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About Gustav Holst

Meet the composer, Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst: Overview

  • Born September 21, 1874 - Cheltemham, England
  • Died: May 25, 1934 - London, England
  • Historical period: Modern (popular)
  • Compositional media: Orchestral, band, keyboard, choral, chamber, ballet, opera 

Gustav Holst was a revered English composer who said, “Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you”. This has a deep significance for us music lovers who are looking for a cause to make music a way of life.

Holst was born on September 21st, 1874 in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in England. After an eventful and famous life, he passed away on May 25th, 1934 in London, England. 

He enjoyed widespread fame, particularly for his The Planets Op. 32 and belonged to the modern historical period. 

His compositional media includes opera, ballet, chamber music, band, orchestral, choral, among others. 

Apart from The Planets, his notable work includes:

  • St.Paul's Suite
  • Brook Green Suite
  • The Perfect Fool
  • Sita
  • The Hymn of Jesus
  • A Choral Fantasia

English composer, Gustav Holst

Dive in more about Gustav Holst: The Architect of Musical Diversity

Gustav Holst was a major influencer of 20th century music, especially the rock genre. A post-romantic and modern composer, Holst was intensely passionate about English folk music and played an important role in the advent of English orchestral music beyond the United Kingdom. Not only a brilliant composer, Holst was also a great teacher who could impart his musical knowledge to those enthusiastic enough.  

Holst’s music was particularly distinct as he was heavily influenced from eastern sources. From operas to chamber music to Indian literature, the diversity brought forth by Holst is unparalleled. 

A student at the Royal College of Music with a scholarship, he met his lifelong friend and supporter Ralph Vaughan Williams. Williams had a different preference for music but remained a believer in Holst for life. 

Holst was greatly moved and subsequently influenced by Wagner’s music. William Morris, who also had an influence on the eminent composer, persuaded Holst to join the Hammersmith Socialist Choir.  Gustav Holst composed the The Cloud Messenger in 1912 and the St. Paul’s Suite in the year 1913. The former received a very unenthusiastic reception from the audiences and Holst travelled across Europe for inspiration which he readily found in the works of Igor Stravinsky and A. Schoenberg, which reflect in his work, The Planets.

To talk about The Planets, we need to go back to its history and the thought put into it. Holst was introduced to astrology by his friend, the poet and playwright, Clifford Bax. The orchestral suite was more about the planets’ effects on the human psyche than astronomy itself. The Planets were publicly performed for the first time at the London Symphony Orchestra in the year 1920 where Holst decided to begin his suite with Mars, the Bringer of War. Many consider this step to be an influence of the First World War and it inspires the sensation of battle-scarred Belgium, with its destroyed cathedrals and ravaged population. In spite of this, there is a lighter side to it, from the beginning to the conclusion, representing the entire war. 

Venus, the Bringer of Peace, on the other hand, projects a utopia possessing an emotional equilibrium. Though the female choir of Neptune, the Mystic and Saturn, the Bringer Old Age are calm compositions, The Planets, as a whole, is a vibrant and loud production. 

The rest of the planets are indicated/played as:

Mercury, the Winged Messenger as the messenger between worlds. 

Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity quite possibly represents the peak of our lives. 

Uranus, the Magician is an unconventional scherzo towards a brilliant musical climax. 

Additionally, it is noticeable that Holst was clearly under the influence of Romantic greats such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky which is evident in the strong sense of high and low, in the emotional waves of The Planets.

For brass bands, he composed A Moorside Suite, which is well-known and popular. Further on, during World War 1, his music was widely received among the patriotic masses of wartime UK, while a ban was put on all Germanic music. 

As the war ended, Gustav Holst was offered a position at the YMCA’s educational work. After the war, he wrote Ode to Death, based upon Whitman’s poem. The Hymn of Jesus was written in 1917 and adapted from the Apocryphal gospels while another opera, The Perfect Fool is based off a satirical work by Wagner.

To sum it up, Gustav Holst was a pioneer of sorts in the musical world in the 20th century influencing genres and individuals alike. His tune, evidently influenced by a variety of backgrounds and wonderfully crafted for people across the world to like, has become immortal in the history pages. Gustav Holst has become an eternal symbol for not only English but world music as a whole. 

 

Reference: 

Piano solo sheet music of compositions written by Gustav Holst available in multiple levels: