Gustav Holst: Wikis


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Statue of Gustav Holst in his home town of Cheltenham

Gustav Theodore Holst (21 September 1874 – 25 May 1934) was an English composer. He is most famous for his orchestral suite The Planets.[1]

Having studied at the Royal College of Music in London,[2] his early work was influenced by Grieg, Wagner,[3] Richard Strauss and fellow student Ralph Vaughan Williams,[4] and later, through Vaughan Williams, the music of Ravel.[2] The combined influence of Ravel, Hindu spiritualism and English folk tunes[2] enabled Holst to free himself of the influence of Wagner and Strauss and to forge his own style. Holst's music is well known for unconventional use of metre and haunting melodies.

Holst composed almost 200 works, including operas, ballets, choral hymns and songs (see Selected works below).

An enthusiastic educator, Holst became music master at St Paul's Girls' School in 1905 and director of music at Morley College in 1907, continuing in both posts until retirement.[2]

He was the brother of Hollywood actor Ernest Cossart and father of the composer and conductor Imogen Holst, who wrote a biography of him in 1938.[4]

He was originally named Gustavus Theodor von Holst, but he dropped the "von" from his name in response to anti-German sentiment in Britain during World War I, making it official by deed poll in 1918.[5][6][1][2]




Early life

Holst was born on 21 September 1874, at 4 Clarence Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England[1][5][7] to a family of Swedish extraction (by way of Latvia and Russia). The house was opened as a museum of Holst's life and times in 1974. He was educated at Cheltenham Grammar School for Boys.

Holst's grandfather, Gustavus von Holst of Riga, Latvia, a composer of elegant harp music, moved to England, becoming a notable harp teacher.[5] Holst's father Adolph von Holst, an organist, pianist and choirmaster, gave both piano lessons and recitals; and his mother, Clara von Holst, who died when Gustav was eight, was a singer.[5] As a frail child whose early recollections were musical, Holst had been taught to play piano and violin, and began composing when he was about twelve.[5]

Holst's father was the organist[1] at All Saints' Church in Pittville, and his childhood home is now a small museum, devoted partly to him and partly to illustrating local domestic life of the mid-19th century.

Holst grew up in the world of Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gauguin, Monet, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Puccini. Both he and his sister learned piano from an early age, but Holst, stricken with a nerve condition that affected the movement of his right hand in adolescence, gave up the piano for the trombone,[2] which was less painful to play.

Royal College of Music (1894 site), where Holst & Ralph Vaughan Williams studied in 1895

He attended the Royal College of Music[1] in London on a scholarship, studying with Charles V. Stanford, and there in 1895[5] he met fellow student and lifelong friend Ralph Vaughan Williams,[1] whose own music was mainly quite different from Holst’s,[5] but whose praise for his work was abundant and who later shared an interest in Holst teaching the English vocal and choral tradition (folk song, madrigals and church music).[2]

Holst was influenced during these years by socialism and attended lectures and speeches by George Bernard Shaw, with whom he shared a passion for vegetarianism, and by William Morris, both of whom were among the UK's most outspoken supporters of the socialist movement.

To earn a living in the period before he had a satisfactory income from his compositions, he played the trombone[1] in the Carl Rosa Opera Company[2] and in a popular orchestra called the "White Viennese Band", conducted by Stanislas Wurm. The music was cheap and repetitive and not to Holst's liking, and he referred to this kind of work as "worming" and regarded it as "criminal". His need to "worm" came to an end as his compositions became more successful, and his income was given stability by his teaching posts.[1]

During these early years, he was influenced greatly by the poetry of Walt Whitman, as were many of his contemporaries, and set his words in The Mystic Trumpeter (1904). He also set to music poetry by Thomas Hardy[5] and Robert Bridges.

