Gustav Theodore HolstCheltenham
21 September 1874 – 25 May 1934
 
 
 
 

Despite his foreign name Gustav Holst was a genuine English composer, arranger and music teacher who was born and bred in the Gloucestershire Regency town of Cheltenham Spa. Best known for The Planets, he composed a large number of other works across a range of genres, although none achieved comparable success.
 
The Holst Family
Cheltenham’s musical culture was shaped over four generations by the Holst family of professional musicians. Holst's great-grandfather, Matthias Holst was of German origin and born in Riga, Latvia. He served as composer and harp-teacher to the Imperial Russian Court in St Petersburg until 1802 when the family moved to England in search of better prospects.
 
In the 1850s Holst’s grandfather moved the family from London to a permanent home in Cheltenham where he established himself as a Professor of Music both for individual tuition and for group classes at Cheltenham Ladies’ College.
 
Early Life
The Holst name was synonymous with extraordinary musical talent. Each generation spawned at least one or more professional musicians. Holst’s father, Adolph was organist and choirmaster at All Saints' Church, Cheltenham. He also taught, and gave piano recitals.
 
Gustav’s mother, Clara was a former pupil of Adolph Holst. She was of mostly British descent, the daughter of a respected Cirencester solicitor, and a talented singer and pianist.
 
While living at 4 Clarence Road, Adolph and Clara had two sons. The two boys could not have been more different. The eldest, Gustav Theodore was sensitive, shy and suffered from asthma and poor eyesight. Gustav’s young brother, Emil Gottfried was confident and outgoing and went on to become known as Ernest Cossart, a successful actor in the West End, New York and Hollywood.
 
Unfortunately, Gustav’s mother died in February 1882 leaving Adolph with two young boys to bring up. The family moved to another house in Cheltenham, where Adolph recruited his sister Nina to help raise the boys. Gustav recognised her devotion to the family and dedicated several of his early compositions to her.
 
In 1885 Adolph married again, Mary Thorley Stone, another of his pupils. They had two sons, Matthias (known as "Max") and Evelyn ("Thorley"). Mary Holst was not particularly interested in being a mother, preferring to spend most of her time absorbed in mystical theology.
 
She basically ignored the children and All four of Adolph's sons were subject to what one biographer calls "benign neglect", and Gustav in particular was "not overburdened with attention or understanding. As well as being short-sighted and asthmatic, he suffered from neuritis in the right arm which made playing the piano difficult. He said that the affected arm was "like a jelly overcharged with electricity". However, he was blessed with a prodigious musical talent from an early age.
 
Education
Holst was taught to play the piano and the violin, and at the age of twelve he took up the trombone at Adolph's suggestion, thinking that playing a brass instrument might improve his asthma.
 
Holst was educated at Cheltenham Grammar School between 1886 and 1891. He started composing c.1886. His early compositions included piano pieces, organ voluntaries, songs, anthems and a symphony (from 1892).
 
After leaving school in 1891, Adolph paid for him to spend four months in Oxford studying counterpoint with George Frederick Sims, organist of Merton College.
 
Early Career
On his return Holst obtained his first professional appointment, aged seventeen, as organist and choirmaster at Wyck Rissington, Gloucestershire. The post brought with it the conductorship of the Bourton-on-the-Water Choral Society, which offered no extra remuneration but provided valuable experience that enabled him to hone his conducting skills.
 
Gustav’s first public appearance as a pianist was in 1891 when he and his father played the Brahms Hungarian Dances at a concert in Cheltenham. He desperately wanted to be a professional pianist but his affected right arm prevented this; instead, Gustav decided to become a composer. Despite reservations, Gustav’s father borrowed money in 1893 to send his son to the London Royal College of Music to study composition.
 
Studying at the Royal College
Attending the College transformed Gustav’s life. At last He could mix with people with similar ideas and opinions. Money was tight, so Holst adopted a frugal and austere lifestyle becoming a vegetarian and a teetotaller. Two years later he was finally granted a scholarship, which slightly eased his financial difficulties, but he retained his austere personal regime.
 
To support himself during his studies Holst played the trombone in professional orchestras at seaside resorts in the summer, and in London theatres in the winter. He secured an occasional engagement in symphony concerts, playing in 1897 under the baton of Richard Strauss at the Queen's Hall. He went on to compose some fine orchestral pieces as a result of this experience.
 
From his fees as a player he was able to afford the necessities of life: board and lodging, manuscript paper, and tickets for standing room in the gallery at Covent Garden Opera House on Wagner evenings. He was so influenced by Richard Wagner that his first compositions were almost Wagnerian copies until he was told by his professors to develop his own style.
 
In his second year at college Gustav met his lifelong friend Ralph Vaughan Williams. They believed they learnt more from each other than from their teachers and would criticise each other’s work - each would play his latest composition to the other while still working on it.
 
