Gustav Holst

Composer Gustav Holst

The composer of one of the most popular orchestral works of all time, The Planets.

Vital Statistics
Cheltenham, England, September 21, 1874
London, May 25, 1934
Late Romantic/Early Modern
Performed As:
Trombonist, conductor
During Lifetime:
The British Empire reached its zenith, as its undoing began in the disaster of World War I.
Biographical Outline
  • Growing pains 1874-91: Born into a musical family Holst initially learns piano from his father. Pain from neuritis (nerve inflammation) in his arms rules out a performing career, but Holst studies the trombone (which he initially is given as therapy for his asthma.) His mother dies when he is eight.
  • Musical studies, 1891-98: He studies counterpoint privately for several months and, as a local choirmaster/ organist, gets some of his early compositions performed, including an operetta. He attends the Royal Academy of Music in 1893, where he meets the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who becomes his closest friend. He becomes interested in Hindu literature and studies Sanskrit.
  • First gigs, 1898-1903: Holst leaves the Academy in 1898 to become a professional trombonist and vocal coach/rehearsal pianist in the Carl Rosa Opera Company. Two years later he joins the Scottish Orchestra and also plays in a seaside resort band. In 1901, he marries choir soprano Emily Isobel Harrison.
  • Going solo, 1904-1913: Deciding to devote more time to composition, he quits the orchestra to become a music teacher at a London girls school. He moves on to head of music at St. Paul's Girls School, a position he holds until his death. He begins to develop a modest reputation as a composer. He also becomes music director of Morley College in 1907, where his students give the first modern performance of Purcell's The Fairy Queen. His daughter, Imogen, is born in 1907. He writes his own librettos in Sanskrit for the operas Sita (1899-1906) and Savitri (1908).
  • The Planets and the War 1913-1920: Holst begins his suite for large orchestra The Planets as a duet for two pianos, with “Mars, the Bringer of War.” It is given a privately-funded premiere in 1918. In 1914, he buys a country cottage in Essex. Ill-health prevents him from enlisting in the army at the onset of World War I, but he he volunteers to help the YMCA bring musical comforts to the troops in Greece and Istanbul in 1918.
  • Later Life, 1920-1934: Returning to London, he finds his music briefly popular, thanks to the success of The Planets and a choral work, Hymn to Jesus. He publishes some of his older music and conducts the London Symphony in recordings of it. He continues to write music, fulfilling commissions for the New York Symphony and the BBC. He visits the U.S. (for the third time) in 1932, where he lectures at Harvard. But a hemorrhaging duodenal ulcer forces him to return to England. His heart gives out after an operation to remove the ulcer, in 1934. His ashes are interred in Chichester Cathedral.
Fun Facts
  • Personality: Holst was shy and a loner, but liked a good laugh and had a number of friends. From his college days he was a strict vegetarian (not so easy back then), never smoke or drank, and was thrifty with money. He loved to construct horoscopes for his friends.
  • Strong-legged: Despite his frail health, Holst loved embarking on walking tours, tramping across almost every county in England as well as parts France, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia—not to mention a bicycle tour of Morocco.
  • Where's Pluto?: Pluto was only discovered in 1930, 12 years after Holst completed The Planets. “Pluto the Renewer” was written by Colin Matthews, on commission from Kent Nagano for a 2000 performance.
  • Name dropping: His original name was Gustavus Theodore von Holst. His army service prompted him to drop the “von” from his name.
  • Born to do it: Holst’s family was artistic: his great-grandfather was a composer, both his grandfather and father taught harp and piano, a grand uncle was an outstanding painter, and his mother was a pianist and singer.
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Explore the Music

Though initially influenced by Wagner, Holst became interested, like Vaughan Williams, in English folksong, resulting in some of his best music. He was a determined individualist who hated to repeat himself, and some of his music can be a little frustrating as a result: Almost as soon as he finds a good idea, he abandons it.

  • Signifying music: The Planets was tied to a keen interest in astrology. Holst meant his suite to reflect supposed planetary influences on the psyche rather than purely astronomical details of the solar system. This is why Earth was omitted from the composition, since it is the reference point in astrology.
  • Strike up the band: Holst was one of the first composers to write seriously for wind band, and he did so even without a commission. The two Suites for band (1909, 1911) and Hammersmith (1930) contain some of his best music.
  • Chorus master: Holst wrote a ton of choral music, including four sets of hymns from the Rig Veda, reflecting his interest in Hindu mythology and literature. The Hymn to Jesus, one of his more successful works, was set to a gnostic text and is every bit as mysterious as the Hindu pieces.
  • Man of contradictions: Some of Holst's music is upbeat and delightful, like the suites for band, the St. Paul’s Suite, and the A Somerset Rhapsody. For the mysterious and reflective side of Holst, investigate Egdon Heath, A Song of the Night, Invocation for cello, or the Hymn of Jesus.
  • Opera: Holst wrote 13 operas, most of them short. The most effective is Savitri, 30 minutes long and one of the first modern chamber operas.
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