There can be few other examples of a composer’s most popular work being so untypical of his output as a whole – and there is no doubting the popularity of The Planets. It is one of the most frequently performed – and recorded - works by a 20th century British composer and is performed by the world’s greatest orchestras. Neither does its popularity look like fading. What, though, of the rest of Holst’s music?
This collection is doubly valuable: in setting The Planets alongside a range of Holst’s finest, and very different, works, and for the quality and authority of the performances and recordings. We have The Planets conducted by Herbert von Karajan, the most dominant conductor of the second half of the 20th century, played by arguably the world’s greatest orchestra; three works conducted by his good friend and greatest interpreter Sir Adrian Boult; and one by the charismatic Sir Malcolm Sargent.
The Planets was composed between 1914 and 1916. Holst was already interested in astrology when he took a walking holiday in Majorca with fellow-composer Arnold Bax and Bax’s brother Clifford. Clifford Bax and Holst talked about astrology, no doubt stimulated by the awesome clarity of the night sky. “As a rule I only study things that suggest music to me … recently the character of each planet suggested lots to me, and I have been studying astrology fairly closely… everything in this world … is just one big miracle.” [Quoted from: Gustav Holst, the biography by his daughter Imogen Holst, first published in 1938.]
Writing out the full orchestral score was a difficult task for Holst: he suffered badly from neuritis) and needed the help of assistants. The size of the orchestra, too, gave him concern: would it be too expensive to put on a performance? Thanks to the generosity of Balfour Gardiner, funds were provided for a private performance with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Boult at Queen’s Hall in London on 29th September 1918. Holst wrote in Boult’s score: “This copy is the property of Adrian Boult who first caused the Planets to shine in public and thereby earned the gratitude of Gustav Holst.” Albert Coates conducted the first complete public performance in the Queen’s Hall on 15th November 1920.
In 1921 New York and Chicago vied for the American premiere (New York just nudged it), Berlin followed the next year. Holst was a very private person who found celebrity well nigh impossible to cope with. Nevertheless, once the hubbub had died down, the royalties provided him with the means to devote himself to composition alongside his teaching commitments at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, Morley College and University College Reading.
It is worth setting out the massive forces required for The Planets. 4 flutes (3rd doubling 1st piccolo. 4th doubling 2nd piccolo), alto flute, 3 oboes (3rd doubling bass oboe), cor anglais, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon; 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tenor tuba, bass tuba; glockenspiel, celesta, organ; 6 timpani (2 players); percussion (bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, tambourine, glockenspiel, xylophone, tubular bells; 2 harps, strings (usually 60 in number) - plus off-stage female chorus.
There are seven movements. Mars, the Bringer of War begins with a sinister thrumming on the strings, and builds cumulatively with great brass climaxes, ending with an explosive final chord. Its unusual 5/4 time signature makes for jagged, irregular rhythms. Venus, the Bringer of Peace is in total contrast. Tranquil woodwinds and pastoral horns set the scene for a solo violin idyll. Mercury, the Winged Messenger is a rapid miracle of deft orchestration, light as thistledown. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity is, with Mars, the most famous of the set, often performed on its own. Its warmth, vitality and energy are infectious, and the grand tune in the middle has won a life of its own in the hymn “I vow to thee, my country”. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age is remote, almost motionless, but by no means fearful. Uranus, the Magician is an ambivalent character, impossible to pin down, a sinister march revealing his dangerous side. Neptune, the Mystic, is a hypnotic evocation of the vastness of the universe. The music never really comes to end, for, in a masterstroke of imagination, Holst introduces a mystic, wordless chorus which fades away into infinity.
Holst’s opera The Perfect Fool was composed between 1918 and 1922 and was first performed by the British National Opera Company conducted by Eugene Goossens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 14th May 1923. Imogen Holst described the occasion in her biography of her father: “No one in the audience knew anything about the story of the opera. And when it was over they were most of them none the wiser. The story seemed to be some sort of fairy-tale, where a princess was wooed by a tenor who had strayed from Verdi and a bass who had wandered from Wagner … Many people enjoyed the music of the ballet … But the rest of it seemed dreadfully puzzling.” If the opera was not a success, the ballet suite Holst took from it found its secure place in the concert hall.