Socialist politics were becoming fashionable and Gustav joined the Kelmscott House Socialist Club in Hammersmith, attending lectures by William Morris and George Bernard Shaw. He was invited to conduct the Hammersmith Socialist Choir who he taught to sing madrigals by Thomas Morley, choruses by Purcell, and works by Mozart, Wagner and himself.
 
Falling in Love
He fell in love with one of his choristers, Emily Isobel Harrison (1876–1969), a beautiful soprano two years his junior. At first she was unimpressed by him, but she succumbed and they became engaged although with no immediate prospect of marriage given Holst's tiny income.
 
Gustav left the College and in 1898 took up a position as first trombonist and répétiteur with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and toured with the Scottish Orchestra. With a modest income secured, Holst was able to marry Isobel on 22 June 1901 at Fulham Register Office.
 
In 1903 Adolph von Holst died, leaving a small legacy. Gustav and his wife decided, that "as they were always hard up the only thing to do was to spend it all at once on a holiday in Germany".
 
Gustav took time to reappraise his professional life whilst on holiday, and in 1903 he decided to abandon orchestral playing to concentrate on composition. Sadly his earnings as a composer were too little to live on so in 1903 he started to supplement his income by teaching. By 1905 they wanted to start a family so he accepted the offer of a teaching post at James Allen's Girls' School, Dulwich, which he held until 1921. Their daughter Imogen was born in 1907.
 
Teaching
Although teaching was not his first love, Gustav was brilliant at it. He was a great communicator, preferring to discuss new ideas with his students instead of lecturing them on history and tradition.
 
According to the composer Edmund Rubbra, who studied under him in the early 1920s, Holst was "a teacher who often came to lessons weighted, not with the learning of Prout and Stainer, but with a miniature score of Petrushka or the then recently published Mass in G minor of Vaughan Williams".
 
He never sought to impose his own ideas on his composition pupils. Rubbra recalled that he would divine a student's difficulties and gently guide him to finding the solution for himself. "I do not recall that Holst added one single note of his own to anything I wrote, but he would suggest—if I agreed!—that, given such and such a phrase, the following one would be better if it took such and such a course; if I did not see this, the point would not be insisted upon... He frequently took away [because of] his abhorrence of unessentials."
 
He also taught at the Passmore Edwards Settlement, where among other innovations he gave the British premieres of two Bach cantatas.
 
The two teaching posts for which he is probably best known were director of music at St Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith (1905 – 1934), and director of music at Morley College, South London from 1907 to 1924.
 
Gustav completely transformed St Paul’s by training its pupils to perform serious music; several of his pupils went on to become professional singers and soloists.
 
Of Holst's impact on Morley College, Vaughan Williams wrote: "[A] bad tradition had to be broken down. The results were at first discouraging, but soon a new spirit appeared and the music of Morley College, together with its offshoot the 'Whitsuntide Festival'... became a force to be reckoned with".
 
Before Holst's appointment, Morley College had not treated music very seriously and at first Holst's exacting demands drove many students away. He persevered, and gradually built up a class of dedicated music-lovers.
 
In 1913, St Paul's Girls' School opened a new music wing, and Holst composed St Paul's Suite for the occasion. The new building contained a sound-proof room, handsomely equipped, where he could work undisturbed. Gustav moved hisfamily to a house in Brook Green, very close to the school.
 
Thaxted
Holst and his wife bought a cottage in Thaxted, Essex for use at weekends and during school holidays. Surrounded by mediaeval buildings with ample rambling opportunities, Thaxted suited them admirably. In 1917 they moved to a house in the centre of the town, where they stayed until 1925.
 
Whilst at Thaxted, Gustav’s socialist leanings led him to becoming involved with the Rev Conrad Noel, known as the ‘Red Vicar’. Always happy to help the church by playing the organ and training the choir, Gustav was horrified when Noel started politically haranguing the congregation from the pulpit.
 
Noel demanded in a Saturday message during the service that there should be a greater commitment to Socialism from those who participated in the church activities; his claim that several of Holst's pupils (implicitly those from St Paul's Girls' School) were merely Socialist ‘camp followers’ caused offence. Holst, anxious to protect his students from being embroiled in ecclesiastical conflict, moved the Whitsun Festival to Dulwich, though he himself continued to help with the Thaxted choir and to play the church organ on occasion.
 
First World War (1914-18)
At the outbreak of the First World War, Holst tried to enlist but was rejected as unfit for military service. He felt frustrated that he could not contribute to the war effort. His wife became a volunteer ambulance driver; Vaughan Williams went on active service to France as did Holst's brother Emil.
 
Throughout the war he continued to teach and compose; he worked on The Planets and prepared his chamber opera Savitri for performance. In 1917 he wrote The Hymn of Jesus for chorus and orchestra, a work which remained unperformed until after the war.
 
