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.