Saturday, February 1, 2014
21ST-CENTURY MUSIC / February 2014
Volume 21, Number 2
Gustav Holst / Phillip George
Electric Sarod, Guitars, Electronics / Michael McDonagh
Calendar / For February 2014
Chronicle / Of December 2013
Illustration / Gustav Holst
Harriet March Page
Patti Noel Deuter
Carol Marie Reynolds
Lisa Scola Prosek
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Posted by Mark Alburger at 11:00 PM
Gustav Holst / Phillip George
Gustavus (known as Gustav from his early years) Theodore von Holst (b. September, 21, 1874, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England - May 24, 1934) was the older child of Adolph von Holst, a professional musician, and his wife, Clara Cox, née Lediard. She was of mostly British descent, daughter of a respected Cirencester solicitor; the Holst side of the family was of mixed Swedish, Latvian and German ancestry, with at least one professional musician in each of the previous three generations.
Holst's great-grandfather, Matthias Holst, born in Riga, Latvia, was of German origin; he served as composer and harp-teacher to the Imperial Russian Court in St Petersburg. Matthias's son Gustavus, who moved to England with his parents as a child in 1802, was a composer of salon-style music and a well-known harp teacher. He appropriated the aristocratic prefix "von" and added it without authority to the family name in the hope of gaining enhanced prestige and attracting pupils.
Holst's father, Adolph von Holst, became organist and choirmaster at All Saints' Church, Cheltenham,. He also taught, and gave piano recitals. His wife, Clara, a former pupil, was a talented singer and pianist. Gustav's younger brother, Emil Gottfried, became known as Ernest Cossart, a successful actor in the West End, New York and Los Angeles. Clara died in February 1882, and the family moved to another house in Cheltenham, where Adolph recruited his sister Nina to help raise the boys. Gustav recognized her devotion to the family and dedicated several of his early compositions to her.
This was also the beginning year of the so-called English Musical Renaissance, the term coined by critic Joseph Bennett.
In 1885, Adolph married Mary Thorley Stone, another of his pupils. They had two sons, Matthias (known as "Max") and Evelyn ("Thorley"). Mary von Holst was absorbed in theosophy and not greatly interested in domestic matters. All four of Adolph's sons were subject to what one biographer calls "benign neglect," and Gustav in particular was "not overburdened with attention or understanding, with a weak sight and a weak chest, both neglected -- he was 'miserable and scared.'"
Holst was taught to play the piano and the violin, enjoying the former very much more than the latter. At age 12, he began the trombone at Adolph's suggestion (thinking that playing a brass instrument might improve his asthma), and took up composition. This was also the beginning of his education at Cheltenham Grammar School (1886-1891). Inspired by Macaulay's poem Horatius he began, but soon abandoned, an ambitious setting of the work for chorus and orchestra. Holst's early compositions included piano pieces, organ voluntaries, songs, anthems and a symphony, the latter from 1892. His main influences at this stage were Mendelssohn, Chopin, Grieg, and Sullivan. Adolph tried to steer his son away from composition, hoping that he would have a career as a pianist.
Holst's health played a decisive part in his musical future; he had never been strong, and in addition to his asthma and poor eyesight he suffered from neuritis, which made playing the piano difficult. He said that the affected arm was "like a jelly overcharged with electricity."
After leaving Cheltenham Grammar School, Adolph paid for his son to spend four months in Oxford, studying counterpoint with George Frederick Sims, organist of Merton College. On his return Holst obtained his first professional appointment, at 17, as organist and choirmaster at Wyck Rissington, Gloucestershire. The post brought with it the conductorship of the Bourton-on-the-Water Choral Society, which offered no extra remuneration but provided valuable experience that enabled him to hone his conducting skills. In November 1891, Holst gave what was perhaps his first public performance as a pianist; he and his father played the Brahms Hungarian Dances at a concert in Cheltenham.
In 1892, Holst wrote music for a Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style operetta, Lansdowne Castle, or The Sorcerer of Tewkesbury. The piece was performed in February 1893, at Cheltenham Corn Exchange, where its success encouraged him to persevere with composing. He applied for a scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London, but the composition scholarship for that year was won by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Holst was accepted as a non-scholarship student, and Adolph borrowed £100 to cover the first year's expenses. Holst left in May, 1893, for London, where money was tight. Partly from frugality and partly from his own inclination, the composer became a vegetarian and a teetotaler. Two years later he was finally granted a scholarship, which slightly eased his financial difficulties, but he retained his austere personal regime.
Holst's professors at the RCM were Frederick Sharpe (piano), William Stephenson Hoyte (organ), George Case (trombone), George Jacobi (instrumentation), and the director of the college, Hubert Parry (history). After preliminary lessons with W. S. Rockstro and Frederick Bridge, Holst was granted his wish to study composition with Charles Villiers Stanford. To support himself during his studies Holst played the trombone professionally, at seaside resorts in the summer and in London theatres in the winter. His daughter and biographer, Imogen Holst (1907-1984), records that from his fees as a player "he was able to afford the necessities of life: board and lodging, manuscript paper, and tickets for standing room in the gallery at Covent Garden Opera House on Wagner evenings." He secured an occasional engagement in symphony concerts, playing in 1897 under the baton of Richard Strauss at the Queen's Hall.
While Holst had recoiled from the music of Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung, which he heard at Covent Garden in 1892 -- he was encouraged by his friend and fellow-student Fritz Hart to reconsider the music and quickly became an ardent Wagnerite. For some time, as Imogen put it, "ill-assimilated wisps of Tristan inserted themselves on nearly every page of his own songs and overtures." Stanford admired some of Wagner's works, and had in his earlier years been influenced by him, but Holst's sub-Wagnerian compositions met with his disapproval: "It won't do, me boy; it won't do." Holst respected Stanford, describing him to a fellow-pupil, Herbert Howells, as "the one man who could get any one of us out of a technical mess." but he found that his fellow students, rather than the faculty members, had the greater influence on his development.
