The E-BNR aims to build a comprehensive & unique cross-artform guide to
the British neo-Romantic tradition,
from 1880 to the present day.
While the British Romantics of 1789-1824 have spawned a vast industry of
publishers, conferences & tourism, the later neo-Romantic traditions
remain largely neglected. The E-BNR is aimed at bringing this hidden
tradition to light.
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WHAT IS NEO-ROMANTICISM ?
Neo-Romantic artists have drawn their inspiration
from artists of the age of Romanticism or earlier.
Characteristic themes in their work include a
mystical approach to the British landscape...
ENTRY: Holst, Gustave
Gustav Theodor Holst (b. September 21, 1874 – d. May 25, 1934) was an
English composer. He is most famous for his orchestral suite The Planets. His music was
influenced by English folk tunes, and is well known for unconventional use of meter and
Gustavus Holst was born in 1874 in Cheltenham, England to a family of Swedish extraction (by way of
Latvia and Russia), and schooled at Pate's Grammar School.
He attended the newly founded Royal College of Music in London on a scholarship, and there he met
fellow student and lifelong friend Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose own music
was for the most part quite different from Holst’s, but whose praise for his work was abundant.
Holst was influenced during these years by the anarchist-tinged socialism of
William Morris. It was also during these years that Holst became
interested in Indian mysticism and spirituality. Clifford Bax introduced Holst to astrology, a hobby that was to inspire the
later Planets Suite. He read astrological fortunes until his death, and called his interest in the stars his ‘pet vice’.
He found a job as the Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls' School in Hammersmith,
London, where he composed a successful and still popular work for the school orchestra
St. Paul's Suite in 1913. He stayed in the post for many years.
During these early years he was influenced greatly by the
poetry of Walt Whitman, as were many of his contemporaries such as Edward Carpenter,
and set his words in "The Mystic Trumpeter" (1904). He also set to music poetry by Thomas Hardy and
It was also at this time that musical society as a whole, and friend Vaughan Williams in
particular, became interested in old English folksongs, madrigal singers, and Tudor
composers. Holst shared in his friend’s admiration for the simplicity and economy of
these melodies, and their use in his compositions is one of his music’s most recognizable features.
Holst was an avid rambler in the English countryside, and had covered nearly every public footpath in England
by the time of his death.
Holst and wife Isobel bought a cottage in Thaxted, Essex, and surrounded by medieval buildings
and ample rambling opportunities, he started work on the suite that would become his best known work,
the orchestral suite The Planets. It was meant to be a series of ‘mood pictures’
rather than anything concretely connected with astrology or astronomy, though
Holst was known to have been using the book What Is A Horoscope by Alan Leo as a guide to the 'moods'
of the planets.
At the onset of the First World War, Holst tried to enlist but was rejected because of his bad eyes,
bad lungs, and bad digestion. His new music, however, was readily received, as patriotic and
English music was demanded at concert halls, partly due to a ban on all ‘Teutonic’ music.
Towards the end of the war he was offered a post within the YMCA’s educational
work program as Musical Director, and he set off for Salonica (present day Greece)
and Constantinople in 1918. While he was teaching music to troops eager to
escape the drudgery of army life, The Planets Suite was being performed
to audiences back home. Shortly after his return after the war’s end, Holst
composed "Ode to Death", based upon a poem by Walt Whitman.
Between the years 1920 – 1923, Holst's popularity grew. Holst became something of
'an anomaly, a famous English composer’, and was busy with conducting,
lecturing, and teaching obligations. He hated publicity – he often refused
to answer questions posed by the press, and when asked for his autograph,
handed out prepared cards that read, “I do not hand out my autograph”.
Though he may not have liked the attention, he appreciated having enough money to live on, for the first time in his life.
In the following years, he publicised his work through sound recordings and the BBC’s radio broadcasts.
In 1927, he was commissioned by The New York Symphony Orchestra to write a symphony, an
opportunity he took to work on an orchestral work based on Thomas Hardy’s Wessex,
a work that would become "Egdon Heath", and would be first performed a month after Hardy’s death,
in his memory. By this time, even Holst - like most artists working in the neo-romantic vein - was
considered to be ‘going out of fashion’, and the piece was poorly reviewed. However,
Holst is said to have considered the short, subdued but powerful tone poem his greatest
masterpiece. The piece has been much better received in recent years, with several recordings available.
Towards the end of his life, in 1930, Holst was commissioned by the BBC to write a piece
for military band, and the resulting Hammersmith was a tribute to the place where
he had spent most of his life, a musical expression of the borough which begins
with an attempt to recreate the haunting sound of the River Thames sleepily flowing its way.
In the following years, Holst grew ill with stomach problems. One of his last compositions,
The Brook Green Suite, named after the land on which his beloved St. Paul’s School was built,
was performed for the first time a few months before he died of complications following
stomach surgery on May 25, 1934.
He is buried in Chichester Cathedral in West Sussex.