Music and Movements

The composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was profoundly catholic, in the true sense of the word: he was a universalist, broad in his spiritual and musical understanding, sympathies and interests. But he was also deeply connected with the rituals and personalities of 19th and 20th century Anglo-Catholicism, a strain in English religion that has not always been so open-minded. 

In Cheltenham, where he was born, baptised, and educated, he is mostly ignored. This is a pity, because he is the town’s most valuable gift to the modern world, creator of the unstoppable big tune used to promote both Royal pomp and circumstance (‘I Vow To Thee, My Country’) and bone-crunching sporting globalism (‘World in Union’). Otherwise, the town can really only boast Edward Wilson, who died a lonely imperial death alongside Captain Scott in the Antarctic, Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the butcher of Dresden, Brian Jones, thrown out of the Rolling Stones when his enthusiasm for narcotics outpaced his talent, and Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards, a nice man, famous for not being very good at his chosen sport. And Mike Summerbee, the Manchester City footballer. There’s a little road named after him on the site of the old Police headquarters. Oh yes, there are lots of important spies, and maybe even assassins: we don’t know their names. Geoffrey Prime: he’s the only one I can think of. All those clever cryptanalysts, nearly brought down by a Prime. An irony. But this is a town where people think irony is an adjective.

With all that in mind, I’m putting on a showing of Holst – In the Bleak Midwinter, the only full-length documentary about the man and his music, in the town’s Playhouse Theatre, on the composer’s birthday, Tuesday September 21. The film, from 2011, is the culmination of director Tony Palmer’s long sequence of arts and music films, beginning with his 1967 Benjamin Britten & his Festival. Tony is coming to introduce it. 

Constructed from archive, interviews and new performances of the music, the film dwells on both Holst’s spiritual leanings and his religious affiliations. His father was the first organist and choirmaster of the town’s sumptuous arts & crafts-influenced All Saints Church, built in 1865-8 in the Gothic Revival style favoured by Tractarians and disciples of Augustus Pugin. It still does not accept women clergy and rejects the spiritual authority of the Bishop of Gloucester, The Rt. Rev. Rachel Treweek, in favour of episcopal oversight from the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, Jonathan Goodall. 

The young Gustav played the organ there and composed for its choir before, at the age of 18, taking charge of music at St Laurence’s, Wyck Rissington, some 15 miles away, near the Cotswolds tourist honeypot, Bourton-on-the-Water. St Laurence’s is another beautiful church, though very different. Built in the 12th century, radically remodelled by the Victorians, it is tiny and austere: it sings to a different Anglo-Catholic tune, using the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and traditional calendar. I went there on its St Laurence’s Day, where one of the handful of parishioners expressed dismay that the visiting priest (female) poured scorn on the traditional stories about the early Martyr, telling us in passing that the torture victim was the patron saint of comedians, but not why. (Look it up. It’s the very definition of gallows humour.) Here Holst played the tiny single-manual organ, taught music to schoolchildren in the surrounding villages, and learned to conduct the local choral society. 

At the same time, he was exploring quite different religious traditions. When his mother died, he was just seven. His father hastily remarried another of his piano pupils. The second Mrs von Holst was a dedicated theosophist, a follower of the Russian seer/charlatan Madame Blavatsky, and her friends would meet at the family home. Mostly she ignored her young stepson, but he seems to have imbibed the strange atmosphere of the place and the times. The boy was sent to Cheltenham Grammar, where, with no encouragement from his father, who wanted him to be a concert pianist (a doomed ambition, given Gussie’s near-paralysed right arm), he took his first steps as a composer, setting the stirring yarns of British India. Intrigued, he started in on Hindu religious literature. Once relocated to London, as a student and jobbing musician, he began setting hymns from the Rig Veda, then composing operatic works based on stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, teaching himself Sanskrit along the way, with the help of a cheerful Irishwoman. 

