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.