Gustav Holst

1874 - 1934

British

Summary

Gustav Holst was born in Cheltenham in 1874. He began composing while at
Cheltenham Grammar School and spent two months at Oxford learning
counterpoint before being sent to London to study composition under
Stanford at the Royal College of Music. Stanford found him hardworking
but not at all brilliant and their lessons were often frustrating.

He met Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1895, the two quickly becoming friends
and beginning their lifelong habit of playing sketches of their newest
compositions to each other. At college he also learnt Sanskrit at
University College, London and whilst he was never fluent, he was able
to read from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and to translate hymns
from the Rig Veda. Holst left college in 1898, playing the trombone in
the Carl Rosa Opera Company and later Scottish Opera.

He married Isobel Harrison in 1901 and taught at the James Allen's
Girls' School in Dulwich for two years before being appointed Director
of Music at St. Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith in 1905, where he
continued to teach until the end of his life. Holst's heavy and
exhausting teaching schedule meant that time left available for
composition was often fragmented.

It took him more than two years to write The Planets (1914-16), a work
he never considered to be his best. The immediate success of this work
was a source of consternation to the composer. Between 1920 and 1923
Holst's working life became increasingly demanding: he was teaching at
the RCM and University College, Reading, as well as conducting and
recording. His popularity as a composer reached its height, as indeed
did the level of stress. For the whole of 1924 Holst was ordered by his
doctor to cancel all professional engagements and to live in the
country, where he was able to continue composing. On his return to
London in 1925 he gave up all teaching except at St. Paul's.

His later works, such as the Choral Symphony (1923-4) and Egdon Heath
(1927) for orchestra, which he believed to be his best, were found by
critics and audiences alike to be bewildering and too 'cerebral' but
Holst remained confident and unperturbed. The years from 1927 to 1933
were the most creative period of the composer's life. The town of
Cheltenham organised a Holst Festival in 1927 with concerts at the Town
Hall.

In his final years Holst was to remember it as the most overwhelming
musical event of his life. He accepted the Howland Memorial Prize from
Yale University in 1929 for distinction in the arts and the gold medal
of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1930. He was appointed visiting
lecturer in composition at Harvard University in January 1932 but soon
after became ill. On his return to England in the summer of that year,
Holst's health continued to decline. He died on 25 May 1934.

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