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Out of the many composers of the Twentieth Century, Gustav Holst stands out as being one of the greatest. His works inspired composers of many science fiction movie soundtracks such as “Star Wars”, in which John William’s composed. Although “The Planets” are very known, other works, such as “First Suite in Eb” and “Second Suite in F” are not as widely known, although Holst had hoped them to
be known. To understand the music he wrote, one must first understand his background and the time period in which he wrote.
Gustav Holst was born as Gustavus Theodore von Holst in 1874 at 4 Pittfield Terrace Cheltenham (England) as the first child of Adolph von Holst and his wife, Claira. In 1887, he went to grammar school up until 1882, when he was appointed organist at Wyic Rissington. In 1893, he entered the Royal College of Music as a student. Due to his Neuritis, he was forced to give up playing piano in 1894 due to his neuritis, which is an inflammation of one’s nerve cells, causing pain (like Carpo-Tunnel). Before
this affliction in 1894, Holst had already written an Operetta “Lansdowne Castle” which was produced at the Corn Exchange.
In 1895, von Holst had written Opus
no. 1, “The Revoke”, an Operetta in one act. In the mean
time, he was awarded an open scholarship for composition
at the College. From there von Holst moved on to become conductor of the Hammersmith Socialist Choir until 1898. While Conducting the Hammersmith Choir, he got engaged to Isobel Harrison. He left the choir in 1898 to play trombone
in the Carl Rosa Opera Company and the Scottish Orchestra. Finally in 1901, he married Isobel Harrison. He gave up Trombone and began teaching at the James Allen Girls
School, which he stayed until 1921, and where his most famous works would be written. In the time period from
1903 to 1910 he wrote “The Mystic Trumpeter”, “A
Summer Rhapsody”, “Sivitor”, and “Beni Mora”. He had also became the Director of Music at Morley College. All these pieces that Holst wrote during this time period are sadly not well known. However, von Holst’s fame was yet to come.
In July of 1914, an assassination
of a single man, Arch Duke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated. This murder in effect caused World War 1.
Ironically, only months before the War, von Holst wrote “Mars, Bringer of War”. In a steady 5/4 tempo, it gives the feeling of an actual war taking place. It starts at a triple piano, with a low brass solo including Euphonium. The relentless Triplet-Quarter-Quarter-Eighth-Eighth-Quarter rhythm gives the feeling of a war taking place. The piece has two climaxes, one at the end of the first half of the piece and one at the end, both at triple forte. The most interesting aspect of this piece, though, is the time period in which it was written; it almost seems that von Holst expected for war to break out. However, the first actual performance came after the war. Also during the year 1914 von Holst composed Venus and Jupiter of the Planets Suite.
Venus, Bringer of Peace, begins with a French Horn solo and includes a Harp in the piece to give the feeling of peace and Tranquillity, while Jupiter starts with a flurry of strings in 4/4 time that is answered with a brass soli. It then goes into 3/4 time with different sections of the orchestra getting the melody, until it reaches a climax in triple forte in middle of the peace. It then goes again into 3/4 time, but slower, to give the
feeling that Jupiter is important, like a king’s music in a movie. After this, the same melody as the beginning comes
out again in 4/4, and again it goes into 3/4 time with the orchestra’s sections answering each other, until the end of the peace, which ends in a Triple Forte.
Holst continued his work on The Planets in 1915, completing Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Saturn is a slow 4/4 piece that gives the feeling of old age. Saturn incorporates use of the harp and chimes to create this feeling. Uranus, the Magician, is and English “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, although Holst had never heard Dukas’ work. Finally, Neptune, the Mystic, with it’s wordless women’s choir and soaring harmonies gives a feeling of a place where all humanity was banished.
The Planets was completed in 1916. However, it’s first performance was held privately in Queen’s Hall, London, in September 1918, conducted by Adrian Boult. An incomplete public performance followed in February 1919, and rapidly afterwards became Holst’s best known work.
In the mean time, on Holst in 1917 composed The Hymn of Jesus, while he was completing
the orchestrations for The Planets. In 1918, he composed the ballet music for Perfect Fool. He had also changed his name from von Holst to Holst, the name he is known as today. During 1919, is had also composed Ode to Death.
By 1922, The Planets were becoming very popular, and in this year Holst composed A Fugal Overture. Holst, however, suffered an injury when he fell on his head from the rostrum while conducting at Reading in February of that year. He still managed, however, to
compose A Fugal Concerto. Holst’s work, though, was
beginning to catch up with him. In 1924 Holst suffered a nervous breakdown due to overwork and had to take a years rest at Thaxted.