Although Holst wrote a large number of works -- particularly songs -- during his student days and early adulthood, almost everything he wrote before 1904 he later classified as derivative "early horrors."
Of the few pieces from this period which demonstrate some originality, composer-critic Colin Matthews pinpoints String Trio in G Minor (1894, first performed in 1974) as the first underivative work produced by Holst.
In 1895, shortly after celebrating his 25th birthday, the composer met Ralph Vaughan Williams, who became a lifelong friend and had more influence on Holst's music than anyone else. Stanford emphasized the need for his students to be self-critical, but Holst and Vaughan Williams became one another's chief critics; each would play his latest composition to the other while still working on it. Vaughan Williams later observed, "What one really learns from an Academy or College is not so much from one's official teachers as from one's fellow-students . . . [we discussed] every subject under the sun from the lowest note of the double bassoon to the philosophy of Thomas Hardy's last novel, Jude the Obscure (1895). In 1949, Vaughan Williams wrote of their relationship, "Holst declared that his music was influenced by that of his friend: the converse is certainly true."
Another influence was the artist, writer, and socialist William Morris. In Vaughan Williams's words, "It was now that Holst discovered the feeling of unity with his fellow men, which made him afterwards a great teacher. A sense of comradeship, rather than political conviction, led him, while still a student, to join the Kelmscott House Socialist Club in Hammersmith." At this residence, Morris's home, Holst attended lectures by his host and Bernard Shaw. His own socialism was moderate in character, but he enjoyed the club for its good company and his admiration of Morris as a man. Holst's ideals were influenced by Morris's but had a different emphasis. Morris had written, "I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few. I want all persons to be educated according to their capacity, not according to the amount of money which their parents happen to have." Holst said, "'Aristocracy in art' -- art is not for all but only for the chosen few -- but the only way to find those few is to bring art to everyone -- then the artists have a sort of masonic signal by which they recognize each other in the crowd." He was invited to conduct the Hammersmith Socialist Choir, teaching them madrigals by Thomas Morley, choruses by Henry Purcell, and works by W.A. Mozart, Wagner and himself. One of his choristers was (Emily) Isobel Harrison (1876–1969), a beautiful soprano two years his junior. While he fell in love with her, she was at first unimpressed, though eventually they became engaged, with no immediate prospect of marriage given Holst's modest income.
In 1898, the RCM offered Holst a further year's scholarship, but he felt that he had learned as much as he could there and that it was time, as he put it, to "learn by doing." By this time of his compositions had been published and performed; and The Times had praised his Light Leaves Whisper, "a moderately elaborate composition in six parts, treated with a good deal of expression and poetic feeling." Occasional successes notwithstanding, Holst found that "man cannot live by composition alone" -- taking posts as organist at various London churches, and continuing to play the trombone in theatre orchestras. Also that year, he was appointed first trombonist and répétiteur with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and toured with the Scottish Orchestra. Though a capable rather than a virtuoso player, he won the praise of the leading conductor Hans Richter, for whom he played at Covent Garden. While on tour with the Carl Rosa company Holst had read some of Max Müller's books, which inspired in him a keen interest in Sanskrit texts, particularly the Rig Veda hymns. He found the existing English versions of the texts unconvincing, and decided to make his own translations, despite his lack of skills as a linguist.
With a barely adequate salary, his income was supplemented by playing in the White Viennese Band, conducted by Stanislas Wurm. While Holst enjoyed playing under the conductor and learned much, he longed to devote his time to composing, and found the necessity of playing for "the Worm" or any other like endeavor "a wicked and loathsome waste of time." Vaughan Williams did not altogether agree with his friend about this; he admitted that some of the music was "trashy" but thought it had been useful to Holst nonetheless: "To start with, the very worst a trombonist has to put up with is as nothing compared to what a church organist has to endure; and secondly, Holst is above all an orchestral composer, and that sure touch which distinguishes his orchestral writing is due largely to the fact that he has been an orchestral player; he has learnt his art, both technically and in substance, not at second hand from text books and models, but from actual live experience."
As the English Musical Renaissance proceeded, some composers, such as Sullivan and Elgar, remained indifferent, but Parry, Stanford, John Stainer, and Alexander Mackenzie became founding members of the Folk-Song Society (1898). Parry considered that by recovering English folk song, English composers would find an authentic national voice; he commented, "in true folk-songs there is no sham, no got-up glitter, and no vulgarity." Vaughan Williams was an early and enthusiastic convert to this cause, going round the English countryside collecting and noting down folk songs. These had an influence on Holst. Though not as passionate on the subject as his friend, he incorporated a number of folk melodies in his own compositions and made several arrangements of folk songs collected by others.
Holst was frequently inspired by literature, including in the orchestral Walt Whitman Overture of 1899. Imogen discerns glimpses of her father's real self in that year's Suite de Ballet and Ave Maria of 1900.
Matthews and Imogen Holst each highlight the Elegy movement in The Cotswold Symphony (1900) as among the more accomplished of the apprentice works.
Holst's search for his compositional voice led him to explore beyond English music traditions. His interest in Indian mythology, shared by many of his contemporaries, began with Maya (1901) for violin and piano, regarded by the composer- writer Raymond Head as "an insipid salon-piece whose musical language is dangerously close to Stephen Adams [b. Michael Maybrick, 1841–1913]."
With a slight income secured, Gustav was able to marry Isobel at Fulham Register Office on June 22, 1901, a union that lasted until his death. In 1902 Dan Godfrey and the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra premiered Holst's Cotswold Symphony, the slow movement of which is a lament for Morris, who had died in October 1896, three years before Holst began work on the piece. In 1903 Adolph von Holst died, leaving a small legacy. Holst and his wife decided, as Imogen later put it, that "as they were always hard up the only thing to do was to spend it all at once on a holiday in Germany."
