Gustav Holst

Biography

Born: 1874   Died: 1934   Country: England   Period: 20th Century
Known primarily for his popular orchestral composition, The Planets, Gustav Holst embraced a wide variety of musical models, from Arthur Sullivan, Edvard Grieg, and Wagner to the melodic simplicity of English folk music. In his maturity, he managed to merge these various influences into a rather sparse personal style that became increasingly transparent in his later years. Perhaps his greatest talent lay in the realm of choral music; his Hymn of Read more Jesus stands as one of the finest works in the genre from the early twentieth century.

Holst's first instruction came from his father, Adolph, a piano teacher, who also made him take lessons on the violin and trombone; the father believed that these studies might alleviate the youth's asthma.

By age 12, the young Holst was composing, even dabbling in orchestration; in 1888, he won a prize in an amateur competition for his vocal work, A Christmas Carol. Thereafter he sang in the All Saints' Church choir and played violin and trombone in its orchestra. In 1892, he traveled to London and heard a Covent Garden performance of Götterdämmerung, led by Mahler. The experience opened up new compositional vistas for the young composer.

Holst entered the Royal College of Music the following year where he met fellow student Ralph Vaughan Williams, who would remain a close lifelong friend. Shortly after his arrival in London, Holst found that the neuritis in his right arm, which had afflicted him in his early youth, had worsened and now caused him to abandon ideas of a career as a concert pianist. In 1898, Holst left the RCM to take a position in the Carl Rosa Opera Company as rehearsal pianist and coach. He completed his Cotswold Symphony in 1900, and its premiere in April 1902 was a success. On June 22, 1901, Holst married Emily Isobel Harrison, whom he had met in a choir he had directed a few years before.

In late 1903, Holst took on a teaching position at James Allen's Girls' School, in South London. The following year he acquired a second post, the directorship of music at St. Paul's Girls' School, which he would retain until his death. He added another teaching post at Morley College in 1907, bogging him down and leaving little time for composition. Still, the St. Paul's Suite, written during this period (1912-1913), is among his most often-performed works.

In 1914, Holst began work on what would become his most popular composition, The Planets. The war years were extremely productive, as the composer not only completed The Planets, but also wrote Hymn of Jesus. In spring 1918, Holst began educational work for the YMCA at its various facilities on European battlefields.

He returned to London at the end of June 1919 and took a prestigious post teaching theory and composition at the RCM in 1920. The composer's fame was not only growing domestically in the early 1920s but internationally as well, as works like the Hymn of Jesus were receiving regular and acclaimed performances. By 1924, Holst's health was clearly declining, and he thus lessened his workload.

Beginning in late December 1928, Holst made a series of trips abroad that included visits to France, Italy, Sicily, and the U.S. In Boston, a duodenal ulcer was diagnosed in 1932. On May 23, 1934, he underwent surgery for the ulcer, but died two days later. Read less

Work: Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo

 

About This Work
Composed in 1930 on commission from the BBC, Gustav Holst's Hammersmith is a two-part tone poem that creates a musical impression of the Hammersmith section of London where Holst taught school for nearly 30 years. Originally written for military Read more band, Hammersmith was later transcribed for orchestra and received its premiere performance in that form in 1931. Curiously, the original and more effective version for band was not performed until 1954, 20 years after Holst's death.

The Prelude section of this work evokes the quiet river flowing, apparently unconcerned and often unnoticed, through Hammersmith. Although the use of the tuba and euphonium in the opening phrases of this section create a rather ominous setting, the Prelude carries a contemplative mood emphasized by a warmth and sensitivity which Holst rarely allowed himself in his other compositions.

The Prelude gives way to the Scherzo section, which paints a musical picture of the lively and good-natured people who populate the Hammersmith section of London. The raucous good humor of the Saturday night crowds, the street vendors hawking their wares, and the often chaotic mood of city life are all given their due in the overlapping snatches of musical lines that are passed between the instrumental sections. As the Scherzo closes, the reflective mood of the Prelude reemerges to conclude the work on a note of contentment and tranquillity.

The Lyric movement of this piece which was included in the orchestral version, but not in the original band composition was written during Holst's last illness and shows a tender austerity in its soulful solo viola line and lyrical orchestration.

The most impressionistic of Holst's compositions for band, Hammersmith shows the apogee of his compositional skill and understanding of the expressive capabilities of the concert band. It conveys the concert band away from the limitations of the parade field and creates a solid foundation for band repertoire to take its place as a serious musical medium.

-- Corie Stanton Root
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