Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was one of the great originals of English music. He enjoys a reputation that rests almost entirely on one masterpiece: The Planets.
Life and Music
There is little about Holst’s early life that suggests a great master in the making. Piano lessons with his father seemed to point the way forward for a while, but intermittent neuritis in Gustav’s right arm soon ruled out thoughts of a virtuoso career.
Holst turned his hand to composition in his spare time, teaching himself as he went along from Berlioz’s famous treatise on orchestration.
The Planets hit the British music scene like a thunderbolt, despite having to wait until 1920 to receive its first complete public performance, turning Holst into a national celebrity..
While in Reading conducting a student orchestra in February 1923, he lost his footing on the podium and fell, hitting the back of his head. At first it seemed all was reasonably well, despite spells of insomnia and recurring headaches, but as the year went on Holst came close to nervous collapse. He took the whole of 1924 off under doctor's orders and from 1925 reduced his teaching to the occasional lesson.
Holst's reputation remained undiminished, as evidenced by the large number of commemorative awards he received, including the Royal Philharmonic Society's gold medal in 1930 and a celebratory Holst Festival held in Cheltenham in 1927.
In 1932, a duodenal ulcer caused a painful attack of gastritis from which he never fully recovered. An attempt to save him with an operation on 23 May 1934 failed and he passed away two days later. His ashes, as he had requested, were buried in Chichester Cathedral.
Did you know?
Each movement of Holst's The Planets tells the story of each of the planets' astrological characteristics:
Mars - the bringer of war
Venus - the bringer of peace
Mercury - the winged messenger of the gods
Jupiter - the bringer of jollity
Saturn - the bringer of old age
Uranus - the magician
Neptune - the mystic