number of ways ahead of his time, notably in his rediscovery of earlier English music, in its own right but also as a source of so much artistic nourishment. He was a strong influence on the two most important English composers of a succeeding generation, Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten, as they always acknowledged; and with the passage of time his own music continues to grow in stature.


  • I. Holst, Gustav Holst (1938)
  • I. Holst, Gustav Holst: a biography, 2nd edn (1969)
  • I. Holst, The music of Gustav Holst (1951)
  • I. Holst, The music of Gustav Holst, rev. and augmented 3rd edn (1986)
  • I. Holst, A thematic catalogue of Gustav Holst's music (1974)
  • U. Vaughan Williams and I. Holst, eds., Heirs and rebels (1959)
  • R. Vaughan Williams, ‘Gustav Holst: man and musician’, RCM Magazine, 30/3 (1934), 78–80
  • I. Bonnett, ‘Mr Holst in school’, RCM Magazine, 30/3 (1934), 86–8
  • M. Short, ed., Gustav Holst (1874–1934): a centenary documentation (1974)
  • M. Short, Gustav Holst: the man and his music (1990)
  • A. Foster, ‘Holst and the amateur’, RCM Magazine, 30/3 (1934), 88–90
  • W. Mellers, ‘Holst and the English language’, Music Review, 2 (1941), 228–34
  • private information, 2004 [Imogen Holst, daughter; others]


  • BL, corresp., compositions, and notebooks, Add. MSS 47804–47838, 52915, 57863–57910
  • BL, papers, Add. MS 56726
  • Britten–Pears Library, Red House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, Holst Foundation archives
  • Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, papers and scrapbooks
  • Holst Birthplace Museum, 4 Clarence Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire
  • Royal College of Music, London, Add. MSS 47804–47838, 52915, 56726, 57863–57910
  • State University of New York, Buffalo, compositions and corresp., incl. corresp. with Imogen Holst
  • BL, letters to A. C. Boult and his wife, Add. MS 60498
  • BL, letters to H. L. Brooke, Add. MS 57953
  • BL, letters to Linetta Palamidessi de Castelvecchio, Add. MS 61951
  • BL, letters to Ralph Vaughan Williams and A. Vaughan Williams, Add. MS 57953
  • U. Glas. L., corresp. with W. G. Whittaker




  • M. Woodforde, oils, 1910–1911, NPG
  • photograph, 1916, Hult. Arch.
  • W. Rothenstein, pencil drawing, 1920, Morley College, London
  • H. Lambert, photograph, pubd 1923, NPG [see illus.]
  • M. Roberts, group portrait, drawing, 1925 (Holst and St Paul's School Orchestra), Holst Birthplace Museum, Cheltenham
  • M. Stern, photographs, 1929–1930, NPG
  • E. Kapp, chalk drawing, 1931, Man. City Gall.
  • E. Kapp, drawing, 1932, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
  • C. Mackail, caricature, repro. in Vaughan Williams and Holst, eds., Heirs and rebels
  • B. Munns, oils, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum
  • pen-and-ink drawing, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum
  • photographs, repro. in Holst, Gustav Holst

Wealth at Death

£9318 0s. 4d.: resworn probate, 24 Sept 1934, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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