He also took a holiday in Algeria, where he absorbed the mesmerising trance-music he heard in the bars of the Arab quarter, later introducing it into an orchestral piece, Beni Mora. It bemused strait-laced London when it was premiered in 1912. ‘We do not ask for Biskra dancing girls in Langham Place,’ wrote one critic, clutching his lorgnette. 

Holst’s globalist sympathies came through strongly when he met the Anglo-Catholic ‘Red Vicar’, Conrad Noel. In the winter of 1913-14, he went on a walking trip in Essex and found himself in the village of Thaxted, with its gigantic parish church on a hill. Enraptured, he decided to move there with his wife, Isobel, and young daughter, Imogen. 

Not long afterwards, war broke out. German musicians were sent packing, German compositions were removed from concert programmes, and Mr von Holst, as he still was, came under suspicion as a potential spy. 

Not everyone locally was unfriendly. One Sunday he went to Church and was impressed with the efforts of Noel, a brilliant preacher and enthusiast for folk-dancing and informal church music generally. Noel had filled the giant church with incense, processions, art and lively music. Holst offered his help with the latter. 

But those weren’t Noel’s only enthusiasms. He was also a neo-medievalist and Christian socialist, a follower of the Marxian William Morris, whom Holst had known, admired and collaborated with in London. 

Tony Palmer’s film has no moving pictures of the composer, who shunned any sort of personal publicity and almost fell into despair when The Planets made him famous. But he does have some fascinating clips of Noel, who rapidly became a thorn in the side of both the Church hierarchy and conservative local opinion, promulgating anti-imperialist and pro-Irish views and activities at the height of the World War and Home Rule agitation. 

Holst wrote new music for a medieval poem called ’Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day’, unearthed by Noel. The package was intended to embody Noel’s belief in the ancient connection between religious ritual and dance. This enraged the diocesan bishop, who objected to the ‘pagan’ words being displayed in the porch of the Church. 

Even as late as 1951, long after the composer’s death, pious singers at his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Leith Hill Festival were complaining about Holst’s song, because it associates worship and physical movement. But to both Noel and Holst, the words represented an expression of spiritual joy and a rejection of Puritanism. Holst wrote more carols and part-songs for the Church, based on medieval originals, including a drinking song, ‘Bring Us In Good Ale’. Noel liked to invite his parishioners for bread, cheese and beer on certain Sundays.

At this time, Holst began work on perhaps his most celebrated religious work, The Hymn of Jesus. This is based on a story from The Apocryphal Acts of St John, a book assembled by the theosophist G.R.S Mead. In it, the disciples dance and sing together on the night before the crucifixion. In order to write the piece, Holst taught himself the rudiments of Ancient Greek. 

In 1917, he organised a festival at the Church, bringing villagers together with the girls he taught at St Paul’s and the amateurs he taught at Morley College in London. They sang his music, but also rounds and folk songs. A banner was made, for which Holst chose a quotation from Bach: ‘The aim of music is the glory of God and pleasant recreation.’ With Noel, he brought secular music into places of worship, then a new and daring idea. And his Hymn of Jesus was accepted as one of the century’s most Christian choral works, despite the fact that he was always more of a mystic than an orthodox believer. It is a strange and idiosyncratic piece, surprising and reassuring by turns.

There was another festival in 1918, but by now Conrad Noel had become a fervent enthusiast for the Russian Revolution, had begun to preach Bolshevism from the pulpit, and dismissed Holst’s singers as mere ‘camp followers’ without true commitment to the cause of Christian socialism. Consequently, many slipped away. Holst amusedly referred to the vicar’s new hard line as ‘Conrad’s comic gospel of hate’. He was trying to do war work, despite his disabilities: he had his neuritis in his right arm, chronic asthma and bad digestion. Dropping the ‘von’ from his name in deference to anti-German feelings, he was eventually accepted to work as a YMCA music organiser with refugees and internees. He was in Italy when he war ended, awaiting shipment to work with demobbed soldiers near Salonica on the border with Bulgaria, where British troops had been waiting around for months after forcing a surrender by releasing large quantities of poison gas. Oh yes, we did it too. The men were bored and restive. Music came to the rescue.

