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Gustav Holst: An intellectual and original composer

It is a misfortune shared by several composers — notably British ones, who still struggle to be valued by those loath to travel beyond Mozart and Beethoven — to be known for only one work, despite having written many that merit recognition. It was Gustav Holst's misfortune to have written The Planets, which made him famous, and have given him an international reputation since he died in 1934. And yet Holst wrote music of almost uniformly high quality, much of which is little known, even though well recorded. 

In the 1960s and 1970s Lyrita Records made some fine LPs of some of his music, but his champions now are Chandos. The label has brought out much of Holst's catalogue, notably in a project under Richard Hickox, cruelly interrupted by his sudden and premature death five years ago. Its latest release is of the composer's early work for soprano and orchestra, The Mystic Trumpeter, from 1904, and his choral masterpiece, the First Choral Symphony of 1924, both conducted by Sir Andrew Davis with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. They follow on from a fine orchestral collection Chandos issued in 2011, also under Davis but with the BBC Philharmonic, of The Planets, the Oriental Suite Beni Mora (inspired by a visit Holst paid to Algiers before the Great War) and his Japanese Suite, written in 1915. Davis has just recorded, also for Chandos, Holst's "A Song of the Night", on a CD featuring E.J. Moeran's Violin Concerto, rapturously played by Tasmin Little. Hickox's last Holst recording for the label, of the composer's ballet music (The Perfect FoolThe Golden GooseThe Lureand The Morning of the Year) came out in 2009.

All this recorded Holst — Chandos did much more of the highest quality under Hickox in the 1990s and 2000s, and the Lyrita recordings (including a benchmark disc of orchestral works under Sir Adrian Boult) are all now out on CD — should provoke a revaluation of the composer, beyond The Planets. Holst's life was a struggle. He was of Swedish descent — he was von Holst until the coming of the war in 1914 caused him to drop the first part — and born in 1874 into a family of musicians in Cheltenham. He had what the Victorians called a feeble constitution — asthma, poor eyesight (aggravated by a bad diet) and a weak stomach. There was insufficient money to send him to the Royal College of Music, and he failed to win a scholarship, but so conspicuous was his talent that his father borrowed the money required. He was taught by Charles Stanford, with whom he had a tense relationship; but he met Vaughan Williams there in 1895 and that became the most important friendship of his life. Holst was a more original composer than his now more famous friend, and submitted himself to wider influences. He was fascinated by India, the Arab world, mysticism and astrology (the last interest being responsible for The Planets). Yet much of his music was treated quizzically in his lifetime, and he endured a long period of neglect after his death; until the 1960s, almost nothing except The Planets had been recorded.

Part of this was down to the cultural cringe about British music. Vaughan Williams observed that had Beni Mora had its first performance in Paris, Holst would have been internationally celebrated a decade before The Planets. Once he had established himself with that great work he continued to try to innovate in his music, which meant his audience felt estranged from him. His First Choral Symphony, which he considered his finest work (with good reason) was, and sometimes still is, dismissed as "cold". His daughter Imogen, who became Benjamin Britten's amanuensis, claimed her father's music lacked "warmth", and such was her authority in the matter that no one dared question her view. Others have called Holst "austere". It is a matter of individual taste: but a dive into the wider expanses of Holst's repertoire will receive much that is beautiful, arresting and moving, and which is above all revelatory of a conspicuous talent.

The early Holst — he was writing serious works in the late 1890s — is 19th century in more ways than one. He bears Wagner's influence and, like Parry, Brahms's heavily upon him. Like Vaughan Williams he finds folk-song in the early years of the 20th century, and his idiom becomes temporarily more Anglicised. Even when the oriental influences prevail in his music — which they do by the time of Beni Mora in 1909 — it is safely within a language unthreatening to the English ear, but with moments of radical innovation and exoticism. If some of the earlier, folk music-inspired Holst is predictable, nothing could be less true of works from his oriental period onwards. He is a composer who orders the listener to think and to be alert. Some of his contemporary critics accused him of being unduly cerebral, or of over-intellectualising his music. That would appear to have been more their problem than his, and suggests a reluctance on their part to engage with modern and diverse influences in classical music.

Where should those go to seek what lies beyond The Planets? Beni Mora is the ideal place to start, displaying as it does not merely Holst's genius as a composer but also the breadth of his mind, and his determination to lay out a new path in English music — one that John Foulds would soon follow. The Japanese Suite shows a different type of innovativeness; the First Choral Symphony shows a man in command of his material and of his mind. Holst was also a superb songwriter: never better than in his 12 Humbert Wolfe settings, from late in his life, and within those "A Little Music" is one of the finest English songs ever written.

But I am in no doubt about Holst's masterpiece. For years he taught at St Paul's Girls' School, and his daily routine led to his writing the "Prelude and Scherzo: Hammersmith" in 1931, first for military band and then for orchestra. It is the ultimate Holstian work: reflective, profound, vivid, beautiful, depicting the bustling of Hammersmith Broadway, and beginning and ending with the Thames flowing quietly by. It powerfully rejects austerity. This is a composer whose best, for many of us, lies ahead, even though he has been dead these 80 years.

 
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