For all that he was never in robust health, Holst loved walking – he would often take long walking holidays. Imogen Holst again: “His favourite walks were among the Cotswold Hills that he loved so well. Sometimes he would go to Dorset in the winter and walk to Corfe Castle on a wild and threatening day. In the spring he would follow a leisurely route along the forgotten lanes of Suffolk, coming unexpectedly upon Clare and Lavenham and Long Melford. He liked the emptiness of the South Downs … And Sussex had woods where one could walk all day without meeting any one.” Thomas Hardy was a close and valued friend. On 11th August 1927 Holst wrote from Dorchester: “I got here on Monday and on Tuesday I had an unforgettable lunch and motor trip with Thomas Hardy himself, who showed me Melstock, Rainbarrow and Egdon in general.
Egdon Heath (Homage to Hardy) was composed in 1927 and had its first performance in New York. It was first heard in London on February 1928 – Hardy had died a little over a month earlier. Holst’s music is uncompromising, reflecting Hardy’s own description of the landscape: “a place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful nor ugly; neither common-place, unmeaning nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony.”
Gustav Holst’s The Hymn of Jesus (written in August 1917) has always been one of his most widely performed works. Anyone expecting a work related to the Church of England hymn-book is in for a surprise. Its sources include mediaeval plainsong and the text of a 2nd-century Gnostic gospel which the composer himself translated from the ancient Greek.
“Its first performance in London in 1920 was an outstanding success; Ralph Vaughan Williams, the dedicatee, said he just ‘wanted to get up and embrace everyone and then get drunk’. Undoubtedly, the work is Holst’s artistic and philosophical response to the War; to suffering so intense, and on such a scale, that it was scarcely comprehensible. By 1916 hostilities had reached a pulverising stalemate and conscription had been introduced in Britain. Unlike his friend Vaughan Williams (who had enlisted in 1914) Holst had been denied participation because of his health. The final impetus for producing The Hymn of Jesus may well have been the Battle of the Somme. During five months of 1916, over two million people were slaughtered, including George Butterworth and others of Holst’s friends. Despite a successful Whitsuntide musical gathering at Thaxted, his mood had become edgy and uncharacteristically explosive. Yet far from being elegiac, The Hymn of Jesus - his first major work after completing The Planets - is a very positive and constructive response to suffering”. [from an article by Raymond Head, published in Tempo, July 1999, reprinted by permission.]
The Prelude includes two mediaeval Latin plainchants, Vexilla Regis and Pange lingua. The rest of the text is a translation of what is thought to be one of the earliest surviving Gnostic Christian mystery rituals. Holst, who had studied Sanskrit and Hindu mysticism, would readily have been drawn to such subject matter. The work is on a vast scale, written for two choirs, semi-chorus and orchestra. Unfortunately space does not permit the text to be included here, but it is readily available online.
The orchestral Suite Beni Mora was inspired by a holiday Holst took in Algeria over Easter 1908. He had been in poor health and dispirited by some setbacks he had suffered as a composer. His friend Ralph Vaughan Williams persuaded him that he needed some time in a warm climate and assisted him with the necessary funds. Holst was struck by how the Islamic and Western world existed side by side, and captivated by the Sahara, where he took a bicycle ride. Refreshed, he returned home to start work on his second Indian-inspired opera Sāvitri. He wrote the first movement of Beni Mora (the title is taken from a novel by Robert Hitchen, The Garden of Allah) in 1909 and the remaining two movements the following year. The final movement was prompted by an Arab flute-player who played the same four notes over and over again. The stuffy English audience at the premiere rather turned up their noses, but the piece gradually won admirers. It reveals Holst’s new maturity in handling an orchestra.
Sleeve notes by John Kehoe