Born Gustavus Theodore von Holst on 21 September 1874 at 4 Pittville Terrace, Cheltenham, Holst was the elder of two children of Adolph von Holst, a professional musician, and his wife Clara Cox, nee Lediard, the daughter of a respected Cirencester solicitor. Holst came from a musical family – his father taught piano and was organist and choirmaster at All Saints’ Church, Cheltenham and his mother was a talented singer and pianist. His great-grandfather, Matthias Holst, born in Riga, Latvia, served as composer and harp-teacher to the Imperial Russian Court in St Petersburg.
When his mother, Clara, died from heart disease when he was only eight years old, Holst and his younger brother Emil (who later became known as Ernest Cossart a successful actor in the West End, New York and Hollywood) were looked after by their aunt Nina, who alongside their father, taught Holst how to play the piano and compose music. Between 1886 and 1891 he attended Cheltenham Grammar School (now Pate’s Grammar School) and, after having spent four months in Oxford studying counterpoint with George Frederick Sims, organist of Merton College, Holst gave held his first concert at the Montpellier Rotunda in Cheltenham at the age of 21.
In 1893 Holst left Cheltenham for London to study composition at the Royal College of Music. After finishing at the college, Holst discovered that ‘man could not live by composition alone’ and took various organist posts at London churches and became a professional musician, playing the trombone in theatre orchestras. In 1903 Holst decided to abandon orchestral playing to concentrate on composition, however his earnings as a composer were too little to live off and in 1905 he accepted the offer of a teaching post at James Allen’s Girls’ School, Dulwich which he held until 1921. This was followed by the teaching posts for which he is probably best well known – director of music as St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith, from 1905 until his death and director of music at Morley College from 1907 to 1924. Whilst working as a teacher Holst wrote many pieces of music, including The Planets.
Disillusioned and depressed by his lack of success as a composer, Holst went on a walking holiday with friends to Spain in the spring of 1913. One member of the group was Clifford Bax, a writer with an interest in the esoteric. According to Bax in his book Ideas and People, it was Bax who first introduced Holst to astrology. As a result Holst became quite a devotee of the subject and became an enthusiastic creator of horoscopes, casting them for his friends for fun.
It was during this time that Holst first started thinking about a piece of music inspired by the planets. The concept of the work is astrological rather than astronomical, with each movement intended to convey the different ‘personalities’ of the planets and the ideas and emotions associated with the influence of the planets on the psyche; not the Roman deities.
Originally, Holst composed The Planets on the piano, using a piano in his newly built sound-proofed room in the music wing at St Paul’s Girls School, as well as the piano at home in Thaxted. The piece was composed in a version for four hands, two pianos and was scored by two of his colleagues at St Paul’s, Vally Lasker and Nora Day, who acted as amanuenses. The help of colleagues was necessary due to neuritis pain which Holst frequently suffered in his right hand.
On this score Holst would mark indications of instrumentation in red ink and his amanuenses worked from this to produce the full orchestral score. The exception to this version was the last movement, Neptune, as Holst considered the piano to be unsuitable as it was not mysterious enough for the distant planet. Instead it was scored for a single organ, but the orchestral version has the addition of an offstage choir of women’s voices.
As it was being composed, Vally Lasker and Nora Day played the two piano version to Holst, movement by movement. They continued to play this version in concerts and rehearsals in various parts of the country, and also to visiting conductors, including Adrian Boult. The piece was originally entitled Seven Pieces for Large Orchestra, probably inspired by Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, which Holst had attended a performance of in January 1914. However, by the time of the first public performance in 1919 it had been renamed The Planets.
When Holst started composing the suite in 1914, the movements appeared not quite in their final sequence. Begun in May 1914, shortly before the outbreak of World War I, Mars was the first movement to be written and is frequently seen as Holst’s critique of war. This was followed by Venus and Jupiter. Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were all composed in 1915 and Mercury was completed in 1916.
The final suite comprised seven movements, each named after a planet and its corresponding astrological character:
i. Mars, the Bringer of War (1914)
ii. Venus, the Bringer of Peace (1914)
iii. Mercury, the Winged Messenger (1916)
iv. Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity (1914)
v. Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age (1915)
vi. Uranus, the Magician (1915)
vii. Neptune, the Mystic (1915)
The orchestral score was created after the two piano version by Holst, his amanuenses Vally Lasker, Nora Day and one of his St Paul’s pupils, Jane Joseph, who was the main amanuensis for the orchestral score of Neptune. It was in this form that that The Planets became enormously popular, yet the work was not heard in a complete public performance until some years after it was completed.