In 1927, a Holst Festival was held at Cheltenham, England in march, and in 1928 he conducted the first European performance of Egdon Heath in Cheltonham during the date of February 13. He was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society for his Double Concerto in 1930, and in the same year he composed The Wandering Scholar.
During 1932, he was the visiting Lecturer
of Composition at Harvard University in the United States. It was at this time he was taken ill on March 26; he returned to England June 2nd of that year. In the mean time First performances of The Wandering Scholar and The Lyric Movement came in 1933. It was in May 1934 that Gustav Holst died in London. His ashes were interred at the Chichester Cathedral June 24th.
Two pieces not yet mentioned above are The First Suite in Eb and the Second Suite in F Major, written by Holst in 1909. The two military suites
were intended for a Concert Band. Holst was optimistic that the Concert Band would be a more popular artform in the years to follow; however, this did not ring true. Holst’s own experience as a band musician playing trombone
allowed him to write band music as band music, not like other composers who would first write orchestral music and the try their hand at writing Band music. The First Suite in Eb was geared to a folk song character, particularly a loud third movement, the March, that brings the piece to a glorious conclusion. Holst’s own experience
as a low brass player brought in the incorporation of newer Brass instruments like the Tuba and the Euphonium, and for Woodwinds the use of the Saxophone. These instruments later became the foundation of many of his other works, such as The Planets.
Second Suite in F has four movements, rather than the First Suite’s three, and is in the key, of course, of F Major. The first movement starts with the March, unlike the First Suite that starts with a Chaconne, and a Tuba solo leads the piece of to the March. The March incorporates a Euphonium solo in what sounds like a typical Trio heard in Marches such as Stars and Stripes Forever by John Phillip Sousa and continues with a 6/8 meter and key change to Db. The second movement, Song Without Words, cites the tune “I Love My Love”, while the brief third movement, Song of the
Blacksmith serves as a kind of scherzo, and incorporates a REAL anvil for percussion. The forth and final movement, “Fantasia on the Darason” is a mix between The Irish Washer Woman and Greensleeves, again incorporating a Euphonium solo wailing out “Greensleeves” going into a Tuba Melody solo and ending with a Tuba Piccolo soli.
Both Suites for military band did not get the same recognition as Holst’s other works. However, they show Holst’s ability to write Concert Band material. Holst wrote many pieces during his life, yet many do no get the recognition of many because they have been long forgotten. The Planets, as Holst hoped, became a huge success. However, Holst had also had the same hope for the two military suites. In Holst’s last ten years before he died, he had become separated from the outside world to write. His Neuritis prevented him from teaching and conducting music. He had taught when he was not writing at various schools, and he had done things that others had not tried yet, such as write the Military Suites for concert band and incorporated new instruments, like the Tuba and Euphonium. In conclusion, Holst should be regarded as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.
Footnotes are written according to Bibliography. The number of the Foot Note matches the sources in the Bibliograpgy.
- 1. Cd Covor of “The Planets/Elgar Variations” Performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra, Copyright 1979, published 1971 by EMI RECORDS Ltd.
- 2. Cd Covor of “Holst - Hammersmith (A Moorside Suite, Suite in Eb, Suite #2 in F Major.)” Performed by the Dallas Wind Symphony Conducted by Howard Dunn, Recorded June 20-22, 1990 by REFERENCE RECORDINGS, Copyright 1991.
- 3. COMPOSERS SINCE 1900 Copyright 1969 By The H. W. Wilson Company
- 4. THE GREAT COMPOSERS: HOLST- by Imogen Holst, Published by Faber and Faber, 1981.
- 5. HOLST: The Planets - By Richard Greene, Cambridge, 1995
- 6. GUSTAV HOLST - By Imogen Holst, Oxford University Press, 1938
- 7. GUSTAV HOLST - By Micheal Short, Oxford University Press, 1990
- 8. GUSTAV HOLST : THE HYMN OF JESUS OP. 37 - By Harry Neville from a Bostan Symphony Orchestra Program.
- 9. GUSTAV HOLST : THE PLANETS, OPUS 32 - By Michael Steinberg from a Boston Symphony Orchestra program.
- 10. THE MUSIC OF GUSTAV HOLST - By Imogen Holst, Oxford University Press, revised 1984.
- 11. PIONEER OF THE PLANETS - By John Warrack from Observer magazine, 09/22/74
- 12. A SCRAPBOOK FOR THE HOLST BIRTHPLACE MUESEUM - Compiled by Imogen Holst, Gustav and Holst Ltd. 1978