Gustav Holst

The bringer of The Planets

Created date

September 29th, 2017
Statue of Gustav Holst.

Statue of Gustav Holst.

When listeners hear the music of Gustav Holst, there is no mistaking it. To call it distinctive is an understatement.

The more expressive words that come to mind include grand, explosive, adventurous, even other-worldly. And as it turns out, Holst grew up in a world of music.

Born in Cheltenham, England, in 1874, he had music in his blood. His great-grandfather, Matthias Holst, was a composer and harp teacher in the Imperial Russian Court in St. Petersburg; his grandfather, Gustavus, a composer of salon music; and his father, Adolph, choirmaster and organist at All Saints’ Church in Cheltenham. 

Early in life, Holst’s father brought his son into the family’s musical fold with intensive lessons in both piano and violin. Aside from a thorough education, however, young Gustav lived under an ever-present veil of “benign neglect.” 

Frail and lonely

After his mother’s death in 1882, Holst saw his father remarry several times, with few of his new wives interested in nurturing their husband’s other children. Young Gustav was often alone and sickly, afflicted with asthma and poor eyesight.

As one music historian put it, the boy was not “overburdened with attention or understanding,” and, “with a weak sight and a weak chest...he was ‘miserable and scared.’” In fact, his physical health ultimately determined the course of his career.

That Holst would work in music was never in question, but his father wanted his son to be a pianist, which soon proved to be a physical impossibility for Gustav. In addition to poor eyesight and asthma, Holst had neuritis.

An inflammation of the peripheral nervous system, the malady brought symptoms like numbness, muscle weakness, nerve damage, and loss of dexterity. As much as Holst enjoyed playing the piano, he once lamented that his arm was “like a jelly overcharged with electricity.”

Regular, rigorous performances as a musician were not an option.

Professionally, his alternative was composition, and he dove into it with vigor. By his teenage years, he had written numerous organ, piano, and symphonic pieces inspired by such artists as Grieg, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Wagner.  

At just 18, he composed the music for an operetta called Lansdown Castle, which was performed at the Cheltenham Corn Exchange a year later in 1893. He clearly possessed what an artist needed to be a composer and decided to enroll in the Royal College of Music in London.

Here, Holst excelled in his studies and eventually went on to learn composition under the tutelage of the renowned teacher and composer Charles Villiers Stanford. To support himself, he made time for side jobs as a musician, in one instance playing in the symphony at Queen’s Hall with the great Richard Strauss conducting.

‘Learn by doing’

Then, in 1898, Holst felt that it was time for him to leave the Royal College, so that he could set out on his own and, in his words, “learn by doing.”

Initially, he had trouble finding work as a composer and, instead, played organ at churches around London, while also playing trombone in theater orchestras. Nonetheless, it was painfully obvious to his close friends—namely Ralph Vaughan Williams—that Holst was foremost a composer, and was missing his calling.

In 1905, the 31-year-old musician decided to focus on composition. For a regular paycheck, he accepted a position as director of music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in London, where he remained until the 1930s. 

During this time, he wrote dozens of pieces for orchestras, theaters, chamber operas, and most notably, a symphonic masterpiece for the ages. From 1914 to 1916, Holst crafted an epic orchestral work, massive in style and scale.

It would be his magnum opus—a seven-movement suite entitled The Planets. Named after a planet in the Solar System, each of these movements mirrored the astrological character of its namesake.

Perhaps the heaviest of them all was “Mars: The Bringer of War” with its driving pulse and dark overtones. Not surprisingly, Holst quickly achieved international notoriety.

Before long, he was lecturing in the U.K. and the United States, meanwhile composing numerous additional symphonies, operas, and smaller instrumental works.

Still, The Planets was a tough act to follow and, to this day, it is the inspiration for too many cinematic scores to mention. As one fan rightly stated in a comment posted on YouTube, musically, Holst’s “Mars” movement “influenced about everything in the sci-fi” genre.

Indeed, Holst, who died in 1934, would be proud of his legacy.