Holst had tried to enlist at the outbreak of the First World War, but was rejected as unfit for military service due to his health problems. However, we wanted to contribute to the war effort and so volunteered to teach music to the troops under the direction of the YMCA. In 1918, just as the war neared its end, he was posted to Salonika in Northern Greece to assume the post of Musical Organiser, helping to organise music activities in military training camps and hospitals. Morley College and St Paul’s Girls’ School both offered him a year’s leave of absence, but one obstacle remained – his name. The YMCA felt that his surname ‘von Holst’ was far too Germanic to be acceptable in such a role, so a prerequisite of him taking up the post was a change of name. He formally changed it by deed poll to the less inflammatory ‘Holst’.
Holst was given a spectacular send-off when his friend, fellow composer, Balfour Gardiner, organised a private performance of The Planets as a farewell gift.
The orchestral premiere of The Planets suite was held at short notice on 29 September 1918 during the last few weeks of World War I, in the Queen’s Hall, London. Conducted at Holst’s request by Adrian Boult, it was a private performance by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, organised by Balfour Gardiner as a farewell to Holst, before he left England for Salonika to teach music to the troops as part of the war effort. It was hastily rehearsed – it is said that the musicians only saw the complicated music two hours before the performance and the choir for Neptune was recruited from pupils at St Paul’s Girls’ School, where Holst taught. A comparatively intimate affair, it was attended by around 250 invited associates, including conductor Sir Henry Wood and most of the professional musicians in London. Nevertheless, Holst regarded this very first performance as the public premiere, inscribing Boult’s copy of the score, ‘This copy is the property of Adrian Boult who first caused the planets to shine in public and thereby earned the gratitude of Gustav Holst’.
Although there were three further performances between February 1919 and October 1920, they were all incomplete. At a public concert in London on 27 February 1919 under the auspices of the Royal Philharmonic Society and conducted by Boult, five of the seven movements were played. The decision not to play all the movements was made by Boult, who felt that introducing something so new to the public would be more than they could take in. Holst then conducted Venus, Mercury and Jupiter at a Queen’s Hall symphony concert on 22 November 1919 and there was another incomplete performance in Birmingham on 10 October 1920, where five movements were played. The first complete public performance was finally given in London at the Queen’s Hall by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Albert Coates – this was the first time that Neptune had been heard in a public performance, as all the other movements had been given earlier public hearings.
Holst returned to England in June 1919 and resumed his teaching and composing. In addition to his existing wok he accepted a lectureship in composition at the University of Reading and joined his great friend Vaughan Williams in teaching composition at their alma mater the Royal College of Music. Boosted by the international popularity of The Planets, Holst, by now in his forties, suddenly found himself in demand and becoming increasingly famous. The strain caused by the demand on him became too great, and in 1924 he cancelled all professional engagements on doctor’s orders and retreated to Thaxted. In 1925 he resumed his work at St Paul’s, where he continued to pioneer music education for women, but he did not return to any of his other posts.
Holst continued to write and teach music; his productivity as a composer almost immediately benefiting once he was released from his other work. His works from this period include the Choral Symphony to words by Keats, a short Shakespearean opera At the Boar’s Head, an orchestral piece called Egdon Heath inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and Choral Fantasia. However, Holst’s health deteriorated in the last years of his life and he died in 1934 at the age of 59 of heart failure, following an operation on a duodenal ulcer. Vaughan Williams conducted music by Holst and himself at the funeral and Holst’s ashes were then interred at Chichester Cathedral.
Holst Victorian House, Cheltenham, celebrates the life and works of Gustav Holst, composer of The Planets. Built in 1832, Holst was born in the house in 1874 and lived there until 1882. Step inside to see the piano Holst used to compose The Planets, find out how he developed into a world-class composer and experience what life was life for his modest middle-class family through Victorian rooms. The Holst Discovery Space houses the Holst archive, which contains over 3,000 objects and original manuscripts. For more information visit: https://holstvictorianhouse.org.uk/