In 1918, as the war neared its end, Holst finally had the prospect of a job that offered him the chance to serve. The music section of the YMCA's education department needed volunteers to work with British troops stationed in Europe awaiting demobilisation. Morley College and St Paul's Girls' School offered him a year's leave of absence, but there remained one obstacle: the YMCA felt that his surname looked too German to be acceptable in such a role. He formally changed "von Holst" to "Holst" by deed poll in September 1918. He was appointed as the YMCA's musical organiser for the Near East, based in Salonica.
 
First Performance of The Planets
Holst was given a spectacular send-off. The conductor Adrian Boult recalled:
 
"Just before the Armistice, Gustav Holst burst into my office: 'Adrian, the YMCA are sending me to Salonica quite soon and Balfour Gardiner, bless his heart, has given me a parting present consisting of the Queen's Hall, full of the Queen's Hall Orchestra for the whole of a Sunday morning. So we're going to do The Planets, and you've got to conduct!”
 
There was a burst of activity to get things ready in time. The girls at St Paul's helped to copy out the orchestral parts, and the women of Morley and the St Paul's girls learned the choral part in the last movement. The performance was given on 29 September to an invited audience including Sir Henry Wood and most of the professional musicians in London.
 
Five months later, when Holst was in Greece, Boult introduced The Planets to the general public, at a concert in February 1919; Holst sent him a long letter full of suggestions, but failed to convince him that the suite should be played in full. The conductor believed that about half an hour of such radically new music was all the public could absorb at first hearing, and he gave only five of the seven movements on that occasion.
 
Holst enjoyed his time in Salonica, from where he was able to visit Athens, which greatly impressed him. His musical duties were wide-ranging, and he was occasionally asked to play the violin in the local orchestra. He loved doing this but his natural modesty prevented him from appreciating how much they valued his participation. He returned to England in June 1919.
 
Post-war
On his return from Greece, Holst resumed his teaching and composing. In addition to his existing work he accepted a lectureship in composition at the University of Reading and joined Vaughan Williams in teaching composition at the Royal College of Music.
 
Fame
After years of composing music that was too modern for his time, Holst, in his forties, suddenly found himself in demand. The New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra vied to be the first to play The Planets in the USA. The success of that work was followed in 1920 by an enthusiastic reception for the previously unperformed The Hymn of Jesus.
 
To his surprise and dismay Holst was becoming famous. Celebrity was something wholly foreign to his nature and he struggled for the rest of his life to escape the publicity, public misunderstanding and professional envy engendered by his success. He turned down honours and awards offered to him, and refused to give interviews or autographs.
 
Things came to a head at a concert in Reading in 1923 when Holst slipped and fell, suffering concussion. He seemed to make a good recovery, and he felt up to accepting an invitation to the USA, lecturing and conducting at the University of Michigan.
 
After he returned he found himself more and more in demand, to conduct, prepare his earlier works for publication, and, as before, to teach. The strain caused by these demands on him was too great. On doctor's orders he cancelled all professional engagements during 1924, and retreated to Thaxted. In 1925 he resumed his work at St Paul's Girls' School, but did not return to any of his other posts.
 
Holst's productivity as a composer benefited almost at once from his release from other work and during the next seven years he produced a wide variety of work in different genres including a score for a film.
 
Lecturing at Harvard University
For the first six months of 1932 Holst held a lectureship at Harvard University. He enjoyed his time there but fell ill with a duodenal ulcer. He returned to England and his brother Emil, joined him for a brief holiday in the Cotswolds. Gustav’s health declined further, and he excluded more musical activities. One of his last efforts was to guide the young players of the St Paul's Girls' School orchestra through one of his final compositions, the Brook Green Suite, in March 1934.
 
Death
Holst died in London on 25 May 1934, at the age of 59, of heart failure following an operation on his ulcer. His ashes are interred at Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, close to the memorial to Thomas Weelkes, his favourite Tudor composer.
 
Holst’s Music
Holst was a composer for the people, who believed it was a composer's duty to provide music for practical purposes—festivals, celebrations, ceremonies, Christmas carols or simple hymn tunes. Many people believe they have never heard a major work by Gustav Holst but it is almost certain that they have derived great pleasure from hearing or singing such small masterpieces as the carol 'In the Bleak Midwinter'.
 
Gustav Holst’s music paints a clear picture of his chosen subject. In his composition about the solar system, The Planets, each planet has a distinctive theme and there can be no doubt about which celestial body he is writing.
 
As a composer he was frequently inspired by literature, setting poetry by Thomas Hardy, Robert Bridges, Max Müller and Walt Whitman to music. He also frequently included melodies from English and foreign folksongs in his compositions.
 
Gustav was a keen rambler. He walked extensively in England, Italy, France and Algeria. In 1908 he travelled to Algeria on medical advice as a treatment for asthma and the depression that he suffered after his opera Sita failed to win the Ricordi prize. This trip inspired the suite Beni Mora, which incorporated music he heard in the Algerian streets.
 
He did not found or lead a school of composition; nevertheless, he exercised influences over both contemporaries and successors such as Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten and William Walton.