Sunday, September 21, 2014
Beyond "The Planets"
Gustav Theodore Holst was born on this day in 1874. He was an English composer, arranger and teacher best known for his orchestral suite The Planets. He is also one of my favorite composers since I was in high school where I learned about his music through playing his first and second suites for military band in our high school wind ensemble. These melodious works were a wonderful introduction to his art. Holst composed a large number of other works across a range of genres, although none achieved the relative popularity of The Planets. His distinctive compositional style was the product of many influences, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss being most crucial early in his development, the subsequent inspiration of the English folksong revival of the early 20th century, together with the example of such rising modern composers as Arnold Schoenberg and Maurice Ravel, leading Holst to develop and refine his own individual style. The influence of folk songs is evident in his compositions for bands including the suites mentioned above, the Saint Paul Suite, and others.
There were professional musicians in the previous three generations of Holst's family, and it was clear from his early years that he would follow the same calling. He hoped to become a pianist, but was prevented by neuritis in his right arm. Despite his father's reservations, he pursued a career as a composer, studying at the Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford. Unable to support himself by his compositions, he played the trombone professionally, and later became a teacher—a great one, according to his colleague Ralph Vaughan Williams. Among other teaching activities he built up a strong tradition of performance at Morley College, where he served as musical director from 1907 until 1924, and pioneered music education for women at St Paul's Girls' School, where he taught from 1905 until his death in 1934, raising standards and so laying the foundation for several professional musicians. He was the founder of a series of Whitsun music festivals, which ran from 1916 for the remainder of his life. Holst's works were played frequently in the early years of the 20th century, but it was not until the international success of The Planets in the years immediately after the First World War that he became a well-known figure. A shy man, he did not welcome this fame, and preferred to be left in peace to compose and teach.
In his later years his uncompromising, personal style of composition struck many music lovers as too austere, and his brief popularity declined. Nevertheless, he was a significant influence on younger English composers, including Edmund Rubbra, Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten. Apart from The Planets and a handful of other works, his music had limited appeal, but has seen a revival in recent decades. Among my favorites are his music for military band, especially the opening march from the Second Suite in F. I also love the ballet music for The Perfect Fool, and his songs including his setting for the carol "In the Bleak Midwinter". It is this carol that in its quiet majesty reminds me of many a Christmas eve carol service.