While in Germany, Holst reappraised his professional life, and, in 1903, he decided to abandon orchestral playing to concentrate on composition. His earnings as a composer were too little to live on, and two years later he became a teacher -- a great one, according to Vaughan Williams, initially accepting the offer of a post at James Allen's Girls' School, Dulwich, which he held until 1921. He also taught at the Passmore Edwards Settlement, where among other innovations, he gave the British premieres of two Bach cantatas.
He set poetry by Thomas Hardy, Robert Bridges, Whitman -- including the latter's Dirge for Two Veterans and The Mystic Trumpeter (1904).
Imogen and Matthews have asserted that Holst found his genuine voice in his setting of this latter, in which the trumpet calls that later characterize Mars in The Planets are briefly anticipated. In this work, not publicly performed until 1989, Holst first employs bitonality.
One of Holst's two best-known teaching posts was as director of music at St Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith, from 1905 until his death. Vaughan Williams wrote of the establishment: "Here he did away with the childish sentimentality which schoolgirls were supposed to appreciate and substituted Bach and Vittoria; a splendid background for immature minds.
In the Two Songs Without Words of 1906, Holst showed that he could create his own original music using English folk song. An orchestral folksong fantasy Songs of the West, also written in 1906, was withdrawn by the composer and never published, although it emerged in the 1980's in the form of an arrangement for wind band by James Curnow.
His settings of translations of Sanskrit texts began with Sita (1906), a three-act opera based on an episode in the Ramayana, which he eventually entered for a competition for English opera set by the Milan music publisher Tito Ricordi.
From about the time of the birth of their daughter until 1913, the Holsts lived in an attractive house overlooking the Thames at Barnes, but the river air, frequently foggy, affected the composer's breathing. For use at weekends and during school holidays, the family bought a cottage in Thaxted, Essex, surrounded by mediaeval buildings and ample wandering opportunities.
At Thaxted, Holst became friendly with the Reverend Conrad Noel, known as the "Red Vicar," who supported the Independent Labour Party and espoused many causes unpopular with conservative opinion. Holst became an occasional organist and choirmaster at Thaxted Parish Church; he also developed an interest in bell-ringing.
The Somerset Rhapsody, was written during this time, at the suggestion of the folk-song collector Cecil Sharp and made use of three tunes that Sharp had notated. While this English folksong-influenced work was originally to be based around 11 folksong themes, the number was later reduced to four. Observing the piece’s kinship to Vaughan Williams's Norfolk Rhapsody (1906), writer Alan Edgar Frederic Dickinson remarks that, with its firm overall structure, Holst's composition "rises beyond the level of . . . a song-selection." Imogen acknowledges that Holst's discovery of folksong "transformed his orchestral writing," and that the composition of A Somerset Rhapsody did much to banish the chromaticisms that had dominated his early compositions.
From 1907 until 1924, the composer was the director of music at Morley College. Vaughan Williams notes that there, a "bad tradition had to be broken down. The results were at first discouraging, but soon a new spirit appeared and the music of Morley College, together with its off-shoot the Whitsuntide festival . . . became a force to be reckoned with." Before Holst's appointment, Morley College had not treated music very seriously -- the bad tradition to which Vaughan Williams referred; at first Holst's exacting demands drove many students away. He persevered, and gradually built up a class of dedicated music-lovers.
Holst was a keen rambler. He walked extensively in England, Italy, France, and Algeria. In 1908 he travelled to Algeria on medical advice as a treatment for asthma and the depression that he suffered after his opera Sita failed to win the Ricordi prize. This trip inspired the suite Beni Mora, which incorporated music he heard in the Algerian streets. Vaughan Williams wrote of this exotic work, "if it had been played in Paris rather than London it would have given its composer a European reputation, and played in Italy would probably have caused a riot." Matthews considers this suite of 1908 the composer's most individual work to that date; the third movement gives a preview of minimalism in its constant repetition of a four-bar theme.
Savitri (1908), a chamber opera based on a tale from the Mahabharata, is written for three solo voices, a small hidden female chorus, and an instrumental combination of two flutes, English horn, and double string quartet. The music critic John Warrack comments on the "extraordinary expressive subtlety" with which Holst deploys the sparse forces: "... [T]he two unaccompanied vocal lines opening the work skillfully convey the relationship between Death, steadily advancing through the forest, and Savitri, her frightened answers fluttering round him, unable to escape his harmonic pull." Head describes the work as unique in its time for its compact intimacy, and considers it Holst's most successful attempt to end the domination of Wagnerian chromaticism in his music. Dickinson considers it a significant step, "not towards opera, but towards an idiomatic pursuit of [Holst's] vision."
Through Vaughan Williams's studies with Ravel (1908-1909), Holst discovered and became an admirer of the French post-impressionist, considering him a "model of purity" on the level with Haydn, another composer he greatly admired. The combined influence of Ravel, Hindu spiritualism and English folk tunes enabled Holst to free himself of the influence of Wagner and Richard Strauss and to forge his own style.
Holst enrolled in 1909 at University College, London, to study the Sanskrit Imogen commented on his translations: "He was not a poet, and there are occasions when his verses seem naïve. But they never sound vague or slovenly, for he had set himself the task of finding words that would be 'clear and dignified' and that would 'lead the listener into another world'."
Holst wrote two suites for military band, the first of which, in E-Flat (1909), became and remains a wind-band staple. This piece, a highly original and serious musical work, was a signal departure from what Michael Short describes as "the usual transcriptions and operatic selections which pervaded the band repertoire."
Yet, after all this, Holst described The Somerset Rhapsody's performance at Queen's Hall in 1910 as "my first real success."
In June 1911, Holst and his Morley College students gave the first performance since the 17th Century of Purcell's The Fairy-Queen, whose full score had been lost soon after Purcell's death in 1695 and had only recently been rediscovered. 28 Morley students copied out the complete vocal and orchestral parts: 1,500 pages over 18 months. A concert performance of the work was given at the Old Vic, preceded by an introductory talk by Vaughan Williams. The Times praised Holst and his forces for "a most interesting and artistic performance of this very important work."
