But first, here's an extract of Holst's Hymn of Jesus. I sang in it once at Dartington about 100 years ago and, dear reader, I didn't know what had hit me. At the time I considered myself a young woman who was out of step with English matters musical and avoided anything remotely religious like the proverbial choose-your-preferred-infectious-disease. I'd never heard of Theosophy and wasn't too sure that 'mysticism' wasn't something you saw when you looked down a microscope. Whoops. Just listen to this... (Btw, in case your were wondering, I still avoid religion whenever possible - just not where music is concerned.)
HOLST, TONY PALMER AND THE MYSTIC PLANETS
Gustav Holst’s The Planets is one of the best-known pieces of classical music ever written by a British composer. How strange, then, that we know so little of the composer’s other music – or, for that matter, of the composer himself. But Tony Palmer’s new full-length film about him, In the Bleak Midwinter – due for screening on BBC4 on Easter Sunday – contains more than a few startling revelations about this apparently quiet and enigmatic figure.
First, it turns out that The Planets originally had nothing to do with planets at all. And the composer whose melody (from “Jupiter”) became the patriotic hymn “I Vow to Thee, My Country” loathed those words because they were, according to Palmer, “the opposite of what he believed”. Holst was a passionate socialist, allying himself during World War I with a “red priest” in Essex who once pinned to the church door a note announcing “prayers at noon for the victims of Imperial aggression”.
Palmer first became interested in Holst when the composer Benjamin Britten told him, during a 1967 interview, that he owed Holst a great deal in terms of influence. And it was in the library of Britten’s Aldeburgh home, The Red House, that Palmer eventually viewed letters from Holst that proved his attitude to “I Vow to Thee”. Looking at manuscripts of The Planets in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, he was able to see that the title, subtitles and names of planets were afterthoughts to an existing piece. As for Holst’s political convictions, as with the rest, the information had always existed, he says – but nobody had yet added it all up, recognised the heart of the matter and made the sum of it public.
The Planets’ first moniker, Palmer says, was simply Seven Large Pieces for Orchestra. Subtitles were added later, and the title “The Bringer of War” only became “Mars” later still. To Holst the “Bringer of War” meant something quite different: Palmer suggests that this extraordinary music depicts the mechanised, industrial capitalism which Holst saw as an impersonal machine threatening to crush humanity beneath its relentless wheels, bringing the horror of war as its inevitable companion. While the exact date of its composition is disputed, it’s thought to be spring 1914 – making it, with hindsight, a work of alarming prescience.
But the central spur of the planned Seven Large Pieces for Orchestra was neither astrological nor political: it was Theosophy. This pantheistic spirituality pioneered by Helena Blavatsky was immensely popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, influencing figures as diverse as the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, the artist Paul Gauguin and the poet WB Yeats. It drew on eastern philosophies, notably Buddhism and Indian spiritual traditions; and Holst was involved in it enough to learn Sanskrit. Many of his works have an intense eastern flavour, including the three-part suite Beni Mora, his Four Hymns from the Rig Veda and the operas Savitri and Sita. The work that became The Planets was conceived as a mystical journey of the evolving spirit: “The Bringer of War” symbolises the lowest level, while “The Mystic”, which became “Neptune”, is the highest.
Holst makes his own place in the journey clear: he worked his name into the music as a driving motif in “The Magician” (“Uranus”). The notes GSAH in German notation (in English notation G-E flat-A-B) stand for “Gustav Holst”. It’s peculiarly touching to think of this otherwise unconfident little man recognising, deep down, that as a composer he was a magician as well.
His heritage was anything but British. He was born in 1874 in Cheltenham to a family of German descent (not Swedish, as has often been stated) that had immigrated to Britain from Riga, then a part of Russia, where they owned property. The Holst name carried an aristocratic ‘von’, which their ancestors had bought from the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. At the time of World War I, Holst had to pay to get rid of the title by deed poll.
Sickly and short-sighted, Holst suffered all his life with neuritis, which affected his right hand and arm so much that he could barely hold a pen. Composing in his music room at St Paul’s Girls’ School, where he taught for many years, he would sometimes strap the pen to his finger in order to be able to write. At other times, he enlisted the help of a young teacher and a student to take down his musical notation and play it back to him at the piano. The room was kept as warm as possible, since heat eased the neuritis. This was also why as a young man he lived briefly in Algiers, whence he rode his bicycle into the Sahara Desert.
But Palmer says it was only when he visited Thaxted in Essex and saw the church to which Holst gravitated on spotting the red flag inside that the puzzle of the composer’s life really began to make sense. “He clearly had very strong socialist sympathies,” Palmer says. “He conducted the Hammersmith Socialist Choir, he taught at Morley College, which was set up specifically to bring education to the working classes, and St Paul’s Girls’ School was doing something similar in a way, by bringing education to girls who had been denied it before.”
Holst delivered copies of the Socialist Worker from his bicycle around Thaxted and developed a strong friendship with the Christian Socialist vicar, Conrad Noel, who flew the red flag and the green one of Sinn Fein side by side and encouraged Morris dancing in church as a form of worship. Holst’s outlook did not extend to pacifism: he volunteered for army work during World War I, but was turned down, partly because of his poor health, but largely because of his German name.
He always remained something of an outsider. While his friend Vaughan Williams – a relative of Charles Darwin – benefitted from fine connections, Holst had no such advantages. He lived quietly in a cottage by the river in Barnes; he made his living by teaching and composed at weekends from nine to five. His marriage was less than happy and ill health plagued him. He was convinced, furthermore, that he was a failure – indeed, the only time he ever heard The Planets played by an orchestra was in an “open rehearsal” paid for by Balfour Gardiner, a wealthy composer and conductor. Holst died aged 59, after an operation for a “duodenal ulcer”; the illness was probably stomach cancer. His only daughter, Imogen, who died in 1984, spent much of her life struggling to keep his legacy alive.
The Planets has more than flourished since then, along with his St Paul’s Suite and the famous Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter. Why so little else? “Partly it’s the overfamiliarity of The Planets,” says Palmer. “We know it so well that we think that’s what Holst is. But there are other reasons. He had a variety of different publishers, not just one, so it was never in anyone’s interests to promote him. He wasn’t well off, and there wasn’t the machine of patrons and protectors around him that composers like Vaughan Williams and Britten enjoyed. He never had anyone to help him at all.”
Palmer’s film has tackled not just the neglect of Holst’s other music, but the ennui of The Planets too: for the musical extracts from it, Palmer worked with the Savaria Orchestra and the conductor Tamás Vásary in Hungary. The musicians had never played it before and gave a completely fresh performance straight from the gut, as Palmer had hoped. They obey Holst’s instructions to the letter, taking his own marked tempi – often much faster than we’re used to – and using wooden rather than coated sticks to strike the timpani in “Mars”. The effect is overwhelming. “At the end the timpanist asked me if she was loud enough,” says Palmer, who’d felt “pinned to the wall” by the orchestra’s intensity. “She certainly was! But she added, ‘I just played what it said in the score.’ And that’s what Holst wanted.”
Palmer’s film tells a moving tale, illustrated with swathes of Holst’s startlingly original music. Perhaps it can turn around, at last, the fortunes of British music’s most unlikely hero. If so, it’s not a minute too soon.
Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter, directed by Tony Palmer, is on BBC4 on Easter Sunday