Gustav Holst

Holst was an innovative English composer, most famous for his symphonic work, The Planets. He was a modest and introverted character and spent the majority of his time as an educator as well as a composer, holding many teaching positions in various schools throughout his life. His earlier work was influenced largely by composers such as Purcell and Wagner; however during the early 1900s he began to develop his own unique and individual style of writing. Overall, Holst led quite a successful career as a composer, garnering acclaim particularly towards the end of his lifetime.

Gustav Holst was born into a musical family in Cheltenham – his father, Adolph von Holst, was an accomplished pianist and organist and his mother, born Clara Lediard was a piano student and talented singer. Clara often suffered from ill-health during her lifetime and she died in 1882, after the stillbirth of her third son. Gustav had one surviving brother, Emil, who enjoyed reasonable success as a Hollywood actor. His father remarried one of his students in 1885 and fathered a further two sons, however his new wife was more concerned with theosophy and religion than with her family and paid them little attention.

Holst was often unwell during his youth and although he was educated in piano, violin and trombone from an early age, it was considered unlikely that he would go on to have a career as a performer due to his health issues; he suffered from asthma and neuritis in his right arm. He did however, begin to study composition in his early teens and by 1891 he had already received several performances of his orchestral and vocal works. He studied counterpoint with George Frederick Sims for several months before receiving a post as organist and choirmaster at a local church in Cheltenham.

In 1893, Holst was accepted into the Royal College of Music to further his studies in counterpoint. Two years later he received a scholarship in composition, which relieved his father of financially supporting him. Several months later, Holst met Vaughan Williams, who became a very close friend and significant early influence of his work, even more so than his teacher, the influential Charles Villiers Stanford. Holst became a dedicated Wagner enthusiast and continued to be influenced by his style of composition and orchestration for many years. He was also quite taken by the music of Bach, especially after a memorable experience hearing his Mass in B minor at the Three Choirs Festival in Worchester in 1893. He had already become interested in choral music and he was mesmerised by the choruses of the mass in particular.

His interest in Hindu philosophy and literature also played an important part in influencing his musical career and he began to take lessons in Sanskrit at University College London to further his interest. He also became conductor of the Hammersmith Socialist Choir in 1896. Isobel Harrison was among early members of this choir and he later married her in 1901.


Holst began to study trombone in 1897 – his second study at the Royal College of Music – which led to a short orchestral career. He completed freelance projects during his studies at the RCM, including a performance with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra under Richard Strauss in 1897. The following year, Holst left the RCM to join the Carl Rosa Opera Company as trombonist and répétiteur. Two years later, he joined the Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow and took on several freelance projects during this time.

Although Holst was enjoying and orchestral career, gaining a valuable experience as a performer, he completed little compositional work during this stage of his life, likely due to a lack of time and resources. His chance of a career as a composer was becoming unlikely and in 1903 he decided to give up his career with the orchestra and explore the life of a teacher. Shortly after his departure, he secured a teaching position at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich and two years later in 1905, he became Director of Music at St Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith. In the same year, he conducted his large-scale work, The Mystic Trumpeter at Queen’s Hall. The work was written for soprano and orchestra and elements of Wagner can be evidently heard. By 1907, Holst had completed the music for Sita and had composed Somerset Rhapsody. He had also begun to work on the first group of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda.

It is clear that Holst’s structured and relaxed lifestyle as a teacher made it a lot easier for him to flourish as a composer in comparison to his rather unstable work with the orchestra. The facilities at St Paul’s, particularly his soundproof music room, became a space for his creativity and ideas and led to a more productive career as a composer. He composed his St. Paul's Suite Op. 29 for string orchestra as a token of his gratitude for his favourable working conditions at St. Paul's School. He was also appointed Director of Music at Morley College in 1907 and remained in this post until 1925. In 1911, Holst let the first performance since the 17th Century of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen at Morley College. The first performance of The Cloud Messenger took place in 1912, however this performance was not a success and it depressed Holst greatly. Holst experienced other disappointments throughout his career including his failure to win the Ricordi Prize for his opera, Sita, which he had spent a lot of his time on. Holst took these ‘failures’ very personally and consequently suffered from depression. Because of this, he went on several holidays and trips by recommendation from his doctor. One holiday in to Algeria in 1908, inspired his orchestral suite Beni Mora.

By 1914, Holst had begun work on what was to be his most notable work, The Planets. The work was not completed until 1917 and it was performed for the first time in 1918 by the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra. The work in its entire form was performed for the first time the following year and it was recorded twice – in 1922-23 and again in 1926. The orchestral work, consisting of seven contrasting movements, each named after one of the seven planets, was an immediate success. It can be said that Holst’s personality can be perceived within the movements of this work and it is likely that composers such as Stravinsky and Debussy had a great influence on this piece. ‘Neptune’ in particular, echoes similar styles of orchestration that is typical of Debussy. Holst’s use of the women’s choir singing wordless melodies helps creates the mysterious tone in this movement.

The use of bitonality and dissonance in The Planets creates a unique and individual element to the work. It gained immediate attention and indeed the majority of his popularity and fame that followed can be attributed to the success of The Planets. This musical triumph also led to many of his earlier and less popular works being performed and published, thus triggering his early music to resurface in a more successful light. Despite his popularity as a composer, Holst continued to teach for the remainder of his years and during the 1920s, he had secured teaching positions at the University College, Reading and at the Royal College of Music. By the middle of the 1920s, he began to take his career at a much slower pace after the recommendation of his doctor.


Holst’s health began to deteriorate during 1932. Despite this he continued to compose in his unique and individual style and completed works such as the Brook Green Suite. Holst died of heart failure on 25 May 1934.

Although Holst did enjoy success during the later stages of his career, he was not a character of pretention. He spent the majority of his life educating others, often children and amateurs. His success following The Planets did not lead him to desire more popularity or exposure; in fact, he continued to lead his usual and somewhat introverted lifestyle, composing the music that he wished and not that was expected of him. Holst was an inspiration to those of his era, an era of which he was undoubtedly among the most gifted and individual.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

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