According to he composer Edmund Rubbra, the publication in 1911 of Holst's Rig Veda Hymns was a landmark event in the composer's development: "Before this, Holst's music had, indeed, shown the clarity of utterance which has always been his characteristic, but harmonically there was little to single him out as an important figure in modern music." Dickinson describes these vedic settings as pictorial rather than religious; although the quality is variable the sacred texts clearly "touched vital springs in the composer's imagination." While the music of Holst's Indian verse settings remained generally western in character, in some of the vedic settings he experimented with Indian ragas.
Of Holst's settings of Kālidāsa texts, the Two Eastern Pictures (1911), in Dickinson's view, provide a " memorable final impression of Kālidāsa.
Holst's second military suite, in F Major, dates from this year, as does Hecuba's Lament, a setting of Gilbert Murray's translation from Euripides built on a seven-beat refrain. This is designed, avers Dickinson, to represent Hecuba's defiance of divine wrath.
After these successes, Holst was disappointed by the lukewarm reception of his Sanskrit-based choral work The Cloud Messenger (1912), which Dickinson dismisses as an "accumulation of desultory incidents, opportunistic dramatic episodes and ecstatic outpourings" illustrating the composer's creative confusion during this time.
Holst again went travelling, accepting an invitation from Balfour Gardiner to join him and the brothers Clifford and Arnold Bax in Spain. During this holiday, Clifford Bax introduced Holst to astrology, an interest that later inspired The Planets. Holst cast his friends' horoscopes for the rest of his life and referred to astrology as his "pet vice."
The year also saw the composition of two Holst psalm- settings, in which he experimented with plainsong, and the failure of his large scale orchestral work Phantastes.
In 1913, St Paul's Girls' School opened a new music wing, and Holst composed the enduringly popular St Paul's Suite for the occasion (Dickinson: a "gay but retrogressive" piece ). The new building contained a fully-equipped, sound-proof room, where the composer could work undisturbed.
Holst and his family moved to a house in Brook Green, very close to the school.
The composer conceived the idea of The Planets in this year, partly as a result of his interest in astrology, and also from his determination, despite the failure of Phantastes, to produce a large-scale orchestral work. The chosen format may have been influenced by Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra and/or, Matthews suggests, Debussy's La Mer.
At the outbreak of the First World War, the completion year for Hymns from the Rig Veda (1914), Holst tried to enlist but was rejected and subsequently dejected. His wife became a volunteer ambulance driver; Vaughan Williams went on active service to France as did Holst's brother Emil; Holst's friends the composers George Butterworth and Cecil Coles were killed in battle. Holst continued to teach and compose, working on The Planets, the movements appearing in their final sequence, with the exception of Mercury. Mars, the first to be written, was followed by Venus and Jupiter. Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune were all composed during 1915, and Mercury was finished in 1916.
Each planet is represented with a distinct character; Dickinson observes that "no planet borrows color from another." In Mars, a combination of uneven meter, trumpet calls, and harmonic dissonance provides battle music which Short asserts is unique in its expression of violence and sheer terror, "Holst's intention being to portray the reality of warfare rather than to glorify deeds of heroism." In Venus, Holst incorporated music from an abandoned vocal work, A Vigil of Pentecost, to provide the opening; the prevalent mood within the movement is of peaceful resignation and nostalgia. Mercury is dominated by uneven rhythms and rapid changes of theme, to represent the speedy flight of the winged messenger.
Jupiter is renowned for its central melody, in Dickinson's view "a fantastic relaxation in which many retain a far from sneaking delight." Dickinson and other critics have decried the later use of the tune in the patriotic hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country -- despite Holst's full complicity.
For Saturn, Holst again used a previously-composed vocal piece, Dirge and Hymeneal, as the basis for the movement, where repeated chords represent the relentless approach of old age. Uranus, which follows, has elements of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique and Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, in its depiction of the magician who "disappears in a whiff of smoke as the sonic impetus of the movement diminishes from fff to ppp in the space of a few bars."
Neptune, the final movement, concludes with a wordless female chorus gradually receding, an effect which Warrack likens to "unresolved timelessness ... never ending, since space does not end, but drifting away into eternal silence." Apart from his concession with I Vow to Thee, Holst insisted on the unity of the whole work, and opposed the performance of individual movements. Nevertheless, Imogen writes that the piece has "suffered from being quoted in snippets as background music."
Holst started the wartime annual Thaxted Whitsun Festivals (1916-1918), where students from Morley College and St Paul's Girls' School performed together with local participants. Holst's carol, This Have I Done For My True Love, was dedicated to Conrad Noel; the composer always referred to it as The Dancing Day and it was performed with dancing in Thaxted Church. Such innovations caused controversy among traditionally-minded churchgoers.
Works performed included Six Choral Folksongs (1916), based on West Country tunes, of which Swansea Town, with its "sophisticated tone," is deemed by Dickinson to be the most memorable. Holst downplayed such music as "a limited form of art" in which "mannerisms are almost inevitable," the composer Alan Gibbs, however, believes Holst's set at least equal to Vaughan Williams's Five English Folk Songs of 1913.
Holst presented Savitri in December 1916 by students of the London School of Opera at the Wellington Hall in St John's Wood, a performance which attracted no attention from the main newspapers.
Holst's first major work beyond The Planets was Hymn of Jesus, for chorus and orchestra, completed in 1917, but which remained unperformed until after the war. The words are from a Gnostic text, the apocryphal Acts of St John, using a translation from the Greek which Holst prepared with assistance from Clifford Bax and Jane Joseph. Composer-writer Raymond Head comments on the innovative character of the Hymn: "At a stroke Holst had cast aside the Victorian and Edwardian sentimental oratorio, and created the precursor of the kind of works that John Tavener, for example, was to write in the 1970's." Matthews has written that the Hymn's "ecstatic" quality is matched in English music "perhaps only by Tippett's The Vision of Saint Augustine" the musical elements include plainsong, two choirs distanced from each other to emphasize dialogue, dance episodes and "explosive chordal dislocations."