He was subsequently sent to Bulgaria and then Constantinople, where he attended Greek Orthodox and Armenian services. 

When he got back to Thaxted, he discovered that Conrad Noel’s views had attracted a great deal of opprobrium. Some undergraduates from Cambridge cut a hole in the medieval door of the church so they could get in to destroy the Red Flag and Sinn Fein tricolour that the vicar was now displaying inside. So he moved his festival to Dulwich in South London, and that was pretty much the end of his career as a working church musician, though far from the end of his composition for Christian worship. 

Early in his career he had written the hymn from which Tony’s film takes its name, ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, for Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The English Hymnal. In 1925 he contributed some more to a new hymnal called Songs of Praise. As part of the commission – he was always broke, having no family money – he was asked to set the words of a poem called ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’, written by a British diplomat before the First World War and rewritten shortly afterwards. Exhausted, and in a hurry to complete the commission, according to his dutiful daughter Imogen, he was relieved to discover they fitted the big tune from ‘Jupiter’, one of The Planets, the big piece for large orchestra he had worked on during the War. He came to dislike the militaristic note in the words  – described as ‘theologically inept’, ‘almost obscene’ and ‘heretical’ by modern clerics – but they have always been extremely popular with traditionalists. It was Princess Diana’ favourite hymn and was sung both at her marriage to Prince Charles and her funeral as well as at the funerals of Prince Philip and, most recently Captain Sir Tom Moore. 

I suspect Gussie, as he was know to family and friends, would have been much happier with ‘World In Union’, which used the same tune, known as ‘Thaxted’, with words commissioned from a rather mysterious producer and music-business fixer called Charlie Skarbek. The song was used by the International Rugby Football Board for the 1991 Rugby World Cup in England, in a version recorded by the New Zealand singer Kiri Te Kanawa. It has since been performed in many languages and musical styles. Tony’s film features lots of very different performances by singers of numerous races and creeds. The words are a plea for universal harmony through sport, which was then still play: the game was blissfully amateur. They are as simple and heartfelt as a nursery rhyme, but then so is the tune. ‘It’s the world in union / The world in one / As we climb to reach our destiny / A new world has begun.’

’Tis a gift to be simple, as the Shakers sang.  

Gustav Holst died on 25 May 1934. He was cremated in Golders Green, but his daughter wrote to his friend, Bishop George Bell, asking for his ashes to be interned at Chichester Cathedral, under a stone simply giving his name and dates. In 2009, a more impressive memorial stone was installed, bearing an inscription from his own text for The Hymn of Jesus: ‘The Heavenly Spheres Make Music For Us.’ 

Holst’s birthplace (which he was moved out of before he was old enough to make music, it belonging to his birth mother and not his father) is in Clarence Street, Cheltenham. It was acquired by Cheltenham Borough Council in 1974 and equipped as a museum and centre for Holst scholarship by Imogen Holst, a considerable musician and music educator in her own right. Subsequently handed over to a trust, it has just been expensively rebranded as a sort of folk museum, called Holst Victorian House, funded by the National Lottery and Cheltenham Borough Council and pitched at primary school level. There are lots of Victorian houses in Cheltenham that could have done that job, if it needed doing: and there is no shortage of rather better Victorian social history museums within a short distance.

There is only one Gustav Holst, but the town’s powerbrokers and paymasters seem embarrassed by him. Music is a powerful, disruptive force: they seem to prefer to bore small children with tales of mangles and mutton cutlets while simultaneously catering for older visitors with a interest in collecting heritage tea-towels and tins of biscuits. People old enough to remember the Victorians and Edwardians (my grandfather was born at the turn of the 20th century) are unlikely to be impressed.

‘A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house,’ said Jesus. And the same seems to be true of our composer. Not that Gustav Holst would have cared. He was supremely uninterested in personal glory: and his music is eternal. 

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