It was also during these years that Holst became interested in Hindu mysticism and spirituality,[2] and this interest led to the composition of several works set to translations of Sanskrit texts, including: Sita (1899–1906), a three-act opera based on an episode in the Ramayana; Sāvitri (1908),[2] a chamber opera based on a tale from the Mahabharata; 4 groups of Hymns from the Rig Veda (1908–14); and two texts originally by Kalidasa: Two Eastern Pictures (1909–10) and The Cloud Messenger (1913). The texts of these last three works were translated by Holst himself.[8]

In order to make these translations from Sanskrit to English, Holst had enrolled at University College London (UCL), as a 'non-matriculated' student, to study the language. On 14 January 1909 he paid 5 guineas for Sanskrit classes during the spring and summer terms of that year. The UCL records also show that during this time he moved from 23 Grena Road in Richmond, to 10 The Terrace in Barnes. On 19 October 1909 he re-enrolled at UCL for the autumn term and we see that he paid 3 guineas "special fee" for his Sanskrit classes of "2 hours a week". The records end at this point, and so it seems he only spent one year as a student at UCL;[9] apparently this was sufficient for Holst's purposes.

Musical career

In 1905, Holst was appointed Director of Music at St Paul's Girls' School[2][10] in Hammersmith, London, where he composed the still popular St Paul's Suite[10] for the school orchestra in 1913.[1] In 1907, Holst also became director of music at Morley College.[2] These were the most important of his teaching posts, and he retained both until the end of his life.[2]

The house in Barnes where Holst lived between 1908 and 1913. A Blue plaque is fixed to the front of the building.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, musical society as a whole (and Holst's friend Vaughan Williams in particular) became interested in old English folksongs, madrigal singers,[2] and Tudor composers. Holst shared in his friend’s admiration for the simplicity and economy of these melodies, and their use in his compositions is one of his music’s most recognisable features.

Holst was an avid rambler. He walked extensively in Italy, France and England. He also travelled outside the bounds of Europe, heading to French-controlled Algeria in 1908[11] on doctor's orders as a treatment for asthma and the depression that crippled him after his submission failed to win the Ricordi Prize, a coveted award for composition. His travels in the Arab and Berber land, including an extensive cycling tour of the Algerian Sahara, inspired the suite Beni Mora, written upon his return.

After the lukewarm reception of his choral work The Cloud Messenger in 1912, Holst was again off travelling, financing a trip to Spain with fellow composers Balfour Gardiner and brothers Clifford and Arnold Bax with funds from an anonymous donation. Despite being shy, Holst was fascinated by people and society, and had always believed that the best way to learn about a city was to get lost in it. In Girona, Catalonia, he often disappeared, only to be found hours later by his friends having abstract debates with local musicians. It was in Spain that Clifford Bax introduced Holst to astrology, a hobby that was to inspire the later Planets suite. He read astrological fortunes until his death, and called his interest in the stars his "pet vice".

Shortly after his return, St Paul's Girls School[10] opened a new music wing, and Holst composed St Paul’s Suite[10] for the occasion.[1] In 1913, Stravinsky premiered The Rite of Spring, sparking riots in Paris and caustic criticism in London. A year later, Holst first heard Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, an "ultra-modern" set of five movements employing "extreme chromaticism" (the consistent use of all 12 musical notes). Although he had earlier lampooned the stranger aspects of modern music, the new music of Stravinsky[2] and Schoenberg influenced his work on The Planets.

Holst's compositions for wind band, though relatively small in number, guaranteed him a position as the medium's cornerstone, as seen in innumerable present-day programmes featuring his two Suites for Military Band. His one work for brass band, A Moorside Suite, remains an important part of the brass band repertoire.

Holst and wife Isobel bought a cottage in Thaxted, Essex and, surrounded by medieval buildings and ample rambling opportunities, he started work on the suite that would become his best known work, the orchestral suite The Planets. (The theme from "Jupiter" has been adapted as a hymn tune under the name of "Thaxted", and is usually sung to the words "I Vow to Thee My Country".)

