Gustav Holst

Posted on March 8th, 2011 by


Gustav Holst – ( Gustav Theodore Holst by Millicent Woodforde oil on canvas, 1910 Primary Collection)

12th April 2011. Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I find myself sitting listening to the orchestra of MTSU rehearsing Holst’s ‘Hammersmith’, absolutely beautifully. I am momentarily homesick for the river Thames, ‘sullen and intractable’ as Eliot had it, with which Holst begins this extraordinary Prelude and Scherzo. Imogen Holst wrote about the piece in the introductio to this score: “THose who new nothing of his forty-year-old affection for the Hammersmith district of London were puzzled at the titel. The work is not programme music. Its mood is the outcome of long years of familarity with the changing crowds and the changing river: those Saturday night crowds, who were always good natured, even when they were being pushed off the pavement into the middle of the traffic, and the stall-holders in that narrow lane behind the Broadway, with their unexpected assortment of goods lit up by brilliant flares, and the large woman at the fruit shop who alwys called him ‘dearie’ when he bought oranges for his Sunday picnics. As for the river, he had known it sicne he was a student, when he paced up and down outside William Morris’s house, discussing Ibsen with earnest young socialists, During all the years since then, his favourite London walk had been along the river path to Chiswick. In ‘Hammersmith; the river is the background to the crowd: it is a river that goes on it way unnoticed and unconcerned.'(From Gustav Holst, a biography, by Imogen Holst). {PSS Journal entry}

 In 1926 Gustav Holst dedicated his double concerto to the sisters Adila Fachiri and Jelly d’Aranyi. He also made it quite clear, in the manuscript score of his Fugal Concerto that he would be very happy to have it played by two violins, rather than by the two wind instruments for which it was written. It was premiered in 1930, but never really entered the repertoire.

Tippett was clearly deeply affected by this meeting with Holst at the Royal College of Music. This is how he wrote the meeting up in his second autobiography, published in the the 1990’s:

‘…it was through conducting that I had a tiny encounter with Gustav Holst. Sargent asked each of us to conduct one movement of Holst’s St Paul’s Suite for strings, with the other students playing (then, as now, students don’t particularly like being conducted by other students). I forget which movement I did: it caused me great anxiety at performance, I don’t know why. Holst attended. After it was all over, we lined up and he came and solemnly shook hands with each of us. Holst’s eyes were a deep, penetrating blue: I was taken aback, as I was to be later in an equally brief encounter with Bartók at a BBC concert. Holst seemed to look right inside me with an acute spiritual vision.’

 However, when he first spoke about this meeting in the late 1970’s, his account was less

 ‘It was courtesy, not as you get nowadays, sort of ‘hail fellow well met’, it was a very genuine, curiously, and almost especially kind courtesy. The other thing was his eyes, and here it was a little difficult to distinguish, because I had never met him before so close, and he appeared to have eyes, which, as it were, looked right through you. I imagine that it was something to do with his short sight, and he certainly had glasses on. But I had the impression that this was, oh dear, it’s a very risky statement, that the visionary element was already there in the physique of the man. And I suppose that this visionary element, which I understood very little of at the time, as this is only 1924 or 5, but when I later began to know Holst’s music and began to know that visionary element in himself, I related it back, erroneusly or not, to something in himself, and especially this curious kind of vision, this literal vision as he looked at you.’

 Holst Lived at 10 Barnes Terrace from 1908-13 where he wrote the St Paul’s Suite and watched the Boat Race from the verandah on the 2nd April 1909.

 Imogen Holst, his daughter, was surprisingly candid about Holst’s sense of his own limitations at the end of his career:

 ‘As he listened to it, he realized what he had lost not only in his music but in his life. He could cling to his austerity. He could fill his days with kindliness and good humor. He could write music that was neither commonplace, unmeaning nor tame. And he could grope after ideas that were colossal and mysterious. But he missed the warmth of the Schubert Quintet.’

 1934 took a heavy toll on British composers. Elgar died on February 24th that year, and Gustav Holst died at Beaufort Nursing Home, Ealing, on 25th May. Delius died  June 10th. of that year.


 Those twentieth century blues, Michael Tippett, Pimlico, London 1994, P.15

(Sir Michael Tippett BBC Interview)

 A Musical Gazeteer of Great Britan and Ireland, Gerald Norris, David Charles, Newton Abbot/London, 1981, P.51

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