Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934)

Although he is most famous for his orchestral suite The Planets, Gustav Holst was a prolific composer of operas, ballets, choral and vocal music, symphonic pieces, and chamber music.

Holst was born in 1874 in Cheltenham, England into a family of Swedish origin with a long musical history. He studied piano and violin and began composing in his early teens. He was often in ill-health throughout his life, so his father suggested he play trombone to help his asthma. After receiving a scholarship, he attended the Royal College of Music and studied composition with Charles Stanford. He also met his lifelong friend and fellow composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams there. Holst’s early music was influenced by Wagner and Richard Strauss, as well as the literary works of Walt Whitman and Thomas Hardy. He also had a deep interest in Hinduism and East Indian culture. This is reflected in his early works such as The Mystic Trumpeter, (based on Whitman’s poem), the Hindu opera Sāvitri, and the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, (which were translated from Sanskrit into English by Holst himself).

Some of Holst’s most popular music are the two Suites for Military Band, op. 28. These two suites were some of the first original concert works for symphonic band and are foundational works in the concert band repertoire. He later wrote the Hammersmith for band and the Moorside Suite for brass band.

Like Vivaldi before him, Holst became the music director for a school for girls in London, the St. Paul’s school. He also held the same post at Morley College. He wrote his St. Paul’s Suite and Brook Green Suite for his students. After traveling to Northern Africa and Spain, Holst became acquainted with the music of Stravinsky, Ravel, and Schoenberg. Although he was already establishing a personal style in composition, the influence of these composers helped shaped his use of harmony and instrumental color. Like Vaughan Williams, he also had a deep love for English folksongs and used several of them or imitations of them in his music.

Before the outbreak of World War I, Holst and his wife bought a home in Thaxted, England. Holst used many inhabitants of the town as inspiration for the music that would become his most famous, The Planets, written during the early years of WWI and premiered in 1920. It has become one of the most frequently performed orchestral showpieces and is very popular with concert audiences. The slow theme from the “Jupiter” movement was later used as a hymn tune. (Holst also wrote the music for the Christmas carol In The Bleak Midwinter, with the text by poet Christina Rosetti.) Holst recorded The Planets on two separate occasions with the London Symphony Orchestra. Another influential recording of the work was done by the Japanese musician Isao Tomita on synthesizer. The “spacey” effects combined with Holst’s music influenced countless Hollywood composers for science fiction movies, including John Williams and his music for Star Wars.

Around the time that he composed The Planets, Holst also had success with the choral piece The Hymn of Jesus and the satirical opera The Perfect Fool, of which the ballet music is still frequently performed and recorded. Towards the end of his life, Holst’s music was out of fashion from the more modern-sounding music of Schoenberg, Bartók, and Stravinsky. One of Holst’s last works was the tone poem Egdon Heath, based on the novels of Thomas Hardy and commissioned by the New York Symphony. It was not a critical success at the time, but has become much more popular with today’s audiences. After a concussion from a fall off of the conducting podium, Holst developed digestive problems and died from complications after surgery. He left a legacy in his wonderful music; a legacy that he passed on to his daughter Imogen, who became a composer, conductor, and author, including the biography of her father.

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Reading:

Imogen Holst. Gustav Holst: A Biography.