Holst conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in the very first electrical recording of The Planets, in 1926, for HMV. Although, as his daughter Imogen noted, he couldn't quite achieve the gradual fade-out of women's voices and orchestra he had written (owing to the limitations of early electrical recording), it was a landmark recording of the work. The performance was later issued on LP and CD format.

At the onset of World War I, Holst tried to enlist but was rejected because of his bad eyes, bad lungs and bad digestion. In wartime England, Holst was persuaded to drop the "von" from his name, as it aroused suspicion. His new music, however, was readily received as "patriotic" and English music was demanded at concert halls, partly due to a ban on all "Teutonic" music. Towards the end of the war he was offered a post within the YMCA’s educational work programme as musical director and he set off for Salonica (present day Thessaloniki, Greece) and Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1918. While he was teaching music to troops eager to escape the drudgery of army life, The Planets Suite was being performed to audiences back home. Shortly after his return after the war’s end, Holst composed Ode to Death, based upon a poem by Walt Whitman.

During the years 1920–1923, Holst's popularity grew through the success of The Planets and The Hymn of Jesus (1917)[1] (based on the Apocryphal gospels), and the publication of a new opera, The Perfect Fool (a satire of a work by Wagner). Holst became something of "an anomaly, a famous English composer", and was busy with conducting, lecturing and teaching obligations. He hated publicity; he often refused to answer questions posed by the press and when asked for his autograph, handed out prepared cards that read, "I do not hand out my autograph". Always frail, after a collapse in 1923 he retired from teaching to devote the remaining (eleven) years of his life to composition.[1]

Later life

In the following years, Holst took advantage of new technology to publicise his work through sound recordings and the BBC’s wireless broadcasts. In 1927, he was commissioned by the New York Symphony Orchestra to write a symphony. He took this opportunity to work on an orchestral piece based on Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, a work that would become Egdon Heath and which would be first performed a month after Hardy’s death, in his memory. By this time, Holst was "going out of fashion", and the piece was poorly reviewed. However, Holst is said to have considered the short, subdued but powerful tone poem his greatest masterpiece. The piece has been much better received in recent years, with several recordings available.

Towards the end of his life, Holst wrote Choral Fantasia (1930),[1] and he was commissioned by the BBC to write a piece for military band; the resulting Hammersmith was a tribute to the place where he had spent most of his life, a musical expression of the London borough (of Hammersmith), which begins with an attempt to recreate the haunting sound of the River Thames sleepily flowing its way. He then made an orchestral version of this work for its first performance, sharing the programme with the London premiere of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast. This unlucky coincidence may account for its subsequent obscurity as an orchestral work.

Memorial within Chichester Cathedral

Holst had a lifetime of poor health, which worsened due to a concussion during a backward fall from the conductor's podium, from which he never fully recovered.[5] In his final four years, Holst grew ill with stomach problems. One of his last compositions, the Brook Green Suite, named after the land on which St Paul’s Girls’ School[10] was built, was performed for the first time a few months before his death. Holst died on 25 May 1934, of complications following stomach surgery, in London.[12] His ashes were interred at Chichester Cathedral in West Sussex, with Bishop George Bell giving the memorial oration at the funeral. On Sunday 27 September 2009, after a weekend of concerts at Chichester Cathedral in memory of Holst, a new memorial was unveiled to the public. On it are inscribed Holst's dates, and an epitaph, taken from the text of The Hymn of Jesus, reading "The heavenly spheres make music for us".

Audio biography

In 2007, BBC Radio 4 produced a radio play by Martyn Wade called The Bringer of Peace, which is an intimate biographical portrait of Holst. The play follows his early dismay at his lack of composing success, to the creation of The Planets suite, with the play's seven tiers following the structure of The Planets. Adrian Scarborough played Holst, and the producer was David Hitchinson.[13]


Extracts from The Planets can be found in the main article for the suite.

Selected works

For a more complete list, see List of compositions by Gustav Holst.

The following are some of the compositions by Holst:[14]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m ConcBritannica-GHolst Britannica Concise, "Gustav Holst", 2006, webpage
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q B-GH Encyclopædia Britannica Online, "Gustav Holst", 2006
  3. ^ Short, pp. 23-4
  4. ^ a b HighBeam Encyclopedia, "Gustav Holst", 2006, webpage: EC-GHolst.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Gustavus Theodore Holst" (biography), Classical Net, 2006, webpage: CNet-GHolst.
  6. ^ London Gazette: no. 30928, p. 11615, 1 October 1918. Retrieved on 2008-01-07.
  7. ^ Holst Birthplace Museum website
  8. ^ Colin Matthews. "Holst, Gustav." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed November 8, 2008).
  9. ^ This information was located in the UCL Record Office, November 2008 <>
  10. ^ a b c d e f The school does not use a dotted "St." in their title "St Paul's Girls' School" (see St Paul's website:
  11. ^ Short, pp.74-5
  12. ^ London Gazette: no. 34094, p. 6416, 9 October 1934. Retrieved on 2008-01-07.
  13. ^ BBC - Press Office - Network Radio Programme Information Week 4 Wednesday 23 January 2008
  14. ^ "Gustav Holst (1874–1934) | Compositions" (online), Kenric Taylor, 2006, webpage: GHI-opera.


  • Britannica Concise, "Gustav Holst", 2006, webpage: ConciseBritannica-GHolst.
  • Encyclopædia Britannica Online, "Gustav Holst", 2006, webpage: Britannica2006-GHolst.
  • Michael Short, Gustav Holst: The Man and his Music Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
  • Kenric Taylor, "Gustav Holst (1874–1934) | Compositions" (list of works), 2006, webpage: GHolstInfo-Compositions.

Further reading

  • Holst, Imogen, Gustav Holst: A Biography, Oxford University Press, 1938.
  • Holst, Imogen, Gustav Holst and Thaxtead (4-page pamphlet)
  • Randel, Michael, The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, Harvard University Press, 1996. Cf. p. 390.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Gustavus Theodore von Holst (1874-09-211934-05-25) was an English composer and music teacher. He is best remembered for his choral music and works for orchestra, of which the most famous is certainly The Planets. He changed his name to Gustav Holst during the First World War because of prevalent anti-German feeling.


  • Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you.
    • Cited in Imogen Holst The Music of Gustav Holst (1951) p. 73 as "His favourite piece of advice".
  • Always ask for advice but never take it.
  • If nobody likes your work, you have to go on just for the sake of the work. And you're in no danger of letting the public make you repeat yourself. Every artist ought to pray that he may not be "a success". If he's a failure he stands a good chance of concentrating upon the best work of which he's capable.
    • Remark to Clifford Bax, reported in Imogen Holst Gustav Holst: A Biography (1969) p. 81.
  • One of the advantages of being over forty is that one begins to learn the difference between knowing and realising.
    • Letter to W G Whittaker, 1914, quoted in Paul Holmes Holst p. 62.
  • Music, being identical with heaven, isn't a thing of momentary thrills, or even hourly ones. It's a condition of eternity.
    • Letter to W G Whittaker, 1914, quoted in Paul Holmes Holst p. 62.

External links

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Simple English

Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst (b. Cheltenham, 21 September 1874; d. London, 25 May 1934) was a famous English composer.[1][2] He studied composition at the Royal College of Music in London.[2] He also learned to play the trombone. He became Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith, (London).[2] Some of his music was written for the pupils at this school, for example: the popular St Paul’s Suite (1912-1913) for string orchestra. His most famous work is The Planets (1918). This is a suite of seven movements for orchestra, each about a different planet (the Earth is not included, and Pluto had not yet been discovered). The music does not really describe the planets, it describes the Roman gods after which the planets are named. Mars, for example, is the “Bringer of War”. It has a very exciting rhythm with five beats in a bar. Jupiter has a tune which has become famous as the hymnI Vow to Thee, My Country”.


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