THE COMPOSER GUSTAV Holst (1874-1934) is best known for his orchestral suite “The Planets”, which was composed between 1914 and 1916. This work does not include the planet Pluto, which was only discovered in 1930. Son of a professional musician, Holst was born in Cheltenham (Gloucestershire). Between 1886 and 1891, he was a pupil at Cheltenham Grammar School, where at the age of 12 he composed his first piece, “Horatius” for an ensemble of strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion. From 1891, he studied counterpoint for several months with the organist of Merton College in Oxford. Next, Holst studied composition at the Royal College of Music (‘RCM’) in London’s Kensington.
After graduation at the RCM, Holst worked as a professional trombonist in the Carl Rosa Opera Company and the Scottish Orchestra. During this time, he continued composing and also became interested in translations of Sanskrit literature. Several of his compositions reflect his heartfelt interest in the “Rig Veda”, “Ramayana”, and the “Bhagavad Gita”, all of which struck a meaningful chord with him. In 1903, he accepted a teaching role at James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich. Two years later, he left Dulwich to become Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith, a position he retained until his death.
Between 1908 and 1913, Holst lived not too far from the school: at Barnes in a house facing the River Thames on a road called The Terrace. His daughter Imogen Holst (1907-1984), herself a composer, wrote a biography of her father (published 1938). In it she described the house in Barnes:
“… a beautiful bow-fronted brick house overlooking the river. He had a large music room on the top floor, and in the evenings the grey, muddy river would collect all the colours of the sky and shine with a magical light …”
“It was an unhealthy house to live in, for at the spring tides the river overflowed into the streets, and often the floods would come in at the front door. He never felt really well there, and was perpetually suffering from a relaxed throat …”
Before moving to Barnes, Holst began to become interested in socialism, and having read some of the writings of William Morris (1834-1896), who had been living next to the Thames near Hammersmith in Kelmscott House since 1878. Imogen Holst wrote of her father’s interest in socialism:
“… [he] began to hear about Socialism, and after reading several books by William Morris he joined the Hammersmith Socialist Club and listened to Bernard Shaw’s lectures at Kelmscott House. Here he found a new sort of comradeship, and here he became aware of other ways of searching for beauty…. His socialism was never very active, and although he admired William Morris as a man, he found that the glamour of his romantic Mediaevalism soon wore off. But he remained in the club for the sake of good companionship, and in 1897 he accepted an invitation to conduct the Socialist Choir.”
He met his wife, Isobel (née Harrison), when she joined the choir as a new soprano, and they married several years later.
Holst travelled a great deal to places where the climate was better suited to his asthma. While visiting North Africa in 1908, he heard a street musician playing a repetitive tune on a flute in a street in Algeria. This haunted him and led to his composing a lovely orchestral suite “Beni Mora”, which is amongst my favourite pieces by Holst. I first heard this when a musical friend of mine, the late Roger Apps, played a recording of it for me in his home in Rainham (Kent).
A keen walker, Gustav and Isobel went rambling in England. On one of these outings, they visited Thaxted in northern Essex, where they bought one cottage (and then moved to another), in which Gustav spent as much time as possible. I will describe his musical associations with Thaxted in far greater detail in the future. Suffice it to say that some parts of “The Planets” suite were composed there.
In 1913, St Pauls School opened a new music wing, in which Holst was given a large soundproof room for his composing work. That same year, mainly for health-related reasons, he and his family moved from the house in Barnes to a house in Brook Green close to the school.
Holst’s former home in Barnes is still standing and marked with a commemorative plaque. Despite its once unhealthy features, it is now a highly desirable residence. In December 2021, it was on the market with a price tag of £3.5 million (www.countrylife.co.uk/property/the-thames-side-home-of-the-composer-gustav-holst-is-up-for-sale-a-true-gem-in-one-of-londons-most-desirable-villages-236144).
PS: Dame Ninette de Valois (1898-2001), founder of the Royal Ballet, also lived on The Terrace, not far from Holst’s former home.