Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Four songs for voice and violin Six Songs Vedic Hymns Twelve Humbert Wolfe Songs
The English composer Gustav Holst was the son of a musicianand descended from a family of mixed Scandinavian, German and Russian originthat had settled in England in the early nineteenth century. His childhood wasspent in Cheltenham, where his father supervised his study of the piano. Alater period at the Royal College of Music in London brought a lastingfriendship with Ralph Vaughan Williams, an association that was to theadvantage of both in their free criticism and discussion of one another's compositions.
It was in part a weakness in health, as well as financialnecessity, that prompted Holst for a time to earn his living as a trombonist,touring with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and playing with the ScottishOrchestra. Eventually he decided to devote himself, as far as possible, tocomposition. Teaching positions, and particularly his long association with StPaul's Girls' School in Hammersmith, and his work as director of music for theenthusiastic amateurs at Morley College, allowed him some time, at least in thesummer holidays, but the relatively even tenor of his life, which suited hisdiffident character, was considerably disturbed by the great popular success ofThe Planets, which had its first complete public performance in 1920. His latermusic never achieved such a lasting triumph with the public, although hisShakespearian opera At the Boar's Head aroused respectful interest at the time,while other works generally had a mixed critical reception, including his 1927Egdon Heath, published as a tribute to Thomas Hardy. His St Paul's Suite,written for the school in Hammersmith, retains a firm place in string orchestrarepertoire, as does the later Brook Green Suite, and the 1917 Hymn of Jesus forchoruses and orchestra has an honourable position in English choral music.
Holst's later years brought engagements that overtaxed hisstrength, not least a stimulating and busy period in the United States, wherehis music was welcomed and where he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra ina series of three concerts of his own works and taught and composed during ashort period at Harvard, lecturing on Haydn at the Library of Congress inWashington. He also took the opportunity to visit his younger brother Emil,established in America as an actor under the name of Ernest Cossart. By Junethe following year, 1932, he was in England again, able to entertain hisbrother, with whom he visited scenes from their childhood. His time in Americahad brought a temporary break in hospital, and when he returned to England hishealth was uncertain, leading to periods in hospital. He succeeded, however, incompleting the Brook Green Suite and the Lyric Movement for viola andorchestra, written for Lionel Tertis. He died on 25th May 1934, after a majoroperation, and is buried in Chichester Cathedral, where his music had oftenbeen heard, near the grave of his favourite Tudor composer, Thomas Weelkes.
The Four Songs for Voice and Violin, Op.35, were written in1916-1917 and published in 1920. The spareness of texture, a contrast to thescoring of The Planets, on which he had been working, was suggested by hearingone of his Morley College students, Christine Ratcliffe, singing andaccompanying herself on the violin one evening in the church at Thaxted. Holstand his wife had found refuge from London in a cottage nearby, and in 1916 hehad established a festival in the church for singers. Three of the songs werefirst performed there in 1917. The words were taken from A Medieval Anthologyby Mary Segar and seemed to suit the composer, whose practical study of Purcellhad helped him to an understanding of English word-setting. In the Aeolian modefirst song, Jesu sweet, the violin provides an introduction and links betweenthe rhythmically free phrases of the voice part. My soul hath nought but fireand ice is in a transposed Phrygian mode, vestigially accompanied, and followedby I sing of a maiden, again in the Aeolian mode. The set ends with My Leman isso true, a Phrygian setting in which the vocal line is accompanied by a violincounterpart, ending with an E major chord.
Holst's Six Songs, Op.16, date from 1903-1904, relativelyearly in the composer's career. The death of his father had brought Holst asmall legacy, which he and his wife decided to spend on a holiday in Germany.On his return, their resources now exhausted, he was invited temporarily totake the place of a singing-teacher at James Allen Girls' School in Dulwich.His success there was the start of his career in teaching. During this periodhe became used to the rejection of his compositions by publishers, and some ofthe group of Six Songs remained unpublished. Calm is the morn sets words fromTennyson's In Memoriam and is followed by the setting of Philip Sidney's Mytrue love hath my heart, a song characteristic of its period. Weep you no moresuggests in its piano accompaniment the 'sad fountains' of the text, while theBreton text Lovely kind and kindly loving is fuller in its romantic texture andmore extended range. The set ends with Blake's Cradle Song, which is impelledforward by the rhythm of its accompaniment, no mere lullaby, and the serenityof Alfred Hyatt's Peace.
In 1899 Holst had developed a particular interest inSanskrit literature in translation, the Rig Veda and the Baghavad G?«t?ó.Dissatisfied with the translations he found and unable on his own to proceedany further, he began study at the School of Oriental Languages of the LondonInstitution. This eventually enabled him to attempt translations himself, withthe aid of a dictionary. His Hymns from the Rig Veda, the Vedic Hymns, Op.24,were written in 1907-1908 and published in 1920. He had already written anopera, Sita, based on Ramayana, and there was to follow, in 1908, a chamberopera, S?óvitri, based on the Mahabarata, followed by a set of choral hymns fromthe Rig Veda. The first group of the Vedic Hymns starts with Ushas (Dawn), atfirst accompanied by muted chords, with a more animated central section. Pianochords are used in Varuna (Sky) to introduce and punctuate the hymn, while inMaruts (Storm Clouds) the accompaniment has an illustrative effect in itsenergetic progress. The second group starts with the stately Indra (God ofStorm and Battle), followed by the descending whole-tone scale of Varuna (TheWaters) and the irregular metre of Song of the Frogs. The third group beginswith Vac (Speech), largely in 5/4, followed by the unaccompanied 7/4 thatstarts Creation. Faith brings a measure of rhythmic and dynamic tranquillity.
In 1929, after a winter holiday of three months in Italythat did something to restore his strength and spirits, Holst set a group oftwelve poems by Humbert Wolfe, whose work he had discovered two years earlier.A meeting with the poet brought friendship, as they shared a number ofinterests, including a love of the peace that parts of London can bring. Thefirst performance of the songs was given in Paris by Dorothy Silk in a privateconcert at the house of Louise Dyer, the founder of Editions de l'Oiseau Lyre,after a preceding public concert there had elicited disapproval of Egdon Heathfrom a vocal section of the audience. In February 1930 Dorothy Silk sang themat the Wigmore Hall in London. The songs came after a gap of twelve years insuch compositions and were the last Holst wrote. The irregular rhythms ofPersephone give it a feeling of melodic freedom, reflected also in Thingslovelier. Now in these fairylands is marked by a descending melody, while thereis passing asymmetry in the rhythms of A little music, and The thought leavesthe voice largely free. The allusive The floral bandit, with its re