In 1917, Holst wrote The Hymn of Jesus for chorus and orchestra, which remained unperformed until after the war.
That same year, the Holsts moved to a house in the centre of the town, where they stayed until 1925.
As World War I neared its end, Holst finally had the prospect of a chance to serve. The music section of the YMCA's education department needed volunteers to work with British troops stationed in Europe awaiting demobilization. Morley College and St Paul's Girls' School offered him a year's leave of absence, but there remained one obstacle: the YMCA felt that his surname looked too German to be acceptable in such a role. Holst formally changed "von Holst" to "Holst" by deed poll in September 1918. He was appointed as the YMCA's musical organizer for the Near East, based in Salonica.
The composer was given a spectacular send-off, conductor Adrian Boult recalling, "Just before the Armistice, Gustav Holst burst into my office: 'Adrian, the YMCA are sending me to Salonica quite soon and Balfour Gardiner, bless his heart, has given me a parting present consisting of the Queen's Hall, full of the Queen's Hall Orchestra for the whole of a Sunday morning. So we're going to do The Planets, and you've got to conduct'." There was a burst of activity to get things ready in time. The girls at St Paul's helped to copy out the orchestral parts, and the women of Morley and the St Paul's girls learned the choral part in the last movement. The performance was given on September 29 to an invited audience including Sir Henry Wood and many of the professional musicians in London. Five months later, when Holst was in Greece, Boult introduced the initial quintet of Planets movements to the general public, at a concert in February 1919. While composer had sent conductor a long letter full of suggestions, Holst failed to convince that the suite should be played in full. Boult believed that about half an hour of such radically new music was all the public could absorb at first hearing.
Holst enjoyed his time in Salonica, from where he was able to visit Athens, which greatly impressed him. His musical duties were wide-ranging, and even obliged him on occasion to play the violin in the local orchestra: "it was great fun, but I fear I was not of much use." He returned to England in June 1919.
In addition to his existing work, the artist accepted a lectureship in composition at Reading University and joined Vaughan Williams in teaching composition at RCM. In his soundproof room at St Paul's Girls' School, Holst composed Ode to Death (1919), a Whitman setting, which, according to Vaughan Williams, is considered by many to be Holst's most beautiful choral work. The quiet, resigned mood is seen by Matthews as an "abrupt volte-face" after the life-enhancing spirituality of the Hymn. John Warrack refers to its aloof tranquillity; Imogen believed the Ode expressed Holst's private attitude to death. The piece has rarely been performed since its premiere in 1922, although the composer Ernest Walker thought it was Holst's finest work to that date.
Holst, in his 40's, suddenly found himself in demand. The New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony vied to be the first to play The Planets in America. The work was followed in 1920 by an enthusiastic reception for The Hymn of Jesus, described in The Observer as "one of the most brilliant and . . . sincere pieces of choral and orchestral expression heard for some years." The Times called it "undoubtedly the most strikingly original choral work which has been produced in this country for many years." To his surprise and dismay Holst was becoming famous -- something wholly foreign to his nature. As the music scholar Byron Adams puts it, "he struggled for the rest of his life to extricate himself from the web of garish publicity, public incomprehension, and professional envy woven about him by this unsought-for success." He turned down honors and awards offered to him, and refused to give interviews or autographs.
According to Rubbra, who studied under him in the early 1920's, Holst was "a teacher who often came to lessons weighted, not with the learning of Prout and Stainer, but with a miniature score of [Igor Stravinsky's] Petrushka  or the then recently published Mass in G Minor  of Vaughan Williams." He never sought to impose his own ideas on his composition pupils. Rubbra recalled that he would divine a student's difficulties and gently guide him to finding the solution for himself. "I do not recall that Holst added one single note of his own to anything I wrote, but he would suggest -- if I agreed! -- that, given such and such a phrase, the following one would be better if it took such and such a course; if I did not see this, the point would not be insisted upon ... He frequently took away [because of] his abhorrence of unessentials."
1n 1921, Savritri, now professionally staged, was greeted as "a perfect little masterpiece."
Holst made some recordings, conducting his own music. For Columbia, he recorded Beni Mora, the Marching Song, and The Planets, with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1922, using the acoustic process. The limitations of early recording prevented the gradual fade-out of women's voices at the end of Neptune, and the lower strings had to be replaced by a tuba to obtain an effective bass sound.
He demonstrated a new interest in counterpoint during this time, in his Fugal Overture of 1922 for full orchestra and the neoclassic Fugal Concerto (1923, flute, oboe and strings).
Holst's 1923 comic opera The Perfect Fool was widely seen as a satire of Parsifal, though Holst firmly denied it. The piece, with Maggie Teyte in the leading soprano role and Eugene Goossens conducting, was enthusiastically received at its premiere in the Royal Opera House. Critic Ernest Newman considered The Perfect Fool "the best of modern British operas," but its unusually short length (about an hour) and parodic, whimsical nature -- described by The Times as "a brilliant puzzle" -- put it outside the operatic mainstream. Only the ballet music from the opera, which The Times called "the most brilliant thing in a work glittering with brilliant moments," has been regularly performed since its premiere. Holst's libretto attracted much criticism, although Edwin Evans remarked on the rare treat in opera of being able to hear the words being sung.
At a concert in Reading that year, Holst slipped and fell, suffering concussion. He seemed to make a good recovery, and he felt up to accepting an invitation to the United States, lecturing and conducting at the University of Michigan. After he returned he found himself more and more in demand, to conduct, prepare his earlier works for publication, and, as before, to teach. The strain caused by these demands on him was too great; on doctor's orders he cancelled all professional engagements during 1924, and retreated to Thaxted.
Holst's productivity as a composer benefited almost at once from his release from other work. His works from this period included Choral Symphony No. 1 to words by Keats (Choral Symphony No. 2, to words by George Meredith exists only in fragments) -- of which Matthews writes that, after several movements of real quality, the finale is a rambling anticlimax.
