This Billie Eilish song is based on a Gustav Holst hymn with a 3,000-year-old Sanskrit text

5 August 2021, 20:50 | Updated: 28 June 2022, 16:58

Gustav Holst and Billie Eilish
Gustav Holst and Billie Eilish. Picture: Alamy / Getty

By Kyle Macdonald

Today, millions are hearing an ancient 3,000-year-old text within a 100-year-old classical work, from the biggest pop stars of today. Here’s what happened...

Classical composer Gustav Holst has inadvertently teamed up with pop star Billie Eilish. In ‘Goldwing’, a song on Eilish’s 2021 album Happier than Ever, you can hear a somewhat obscure Holst hymn, sung by the teenage star, note for note.

And to start the story, we have to go back three millennia – because the best art and expression often has a long backstory.

Read more: How good is Billie Eilish’s singing voice, from a classical music perspective?

The Rig Veda is an ancient collection of Sanskrit hymns, and some of the most important texts of Hinduism. The texts were likely written between 1500 and 1000 BCE.

In 1907, Holst purchased translations of these ancient texts and was inspired to set a number to music, including the Hymn to Vena, which depicts an image of “the rising sun through the mist”.

The setting of this hymn was completed in 1912, for women’s soprano and alto voices, with harp or piano accompaniment. In typical Holst style, it’s full of poignant harmony and evocative orchestration, and it draws on the church chorale style. Though it is performed quite regularly, they are by no means widely known pieces of English choral music.

Fast forward another 100-and-something years, and Holst and the Rig Veda reappear – but this time on the cutting edge of pop music.

20-year-old pop singer Billie Eilish is one of the most popular and influential artists of today. And on her new album Happier than Ever, released only a few days ago, you can hear Holst’s radiant hymn.

Gustav Holst and Billie Eilish’s ‘Goldwing’

The song ‘Goldwing’ begins with an acapella vocal rendition of the lines of the hymn. Eilish multi-tracks each part note for note, for an entire stanza, transposed down a diminished fifth, so the melodic line fits her mezzo-soprano voice.

To Holst’s hymn, Eilish sings those ancient words:

He hath come to the bosom of his beloved.
Smiling on him
She beareth him to highest heav’n.
With yearning heart
On thee we gaze, O gold-wing’d messenger of mighty gods.

Billie Eilish - GOLDWING (Official Lyric Video)

On the final line, the chorale abruptly ends, with a sample of the descending 5th ‘gold-wing’d’ looping, and providing the basis for her song which continues in her customary eclectic, slightly retro, dark pop style.

We think it’s all incredibly inspired, inventive, and very beautiful.

Here’s Holst’s original setting, complete with a helpful score:

Gustav Holst - Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Group 3 (1910)

‘Goldwing’ was written and produced by Eilish and her elder brother Finneas O’Connell. For years the two have been a compositional and production duo. “Me and my brother write together always... We like to completely make up things and become characters,” she said in a 2017 interview.

Happier Than Ever is her second studio album and was released on 30 July 2021. Eilish says self-reflection during the coronavirus pandemic was the biggest inspiration for the record.