Biography of Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst was a twentieth century composer probably most famous for his Planets Suite.

When and Where was he Born?

21st September 1874, 4 Pittville Terrace (Now Clarence Road), Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England.

Family Background:

Gustav Holst was the first child of Adolph von Holst a piano teacher of Swedish Descent and Clara who was English. 2 Children. Clara died in 1882 following a still birth.

Holst Birthplace
Gustav Holst’s Birthplace in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Education:

Cheltenham Grammar School. Merton College, Oxford. Royal College of Music, London where he studied composition with Charles Stanford.

Timeline of Gustav Holst:

1892: Holst became the organist and choirmaster at St Laurence’s Church Wyck Rissington, Gloucestershire at the age of only 17 for one year. Composes his first piece a two-act operetta, entitled “Lansdown Castle” which was inspired by the work of Arthur Sullivan.

1893: He starts at the Royal College of Music, where he meets Ralph Vaughan Williams. He hears Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the Three Choirs Festival at Worcester which has a profound effect on him. He became a vegetarian and also suffered from much ill health at this time.

1894: Holst became Organist and Choirmaster at the Bourton-on-the-Water Choral Society.

1895: He wins an open Scholarship for composition and was thus allowed to continue his studies at the Royal College of Music. He composed his Opus 1, opera “The Revoke” which has never been performed publicly. He joined the Hammersmith Socialist Club and listened to lectures by George Bernard Shaw. He began to conduct the Hammersmith Socialist Choir at William Morris’s house in Hammersmith Mall. He also met Isobel Harrison for the first time. She was a soprano in the choir. He became interested in Hindu philosophy and Sanskrit literature.

1898: Holst joins the Carl Rosa opera company and plays trombone in the orchestra.

1900: Holst wrote his Cotswold Symphony which included a memorial to William Morris.

1901: He marries Isobel Harrison on 22nd June 1901, at Fulham Register Office.

1905: He was appointed as the Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, London. He conducts his new large scale work for soprano and orchestra, “The Mystic Trumpeter” at Queens Hall, London which is based on poetry by Walt Whitman. This work is also heavily influenced by Wagner.

1906: Holst failed to win, the Ricordi Prize, a composition competition, with his opera, “Sita”. This sent him into a bitter depression. Under doctor’s orders to go somewhere warmer he decided to go to Algeria and cycle through the desert.

1907: He is appointed as the Musical Director of Morley College for Working Men and Women in London. His daughter Imogen, is born. Gustav and Isobel escape at weekends to a cottage on the Isle of Sheppey.

1911: Holst gave the first performance of Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen” since the seventeenth century at Morley College, London.

1912: The first performance of “The Cloud Messenger” was a failure and sent him back into depression. He went to Spain on holiday with Balfour Gardiner and Clifford and Arnold Bax. Clifford Bax encouraged his interest in Astrology.

1913: Opening of a new music wing at St Paul’s where Holst was allowed his own room. he starts work on “The Planet’s Suite”. Much of the orchestration was completed in long weekends at his family’s country cottage in Thaxted, Essex.

1914: Holst was declared unfit for active service in the First World War. Isobel was driving wounded soldiers in lorries at this time.

1916: He finishes his first major work which was started in 1914, the seven-movement suite ‘The Planets’.

1917: First public performance of ‘The Planets’.

1918: The YMCA offered him the post of Musical Organiser for the troops in the Near East Campaign.

1919: Holst arrived back in England and took up teaching posts at University College, Reading and at the Royal College of Music.

1920: First full performance of The Planets on the 15th November by the London Symphony Orchestra.

1923: Holst has an accident whilst falling from the stage at University College, Reading and hits his head. He appeared to recover quickly from his wounds, and went to America to conduct a festival at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. During the sea voyage he orchestrated his “Fugal Concerto” for flute, oboe, and strings. Meanwhile in Britain “The Perfect Fool” was shown by the British National Opera. The Opera failed and several people in the audience asked for their money back. Back in London an anonymous rich donor gave a lot of money so that he could spend more time composing.

1924: Holst is forced into temporary retirement suffering from the delayed effects of concussion.

1925: He gives up most of his teaching but continues at St Pauls. He returns to London from Thaxted. His Choral Symphony is a failure.

1926: Holst lectures at Liverpool and Glasgow Universities and bought Brook End at Thaxted for his weekends.

1927: Cheltenham organises its first Holst Festival. He goes on a walking tour of Yorkshire.

1929: He holidayed in Italy and then toured America where he was guest of honour at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 21st Anniversary celebrations. “The Dream City” was performed at the first public performance in the Wigmore Hall, London by Dorothy Silk but Holst sat in a deep depression.

1930: The first performance of the “Double Concerto” was given and he received the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society.

1931: Ralph Vaughan Williams was impressed by the “Choral Fantasia” when it was premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester but the press hated it.

1932: Holst was invited to lecture at Harvard University in composition but immediately had to go into hospital with hemorrhagic gastritis which was caused by a duodenal ulcer.

1933: He enters a nursing home late in the year in preparation for a major operation next year.

1934: The operation, in May, was successful but his heart as unable to take the strain.

When and Where did he Die?

25th May 1934, London, England.

Age at Death:

59.

Major Compositions:

1897: “Winter Idyll” (Student Work influenced by Wagner)
1899: (Finished 1906) “Sita”, an opera based on the Hindu epic Ramayana.
1905: “The Mystic Trumpeter” for Soprano and Orchestra.
1906: “Beni Mora”
1907: “Somerset Rhapsody”
1908 to 1912: “The Vedic Hymns” from the Rig Veda, for voice and piano.
1912: “The Cloud Messenger” a choral work.
1913: “St. Paul’s Suite”
1914: “Dirge for Two Veterans”
1914-16: Planets Suite.
1917: “The Hymn of Jesus”.
1919: “Ode to Death” for chorus and orchestra based on a poem by Walt Whitman.
1922: “The Perfect Fool”. A comic opera.
1923: Fugal Concerto” for flute, oboe, and strings.
1924: “At the Boar’s Head”. A comic opera.
1926: “The Golden Goose”, choral ballet. “The Morning of the Year”, choral ballet.
1927: “Egdon Heath”, A tribute to Thomas Hardy.
1928: “The Moorside Suite”
1929: Double Concerto.
1918-22: The Perfect Fool (Opera).
1923-4: Choral Symphony.
1929: “The Dream City”
1930: “Double Concerto for two violins.
1931: “Choral Fantasia ” “The Tale of The Wandering Scholar”. “Hammersmith” for brass band.
1933: “Lyric Movement” for Viola and Orchestra, “The Brook Green Suite”.

Marriage:

Isobel Harrison, 22nd June 1901, at Fulham Register Office.

Site of Grave:

Ashes buried in the North Aisle of Chichester Cathedral.

Chichester Cathedral
Chichester Cathedral from the Gardens (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Places of Interest:

GLOUCESTERSHIRE:

Holst Birthplace Museum, Cheltenham.

WEST SUSSEX:

Chichester Cathedral.