Holst's penultimate opera, At the Boar's Head (1924), is based on tavern scenes from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. The music, which is largely derived from old English melodies gleaned from Cecil Sharp and other collections, has pace and verve. The contemporary critic Harvey Grace discounted the lack of originality, a facet which he said "can be shown no less convincingly by a composer's handling of material than by its invention."
With an anonymous string orchestra Holst recorded the St. Paul's Suite and Country Song in 1925. He resumed his work at St Paul's Girls' School, but did not return to any of his other posts.
In his final decade he composed and arranged copiously, mixing his familiar song settings and minor pieces with major works and occasional new departures; the 1925 Terzetto for flute, violin and oboe, written in three keys, is cited by Imogen as Holst's only genuine chamber work.
When electrical recording came in, with dramatically improved recording quality, Holst and the London Symphony Orchestra re-recorded The Planets for Columbia in 1926.
In 1927, Holst was commissioned by the New York Symphony Orchestra to write a symphony. Instead, he wrote an orchestral piece Egdon Heath, his first major orchestral work after The Planets, and inspired by Thomas Hardy's Wessex novels. It was first performed in February 1928, a month after Hardy's death, at a memorial concert. By this time the public's brief enthusiasm for everything Holstian was waning, and the piece was not well received in New York. Olin Downes opined that "the new score seemed long and undistinguished." The day after the American performance, Holst conducted the City of Birmingham Orchestra in the British premiere. The Times acknowledged the bleakness of the work but allowed that it matched Hardy's grim view of the world: "Egdon Heath is not likely to be popular, but it says what the composer wants to say, whether we like it or not, and truth is one aspect of duty." Holst had been distressed by hostile reviews of some of his earlier works, but he was indifferent to critical opinion of Egdon Heath, which he regarded as, in Adams's phrase, his "most perfectly realized composition." Matthews summarizes the music as "elusive and unpredictable; three main elements: a pulseless wandering melody [for strings], a sad brass processional, and restless music for strings and oboe." The mysterious dance towards the end is, "the strangest moment in a strange work." Richard Greene, in Music & Letters describes the piece as "a larghetto dance in a siciliano rhythm with a simple, stepwise, rocking melody," but lacking the power of The Planets and, at times, monotonous to the listener.
A more popular success was the Moorside Suite for brass band, written as a test piece for the National Brass Band Festival championships of 1928. While written within the traditions of north-country brass band music the suite, Short says, bears Holst's unmistakable imprint, "from the skipping 6/8 of the opening Scherzo, to the vigorous melodic fourths of the concluding March, the intervening Nocturne bearing a family resemblance to the slow-moving procession of Saturn."
After this, Holst tackled his final attempt at opera in a cheerful vein, with The Wandering Scholar (1930), to a text by Clifford Bax. Imogen refers to the music as "Holst at his best in a scherzando (playful) frame of mind." Vaughan Williams commented on the lively, folksy rhythms: "Do you think there's a little bit too much 6/8 in the opera?" Short observes that the opening motif makes several reappearances without being identified with a particular character, but imposes musical unity on the work. Matthews finds this final opera "the right medium for his oblique sense of humour, writing with economy and directness."
The short Choral Fantasia of 1930 was written for the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester; chorale-type themes are interspersed with choruses, with an instrumental backing of strings, percussion brass and organ.
Holst also was commissioned by the BBC to write a piece for military band; the resulting prelude and scherzo Hammersmith was a tribute to the place where he had spent most of his life. The composer and critic Colin Matthews considers the work "as uncompromising in its way as Egdon Heath, discovering, in the words of Imogen Holst, 'in the middle of an over-crowded London ... the same tranquillity that he had found in the solitude of Egdon Heath.'" The piece, in orchestral transcription, was unlucky in being premiered at a concert that also featured the London premiere of the William Walton Belshazzar's Feast, which overshadowed it.
Holst wrote a score for the now-lost 1931 British film, The Bells, and was amused to be recruited as an extra in a crowd scene. He wrote a "jazz band piece" that Imogen later arranged for orchestra as Capriccio.
Holst's remaining works were for small forces; the eight Canons of 1932 were dedicated to his pupils, though in Imogen's view that they present a formidable challenge to the most professional of singers. The Brook Green Suite of that year, written for the orchestra of St Paul's School, was a late companion piece to St Paul's Suite.
Harvard University offered Holst a lectureship for the first six months of 1932. Arriving via New York, he was pleased to be reunited with his brother, whose acting career had taken him to Broadway, but he was dismayed by the continual attentions of press interviewers and photographers. Holst enjoyed his time at Harvard, but was taken ill: a duodenal ulcer prostrated him for some weeks. He returned to England, joined briefly by his brother for a holiday together in the Cotswolds. His health declined, and he withdrew further from musical activities.
The brief Lyric Movement for viola and small orchestra (1933) was written for Lionel Tertis. Quiet and contemplative, and requiring little virtuosity from the soloist, the piece was slow to gain popularity among violists. Robin Hull, in Penguin Music Magazine, praised the work's "clear beauty -- impossible to mistake for the art of any other composer." In Dickinson's view, however, it remains "a frail creation."
Holst's final composition, the orchestral scherzo movement of a projected symphony, contains features characteristic of much of Holst's earlier music -- "a summing up of Holst's orchestral art," in the words of Short. Dickinson suggests that the somewhat casual collection of material in the work gives little indication of the symphony that might have been written.
One of Holst's last efforts was to guide the young players of the St Paul's Girls' School orchestra through The Brook Green Suite, in March 1934.
Gustav Holst died in London on May 25, 1934, at 59, of heart failure following an operation on his ulcer. His ashes were interred at Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, close to the memorial to Thomas Weelkes, his favorite Tudor composer. Bishop George Bell gave the memorial oration at the funeral, and Vaughan Williams conducted music by Holst and himself.
