Born in 1874 in Cheltenham, his ancestors were exiles from Riga. His father taught piano, but Gustav's neuritis in his hands made practice painful. He learned the piano as well, but eventually became great as a composer, also learning the trombone to make a living.

He studied with Charles Stanford at the Royal College of Music, and was heavily influenced by Arthur Sullivan, Richard Wagner, Felix Mendelssohn Grieg and (of course) English folk-songs. His first opera is still unstaged, titled The Revoke, based on a card game episode in Beau Brummel.

His friendship with Ralph Vaughan Williams opened his awareness of the English folk-song (which many know him for). He also was fascinated by Hindu philosophy, and learned Sanskrit in order to be able to make better English translations of hymns from Rig Veda. He wrote another opera, Sita, in the first decade of the twentieth century, based on the Ramayana.

He wrote vast amounts of music, some of which was never performed during his life time. He was an excellent teacher, and helped revive Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen.

Another commonly-known work by Holst is the music for In The Bleak Midwinter, a lyric written by Christina Rosetti.

Gustav Holst: 1874-1934
"Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you" - HOLST (1921)

Introduction:

Gustav Holst was born in Cheltenham to a family of Swedish decent. His father was an organist and piano teacher in Cheltenham, and Holst was certainly born into a less privileged background than his friend and fellow composer (Ralph) Vaughan Williams.

Movement I:

Gustav Holst first earned a living as a trombonist, and then moved to London to teach. Between the years of 1903-1920, Holst taught music at a girl's school in Dulwich (James Allen's Girls School, or JAGS - thanks resiak), and in 1905 was also appointed the director of music at St Paul's School for Girls in Hammersmith, where he remained until his death. Holst was also the music director at Morley College (South London) from 1907-1924, a professor of music at Reading University, and taught at the Royal College of Music.

Movement II:

During Holst's middle years, he lived in Richmond (incidentally, this is where his composer daughter Imogen was born in 1907) before moving to a river-side house in Barnes. However, Holst did his composition work in his room at St Paul's School for Girls during weekends and school holidays.
Holst (like his friend Vaughan Williams) was strongly influenced by English folk songs, and together with Williams he initiated a systematic study and collection of these songs. Echoes of these songs can be heard in many of his works, for example A Somerset Rhapsody (1906-7), the Suites for military band (1909-11), St Paul's Suite for Strings (1913), Brook Green Suite for Strings (1933), A Moorside Suite (1928, for brass band) and Hammersmith (1930-1, a scherzo for orchestra or military band).
Not only was Gustav Holst influenced by English folk songs, but he also had a fascination for Eastern religion and mysticism which can also be heard in his works. Holst learned Sanskrit simply to translate hymns from the Rig Veda (he set these for orchestra and chorus in 1908). His love of this also came through in his first major work, The Mystric Trumpeter (this was first performed in the Queen's Hall in 1905), and his opera Savitri is largely based upon Oriental philosophy.

Movement III:

Gustav Holst, however, is mainly remembered for one orchestral suite. The Planets is undoubtedly his most popular work*. The Suite comprises seven pieces (Earth was not included, and Pluto** had not been discovered), the most popular being:

Bow:

Gustav Holst's style changed towards the end of his life, becoming more austere. His later works included: Egdon Heath (1927, Hardy-inspired tone-poem), Concerto for two violins (1929), At the Boar's Head (opera), The Wandering Scholar (opera) and the Choral Fantasia (1931). Another of his famous pieces The Perfect Fool (1922, also an opera).
Gustav Holst died in London in 1934, following surgery for haemorrhagic gastritis.

Applause:

Source: "The Great Composers" (Wendy Thompson)
* ...and the reason I'm writing this node!
** Gritchka informs me that the movement Pluto has been added about 3 years ago to the Suite by a modern composer.
And in case you were interested (and didn't know), this node is set out like a Sonata (well, almost!)

Gustav Holst, creator of many orchestral, choral, and operatic works, including The Cloud Messenger (1910-1912), Ode to Death (1919), The Wandering Scholar (1929-1930), and The Planets (1914-1916), was born on September 21, 1874, into a very musical family. His father, Adolph Holst, was an accomplished pianist. Gustav had weak eyesight, and was sent to Cheltenham Grammar School. His father wanted him to be a pianist, but he had troubles practicing for longs times due to physical problems.

He later studied at the Royal College of Music, where he met his lifelong friend Ralph Vaughan Williams. Stricken with neuritis in his right hand, he was forced to give up the piano, but he continued to compose. He studied composition with Charles Stanford, and was introduced to Wagner's music by a fellow student, Fritz Hart. Holst also was a trombonist, an instrument he took up mostly in an effort to make money, as he could play in orchestras with it.

In 1897, he composed one of his first works, Winter Idyll. He followed with an opera, Sita, commencing work on it in 1899, based on the Hindu epic Ramayana, which he finished in 1906. In 1900, he composed Cotswold Symphony. He was appointed Director of Music at St. Paul's Girls School in Hammersmith in 1905. Even though his opera Sita didn't win the Ricordi Prize in 1907, he soon started work on another opera, Savitri, in 1908.

In 1912, Holst became interested in astrology, and his friend Clifford Bax worked with him on it. It led directly to his composition of The Planets, perhaps his best-known work. The suite was composed from 1914 to 1916, and was first performed shortly after the armistice in 1919. One of the most interesting pieces in The Planets is Mars. The most interesting thing about that piece is that it is a depiction of war that shocked those who heard it for the first time, being right after the first World War, but it had in fact been written before its outbreak! Also it uses the Col Legno technique, when a violinist uses the back of his or her bow against the string.

Holst continued to compose for the rest of his life, and died in 1934 following an operation to remove an ulcer. Much of his music would have been forgotten, but for the work of his daughter Imogen. Holst was a very eccentric person, interested in all things from Hindusim to vegetarianism, but he always enjoyed humorous things. All in all, much of his work is enjoyed today, and for good reason.


Sources:

  • http://wso.williams.edu/~ktaylor/gholst/
  • http://www.musicweb.uk.net/holst/Page1.html

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