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Composers At War: Gustav Holst


It is a peculiar coincidence that Gustav Holst completed the first sketch of Mars, the Bringer of War—his most bellicose piece of music—just before WWI began. 

Like his good friend Ralph Vaughan Williams, Holst immediately volunteered for military service. Also like Williams, Holst was past the maximum age limit for volunteers, but unlike Williams, Holst could barely recognize familiar figures from a distance of six yards and had difficulty holding his pen during long writing sessions. A rifle was out of the question. The British military said thanks, but no thanks. Holst had no other option but to resume his duties as a music educator.

Despite his cozy situation—writing music in a soundproof room built especially for him by St. Paul’s School—Holst kept the conflict present in his mind.  There are few stronger emblems of national unity than music (it has, in fact, often been egregiously abused in this capacity), and Holst found himself, in the early days of the conflict, rediscovering the forgotten English madrigal composers. He wrote “Ever since Fellowes’ edition of Morley’s madrigals was published, I think I can say that I have never been quite the same man.” A bit dramatic, perhaps, but it was a dramatic time, and in addition to his personal enjoyment, Holst was also responding to a patriotic hope that England, for the first time, might become familiar with English Music. 

In the war’s early stages, Holst was a man divided. Half of him stewed over his uselessness to the British war effort, while the other half threw itself into musical activities. Over the Whitsun holiday in 1914, Holst managed, despite the war, to organize a weekend choral festival. Following the festival’s great success, Holst wrote his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams:

“It was a feast—an orgy.  Four whole days of perpetual singing and playing, either properly arranged in the church or impromptu in various houses or still more impromptu in ploughed fields during thunderstorms, or in the train going home.

It has been a revelation to me.  And what has been revealed to me and what I shall never be able to persuade you is that quantity is more important than quality.

We don’t get enough.  We practice stuff for a concert at which we do a thing once and get excited over it and then go off and do something else.

In the intervals between the services people drifted into church and sang motets or played violin or cello. And others caught bad colds through going long walks in the pouring rain singing madrigals and folk songs and rounds the whole time. The effect on us all was indescribable...Most people are overcome by mountain air at first. In the same way others are excited by certain music.

The remedy in both cases is to have more and more and MORE.

One of the advantages of being over forty is that one begins to learn the difference between knowing and realizing.

I realize now why the Bible insists on heaven being a place (I should call it a condition) where people sing and go on singing.”

While Holst’s thoughts never strayed too far from the war that was raging on the continent, this did not prevent him in any way from an active devotion to his academic duties and compositional work. He continued working on the Planets through 1916, orchestrating it entirely by year’s end. Mercury, the Winged Messenger was finished last. Holst’s neuritic arm caused him enough trouble that parts of the work had to be dictated. 

Holst followed the Planets by eschewing the large ensemble it required, writing Four Songs for Voice and Violin and This Have I Done for My True Love, which is held by many to be his best work for unaccompanied voice.

In August of 1917, Holst took up the ambitious project of setting the Hymn of Jesus, from the Apocryphal Gospels, to music, translating the hymn from its original Greek himself. He was far from fluent in Greek, so he meticulously copied the original words, their phonetic pronunciations and their nearest English equivalents. For some time Holst sat with the hymn, pondering the meaning of its words and eventually writing an English translation that he felt preserved the spirit of the original.

As the war progressed, Holst became more and more oppressed by his inability to do his part. During the worst of the air raids on London, he applied for work, of any kind that would help the war effort, over and over again. Each time he was rejected, the sting was worse. He thought of his brother Emil, who had forsaken a career on the stage in New York to join the Army, his wife who was driving wounded soldiers to hospital and his close friend and colleague Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was roughly the same age as Holst but had still been vigorous enough for military duty. He was particularly bothered by the list of former pupils who had perished in the war, including George Butterworth.

Finally, an opportunity presented itself. The YMCA offered Holst a post as Musical Organizer in their educational work with soldiers on the Eastern Front. He was a man who clearly felt most at ease in the rarified and semi-cloistered world of academia, but he leapt at the chance nevertheless. 

Holst’s full name had been, up to this point, Gustav Von Holst. He had already tired of the public apologies for his Germanic ancestors that began to occur at performances of his work as soon as the war began. Now, in order to claim the coveted post from the YMCA, he legally removed the “Von” from his name. The British Royal family had also jettisoned their Germanic titles at the start of the war, so Holst was in good company. After a lengthy, expensive and frustrating legal process, Holst learned that the “Von” in his name was a falsity to begin with.  As it turned out, his branch of the family had never had any right to the “Von” to begin with. It was adopted to guild the Holst lily.

With the uncertainty engendered by the war, Holst was dubious that he would ever get a chance to hear the Planets performed in its entirety (organizations were hard-pressed for money and able musicians, and the Planets requires a particularly large ensemble). As a going away present, his friend Balfour Gardiner arranged for a full performance of the work. Holst’s friends and well-wishers were invited to Queen’s Hall on a late September Sunday for the first full performance of the Planets, with Sir Adrian Boult leading the Queen’s Hall Orchestra.

Holst left for the Continent a month later, and before another month had passed, a peace had been arranged. Holst finished his year of service, mostly in Salonica, Greece, teaching music to, and organizing concerts for soldiers who were waiting to demobilize.



Cale Wiggins

Classical Content Coordinator and Host

Cale started his career as an on-air personality in 1997. He discovered his love of classical music through listening to NPR as a child and has been exploring the genre ever since.   Read Full Bio 

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