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Classical Composers A-Z: Gustav Holst

Peter Wintersgill outlines the life of Gustav Holst, composer of the well-known work The Planets.

21st September, 1874, in Cheltenham

Adolphus, a professional musician, came from Riga.

Clara, solicitor’s daughter, husband’s pupil. Died when Holst was eight

Gustav, also a professional msuician. Great-grandfather from Riga, Latvia.

Younger brother Emil, who became an actor. Aunt Nina.

Had piano lessons from father. Brought up by aunt. Went to Cheltenham Grammar School when father remarried. Was short sighted, asthmatic and rather delicate. Started composing at 12, discouraged by father.

Became organist at Wyck Rissington (Gloucester) at 18. Scholarship to Royal College of Music at 19. Wrote operetta Landsdowne Castle at 19. Composition teacher Stanford. Fellow student Vaughan Williams, who became a lifelong friend.

Learnt the trombone, as neuritis of right arm prevented him from becoming a concert pianist. Earned pocket money playing the trombone in pier orchestras, later in Carl Rosa and Scottish orchestras.

Adult life
Married soprano Isobel Harrison in 1901. Daughter Imogen born 1907.

He wrote a chamber opera Savitri in 1908. Holiday in Algeria in 1908. Learnt Sanskrit in order to translate hymns from Rig Veda, which he set to music in 1910.

Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith, in 1905 until his death. Wrote St. Paul’s Suite in 1913. Was turned down by the army in 1914 for short sight and neuritis. Was keen on poetry, especially of Robert Bridges and Walt Whitman, who were personal friends.

Later Adult Life
Like Vaughan Williams, he studied English folk songs, but not so exclusively, and used them in his music. His best known work The Planets (1913 – 1916). A tune from Jupiter, Thaxted, is used for the hymn ‘I vow to thee my country’.

In 1916 he organised the first Whitsuntide Festival at Thaxted, now his home, which was a great success. He wrote the Hymn of Jesus, based on the Apocryphal Gospels, in 1917. In 1918 he was sent to Salonika by the Army to organise concerts for the troops. After this he returned to the Royal College of Music, this time on the teaching staff.

He wrote the opera The Perfect Fool in 1922 and the Choral Symphony for the Leeds Festival in 1924. Then came the tone poem Egdon Heath, 1927, based on the work of Thomas Hardy, to whom it was dedicated.

In 1923 he had a fall from a concert platform, hitting his head. After this he suffered on and off from headaches for many years. In 1930 he was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Philharmonic Society for Concerto for Two Violins.

While on a tour of the USA in 1932, he had a haemorrhage, preventing him from going on to Canada.

After this he wrote the lyric Movement (1933) but very little else, and finally died days after a major operation in London on 25th May, 1934. The choir at his funeral sang his anthem ‘This have I done for my true love’ and also the Kyrie from the Mass in G minor by his old friend Ralph Vaughan Williams.


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