Warrack emphasizes that Holst acquired an instinctive understanding -- perhaps more so than any English composer -- of the importance of folksong. In it he found "a new concept not only of how melody might be organized, but of what the implications were for the development of a mature artistic language." Holst did not found or lead a school of composition; nevertheless, he exercised influences over both contemporaries and successors. According to Short, Vaughan Williams described Holst as "the greatest influence on my music," although Matthews asserts that each influenced the other equally. Among later composers, Michael Tippett is acknowledged by Short as Holst's "most significant artistic successor," both in terms of compositional style and because Tippett, who succeeded Holst as director of music at Morley College, maintained the spirit of Holst's music there. Of an early encounter with Holst, Tippett later wrote: "Holst seemed to look right inside me, with an acute spiritual vision.".
Douglas Kennedy observes that "a new generation of listeners . . . recognized in Holst the fount of much that they admired in the music of Britten and Tippett." Rubbra acknowledged how he and other younger English composers had adopted Holst's economy of style: "With what enthusiasm did we pare down our music to the very bone."
Short cites other English composers who are in debt to Holst, in particular William Walton and Benjamin Britten, and suggests that Holst's influence was felt further afield. He observes that "the rising fourths of the Jupiter can be heard in Copland's Appalachian Spring, and that early works by Prokofiev and Shostakovich bear similar traces. The Hymn of Jesus might be considered as a forerunner of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. Above all, however, Short recognizes Holst as a composer for the people, who believed it was a composer's duty to provide music for practical purposes --festivals, celebrations, ceremonies, Christmas carols, or simple hymn tunes. Thus, says Short, "many people who may never have heard any of [Holst's] major works . . . have nevertheless derived great pleasure from hearing or singing such small masterpieces as the carol In the Bleak Midwinter.
In the early LP era little of Holst's music was available on disc. Only six of his works are listed in the 1955 issue of The Record Guide: The Planets (recordings under Boult on HMV and Nixa, and another under Sir Malcolm Sargent on Decca); The Perfect Fool ballet music; St. Paul's Suite; and three short choral pieces. In the stereo LP and CD eras numerous recordings of The Planets were issued, performed by orchestras and conductors from round the world. By the early years of the 21st Century, most of the major and many of the minor orchestral and choral works had been issued on disc. The 2008 issue of The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music contained seven pages of listings of Holst's works on CD. Of the operas, Savitri, The Wandering Scholar, and At the Boar's Head have been recorded.
On September 27, 2009, after a weekend of concerts at Chichester Cathedral in memory of Holst, a new memorial was unveiled to mark the 75th anniversary of the composer's death. It is inscribed with words from the text of The Hymn of Jesus: "The heavenly spheres make music for us." In April 2011, a BBC television documentary, Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter, charted Holst's life with particular reference to his support for socialism and the cause of working people
Posted by Mark Alburger at 10:00 PM
Electric Sarod, Guitars, Electronics / Michael McDonagh
Life is basically ambiguous. We don't know what we're doing even when we're doing it, but art, which is our organized experience has to be clear. It has to have a beginning, middle, and end, even in these post-modern times. These things came to mind when I caught an evening of improvised music by Bay Area musicians Lisa Sangita Moskow and Guillermo Galindo, on January 11, at the intimate and welcoming Far Leaves teahouse which has been at its present Berkeley location for almost three years.
Sangita and Galindo's work has been largely in the "world music" and "new music" scenes, respectively and you'd this would make for a forced or even incompatible pairing, but their musical interaction here sounded both natural and logical. And it reminded me of what my late friend Earle Brown told me that Coltrane. He always played the absolutely necessary note in his improvisations, and so improvisation, as its commonly understood, is not just going postal, but playing the only the essential within a firm musical structure.
Everything sounded inevitable here, and Sangita and Galindo's "sources" which ranged from Indian ragas to what sounded like Native American chants and rhythms, to blues jazz, and a very smart version of New Age "space music " were unselfconsciously merged. Plus the scale types and tunings -- Galindo used two guitars -- one being a Moog -- tuned differently, with electronics both recorded "sampled " and processed in "real time "-- and all his sounds were varied and more importantly -- surprising. Thin textures say a drone on Sangita's electric sarod alternated with sometimes thick ones on Galindo's guitars cum electronics.
What could have been a gimmicky concert ended up being one with real music, and Sangita and Galindo's improvs never outstayed their welcome which is always the sign of scrupulous artists who know they're playing for themselves -- from their own inner needs, if you will -- but there are always others in the room. The audience in the jam-packed little tea house was deeply attentive throughout which means of course that these two remarkable artists struck communicative gold. A lovely and deeply satisfying concert, with beautifully shaped music with a beginning, middle, and end.
Posted by Mark Alburger at 9:00 PM
Calendar / For February 2014
Renga-9 Ensemble: Nancy Beckman (shakuhachi, small percussion), Tom Bickley (Paetzold contrabass recorder, electronics/radios, small percussion), Rachel Condry(clarinets), Patti Deuter (piano/toy piano/radio), Ben Kreith (violin), Joe Lasqo (laptop, piano and mrdangam), Lisa Sangita Moskow (sarod), Dean Santomieri (guitars), Jennifer Wilsey (percussion), Nan Busse (dancer). Musicians Union Local 9, San Francisco, CA.
Electro-acoustic improvising quartets Gestaltish and Dapplegray explore the sonic possibilities of light v. dark. Berkeley Arts Festival, Berkeley, CA.
The Complete Piano Works of Neely Bruce: Part II. Crowell Concert Hall, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT.
Active Music Festival. Oakland, CA. Through February 22.
The Opus Project presents Opus 14. Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique Overdose, Op. 14; Sergei Rachmaninoff's Floods of Spring, Op. 14, No. 11; Gustav Holst's Quintet for Winds in Ab Major, Op. 14; Arnold Schoenberg's Song, Op. 14, No. 1; Bela Bartok's Piano Suite, Op. 14; Karol Szymanowski's Piano Fantasia, Op. 14; Anton Webern's The Sun, Op. 14, No. 1; Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 14 (1912); Darius Milhaud's Agamemnon, Op.14; Paul Hindemith's Whitman Hymn, Op. 14, No. 1; Dmitri Kabalevsky's From Pioneer Life, Op. 14; Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 2 ("To October"), Op. 14; Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto, Op. 14; Alan Hovhaness's Tapor, Op. 14; Benjamin Britten's Ballad of Heroes, Op. 14; George Crumb's Vox Balaenae:...Vocalise for the Beginning of Time (1971); Robert Muczynski's Flute Sonata, Op. 14 ; Mark Alburger's Seasons' Eves, Op. 14, No. 1. Berkeley Arts Festival, Berkeley, CA.
