HOLST: Music for Two Pianos
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The Planets, Op. 32;The Perfect Fool (Ballet Music) Op. 39
For two pianos
Born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, Gustavus Theodore von Holst camefrom a family of mixed English, German, Russian and Swedish origin, his great-?¡grandfather,a lesser contemporary of Beethoven and Chopin, having emigrated from Riga inLatvia during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1893, following an asthmatic boyhoodspent learning the piano, directing village choirs and tackling Berlioz'streatise on orchestration, he was sent at his father's expense to London andthe Royal College of Music. Here he studied under the German-trained CharlesVilliers Stanford, who thought little of his talent, and met Vaughan Williams,soon to become his closest friend and mentor. In late Victorian London, withits music-halls, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and varied cultural life, theperiod of Oscar Wilde and of Bernard Shaw's music criticism, he "dreamed...
ate and drank" Wagner at Covent Garden, read Hindu philosophy, taught himselfSanskrit, came under the spell of the pre-Raphaelite William Morris, and methis future wife, "the lovely, sunny-haired" Isobel Harrison, youngestsoprano with the Hammersmith Socialist Choir. As a jobbing trombonist,bespectacled and good-humoured, despite the worries of Henry Wood that his"delicate" constitution was "not physically fitted" to thedemands of the instrument, he found seasonal work playing the seaside resortsin summer and pantomime in winter, eventually, on leaving college in 1898, earninga living at the crisis-ridden Carl Rosa Opera Company (staging operas inEnglish), before going on to tour with the new Scottish Orchestra. During sparemoments he would keep his hand in at composition with easy-on-the-ear theatrepit entertainment, works such as the unashamedly un-snobbish Suite deBallet.
In 1903 this rooming-house, rank-and-file existence was exchanged forone more domestically stabilising and financially secure, the life of ateacher, As Director of Music at both St Paul's Girls' School Hammersmith from1905 to 1934 and Morley College, south of the river in Kennington, from 1907 to1924, Holst became responsible for nurturing generations of young people and"working men and women" to "learn by doing". To his socialdiscomfort, establishment reward, appointments at the Royal College of Musicand University College, Reading, and an "overwhelming" Holst Festivalin Cheltenham came his way in the 1920s, followed by the Gold Medal of theRoyal Philharmonic Society in 1930 and in 1932 a visiting lectureship atHarvard, evidence of his popularity in America.
Robbing English musical life of one of its kindlier, wiser presences,his death in May 1934, within months or even weeks, of those of Elgar andDelius, left friends and colleagues desolate, and at least one, VaughanWilliams from his college days, lastingly bereft.
Writing mostly at weekends or during the August holidays, Holst theteacher, like Liszt the pianist, Mahler the conductor, Rachmaninov the virtuosoin exile, was typical of the part-time composer. Valuing "the company ofhonourable men," rejoicing in "the fantastic unexpectedness oflife," he was, his daughter Imogen tells us, an unfailingly practicalmusic-maker, "endlessly patient" with amateurs, "ruthless"with professionals. Mendelssohn, Grieg and Wagner (on his own admission),Purcell, Gilbert and Sullivan, Byrd, the Tudor and Jacobean madrigalists, theEnglish folk-song revival, the non-Western from North Africa to India, modalpasts and poly tonal presents, the playful and the contemplative, the emotionaland the intellectual, Bach, were the disparate forces that helped shape hisworld and sound.
Publicly introduced by Adrian Boult at the Queen's Hall in Langham Placeon 15th November 1920, The Planets, composed between 1914 and 1916"for large orchestra" (Naxos 8.550193), the ultimate week-end work,evolved against the omens, battles and fading lamps of the Great War. But eventhough some, such as the novelist Henry Williamson, claimed to hear in itspages the trauma of conflicts witnessed at first hand, it did not grow out ofthem. Medically unfit, Holst himself never saw active service. Rather, itsinspiration and symbolism was astrological, the ascribed characters,associations and influences of the seven known planets (Pluto not then havingbeen discovered). As Imogen Holst says, "the storm that sweeps through the[5/4] music [of Mars] is a storm in the mind... Holst had never heard amachine-gun when he wrote it, and the tank [first used at the Somme in 1916]had not yet been invented". Creative reservations aside, the suite proveda sensation, with three sets of 78rpm recordings alone released by 1926, theyear of the General Strike. Tapping ancestrally, prophetically, into the mysticand the astral, imagination and myth, pagan man and old gods, nature and thecosmos, here was magisterial, picturesque yet avowedly non-programmatic musicembracing the spiritual and epic, the gigantic, the remote. Resonating with aphysicality, an impressionism, an association of vibrations, a subterraneangravity, a via lactea delicacy, a virtuoso orchestral/timbral palettebeyond Anglo-Saxon experience, even those cognoscenti tuned to the esotericwave-length of Scriabin and the primeval, Stravinsky and the Nordic Sibeliusfound its vision all-consuming. The two-piano arrangement, the manuscripts ofthe movements variously distributed between the Royal College of Music (i, ii,v, vi, vii), Royal Academy of Music (iii) and British Library (iv-vi), waspublished in 1949.
The Perfect Fool, written between 1918 and 1922, to Holst's ownlibretto, was a one-act comic opera, first performed under Eugene Goossens atCovent Garden on 14th May 1923. Set in "no particular country orperiod" but parodying the conventions of romantic grand opera, especiallyVerdi and Wagner, its opening ballet is all that remains in current repertory.
Drawing on an incidental score to a play by Clifford Bax, brother of thecomposer Arnold Bax, The Sneezing Charm, staged at the Royal CourtTheatre in June 1918, as well as the Intermezzo from the St Paul'sSuite of 1912-13 (Naxos 8.550823), the three dances, played without abreak, feature the Spirits of Earth, Water and Fire. Summoned by a Wizard, a(baritone) figure descended from Urauus, Earth is brought to life by afamous 7/8 tune rising Nibelung-like from the deep, in Sir Donald Tovey'smetaphor, to explode in riotous brilliance. Lazy dragon-fly music of summertwilight sonority conjured out of some Morphean reach of the upper Thames,Water unfolds a scene of calm and haze, "the essence of love distilledfrom Aether." Crackling flame and cleansing heat is the imagery of Fire, apulsating ostinato of the night. Holst conducted the first integral performanceat the Royal College of Music in Kensington Gore on 30th June 1921. Hisunpublished transcription for two pianos is held by the College library (MS4547).