NACUSA-SF Composers and Friends, including John Bilotta's Song of the Hermit Thrush. and music of will receive its premiere performance in Palo Alto Anne Baldwin, Greg Steinke, Karl Schmidt, Paul Rosas, Simon Bokman, and Sondra Clark. Lucie Stern Ballroom, Palo Alto, CA.
Lafayette String Quartet, a Canadian all-woman quartet, plays U.S. premiere of David A. Jaffe's Fox Hollow (2013). Berkeley City Club, Berkeley, CA.
Chronicle / Of December 2013
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performs Irving Fine's Serious Song and an improvisation on music from Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. "[T]he spectacular Carnegie encore [of clarinetist Martin Frost] . . . began as a modest improvisation on licks from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and opened into two riotous outbursts of klezmerlike note-spinning, ranging mercurially from the most delicate and attenuated to the most raucous, with the orchestra jamming alongside. . . . At the opposite emotional extreme, Fine’s Serious Song was offered in tribute to the centenary of the composer, who was born in Boston on Dec. 3, 1914, and died there in 1962, respected by colleagues like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Subtitled A Lament for String Orchestra, the nine-minute piece works its way through an anguished supersaturated late romanticism reminiscent of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night to find a tentative peace in a sort of shimmering Stravinskian neoclassicism" [James R. Oestreich, The New York Times, 12/9/12].
UnCaged Toy Piano Festival. Pianos, New York, NY. Through December 14. The spirits of John Cage and Charles M. Schulz’s Schroeder converged . . . at . . . a cozy, noisy nightclub on Ludlow Street. Founded in 2007 by Phyllis Chen -- a skillful pianist and composer, a budding impresario and a leading proponent of the toy piano as a vehicle for serious music -- the festival opened with a performance by Margaret Leng Tan. Ms. Tan, who was celebrating her 68th birthday on Thursday, has long been the toy piano’s most serious and diligent advocate. It made sense that she would occupy a prominent slot in Ms. Chen’s festival. But it also seemed oddly appropriate, given the number of toy-piano fanciers in the room, that Ms. Tan abandoned her familiar keyboard for a new one: the Speak-and-Play, a voice synthesizer developed by the sound artist and inventor Ranjit Bhatnagar. Using the instrument, an electronic keyboard that produces samples of Mr. Bhatnagar’s voice intoning 40 fundamental sounds used in English, Ms. Tan played five selections from Cage’s Indeterminacy, with Mr. Bhatnagar on percussion, radios and toys. The performance was by no means smooth -- imagine the name 'Cage' rendered as 'kh ... AY ... dhz ... uh' and you get the general idea -- but it was serious and screwy, befuddling and captivating, all at once. In that sense, the performance was a quick glimpse of much that would follow in the show. . . . Most of the performances could be fairly described as quirky, without selling their integrity short. The festival’s call for scores specified music for “toy piano plus unconventional instrument.” Lukas Ligeti paired the keyboard with a digital sampler in his bucolic, kinetic Play Addict, performed by Ms. Chen.
In Chromotoy Three Sketches 1.2, by Christina Viola Oorebeek, the pianist Tristan McKay played stark, dramatic figures on a toy piano, mixed with a busy electronic soundscape and chattering rhythms from a “soundwheel,” essentially a bicycle wheel mounted upright on a tabletop and amplified. Peter Koeszeghy’s Moon Veil, also played by Mr. McKay, paired assertive one-handed chords on toy piano with gently floating melodies blown on a melodica. Tristan Perich’s qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq, for which Ms. Chen and Cory Smythe joined Mr. McKay, provoked a blissful whirligig with dizzying Minimalist patterns and chirping 1-bit electronics. Along with those complex pieces came examples of pure charm and whimsy, as in a six-song set by Alexa Dexa, who accompanied her hearty, flexible voice with toy piano, desk bells and other gadgets. Ken Butler, a ceaselessly inventive instrument builder, coaxed flashing lights and simple, throbbing melodies from his one-string 'K-Board,' over which blew an extraordinary trumpet-like solo on a small strip of latex. And a closing set of three playful, semi-improvised pieces, played by Matt Evans on toy piano, wood blocks and knickknacks, invited eager audience participation" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 12/13/13].
The Opus Project presents Opus 12. Gustav Holst's In the Bleak Midwinter (1905); Arnold Schoenberg's Jane Grey, Op. 12, No. 1; Julius Lenzberg's Operatic Rag (1914); Bela Bartok's Piece for Orchestra, Op. 12, No. 2; Zoltan Kodaly's Serenade, Op. 12; Igor Stravinsky's Three Pieces for Clarinet (1919); Anton Webern's The Day Is Over, Op. 12, No. 1; Sergei Prokofiev's Humoresque Scherzo, Op. 12, No. 9; Paul Hindemith's Murderer, Hope of Women, Op. 12; Kurt Weill's Concerto for Violin and Winds, Op. 12, No. 2; Irving Schlein's Trio: II. Presto (1940); Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Sonata No. 1, Op. 12, Nos. 1-2; Samuel Barber's Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12: Finale; Alan Hovhaness's Sonata Ricercare, Op. 12, No. 2; Benjamin Britten's Mont Juic, Op. 12: III-IV Excerpts; Alberto Ginastera American Prelude, Op. 12, No. 2; Oliver Knussen's Trumpets, Op. 12; Mark Alburger's Procession, Op. 12, No. 1; Stardust's Motherequiem (2013); and Michael Stubblefield's Nightfall Dreams: III. Midnight Dream (2011).
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