Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter, directed by Tony Palmer

Thank you to everyone who attended our Holst event at the Playhouse. It was really excellent. I’m sorry if I didn’t get to speak to everyone. I was a bit distracted.

I’m hoping we will be able to build on it, both in developing Cheltenham’s interest in our composer and in holding further musical/cultural evenings at The Playhouse. Hard work, but worth it.

I’ve left the webpage up for anyone who wants to read it.

Well, as of this morning we have sold 49 tickets for this wonderful documentary, which we are showing on Tuesday evening, September 21, at the Playhouse to celebrate the birthday of Cheltenham’s greatest son. Tony Palmer, its director, will be speaking at 7pm. But come a bit earlier and hear the amazing surround-sound synthesiser version of The Planets by the Japanese genius Isao Tomita, never officially released in this country thanks to legal action by Holst’s daughter. Poor Imogen. She was a little bit strait-laced.

Also, Fr Robert at All Saint’s Church, in All Saint’s Road, Cheltenham has kindly offered to open his doors at 4pm on Tuesday so we can gather there to enjoy the astonishing architecture, talk about the composer and with luck hear the organ that Holst played as a child. This is the part I am most looking forward to, and I hope some of you will come and join us for a little birthday celebration. We are the friends of Gustav Holst, a man who put this grubby town on the world map – in a good way.

If you would like to read about Holst’s connections with religion, organised and otherwise, I wrote a piece for the website of The Tablet, the world journal of liberal catholicism. I can’t imagine they’ve got round to posting it, so I have reproduced it on this site. It’s interesting and not at all pious, I promise.

And now back to our usual programming.


You may have seen Gustav Holst cast in bronze on the zodiac fountain in Imperial Gardens, Cheltenham, conducting with his left hand, though he was right-handed. You may know ‘Mars’, the noisiest of The Planets. Or ‘Jupiter’, whose big tune he lent to ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’ (1921), chosen by Princess Diana for her wedding and heard at Prince Philip’s funeral, and ‘World In Union’ (2011), the global anthem of Gloucestershire’s favourite team sport, available in innumerable versions, including English, Welsh, French, Italian, Maori and Japanese. He also had a pop hit in 1973, with a different bit of ‘Jupiter’: ‘Joybringer’ by Manfred Mann’s Earthband.

Holst is more than that. He was born in 1874 in Pittville Terrace (now Clarence Street), son of Adolph von Holst, organist at All Saint’s Church and a leading light in the vibrant musical life of the Victorian town. Young Gustavus was asthmatic, short-sighted (no-one noticed), had poor digestion and neuritis in his right arm, leading to severe weakness in later life (hence the left-hand conducting). He lost his mother, a pianist and singer from Cirencester, at seven; his step-mother ignored him in favour of theosophy, a late-Victorian religious cult founded by Madame Helena Blavatsky, a Russian aristocrat and world traveller. His father taught him piano, failed to teach him the violin, so got him a trombone for the good of his lungs. At Cheltenham Grammar, he was called ‘Sausage’, because of athletic failings and his German-sounding surname, von Holst: the family had been in Britain since 1802. He took solace in writing songs and planning operas, despite discouragement.

St Laurence’s Church, Wyck Rissington

At 17, he became choir master at St Laurence’s, Wyck Rissington, near Bourton-on-the-Water, a 15 mile trek he would sometimes undertake on foot: mostly he seems to have lodged in the village. People there still say they knew old residents who had been taught music by him.

At 18, his dad borrowed £100 to send him to London, to music college: he failed to get a scholarship. There he met Ralph Vaughan Williams, born in Down Ampney, Gloucestershire, and learnt about orchestration, singing, conducting, vegetarianism, teetotalism, William Morris, English folk song, Tudor music, Hindu scripture, Sanskrit, Algerian street culture, Ancient Greek, the poetry of Walt Whitman, astrology, Christian socialism, Irish republicanism, music hall, sound recording, war, death and the universe. Only as the Armistice approached, and he was accepted to serve the YMCA abroad, did he drop the ‘von’ from his family name: he was planning to work with war refugees, and it was feared that they would think he was a German, whom they were trying to escape. In time, his many and disparate compositions were acclaimed internationally, but undervalued at home. 

All his life, he composed mostly on Sundays and taught the rest of the time. He taught musical outcasts, which meant women and girls; country folk; factory workers; demobbed soldiers in Salonica; jazz musicians in America; brass bandsmen; people with missing limbs and broken instruments; the poor; anyone prepared to work hard.  

He died, aged 59, in May 1934, three months after Elgar and a month before Delius. The London newspapers said he could have been up there with those Great British Composers if he hadn’t worn himself out teaching children and amateurs. But that’s why we love him. 

About Tony Palmer

It’s not easy to summarise Tony Palmer’s career. Born in 1941, he went to grammar school in Lowestoft, birthplace of Benjamin Britten, then Cambridge, before becoming a BBC trainee, apprenticed to Ken Russell and Jonathan Miller. He worked on Russell’s film about Isadora Duncan and Miller’s wild Alice in Wonderland, which nearly got the BBC closed down. I can’t show you Alice, exactly, but here’s an interesting thing in which songs by the late Trish Keenan, of the Birmingham experimental electronic combo Broadcast, who did the score for Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (bear with me), were added to the original film.

Tony’s debut film, Benjamin Britten and his Festival, was the first BBC documentary to be networked in the USA.

He subsequently made more than 100 films with and/or about such luminaries as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Igor Stravinsky, Maria Callas, Frank Zappa, Liberace, Peter Sellers, Le Corbusier, Carl Orff, Bobby Moore, Wagner, NASA, The Wigan Casino, Fairport Convention and Pieter Dirk-Uiys. Wiki him and marvel.

He has also found time to direct 17 operas, whose composers ranged Dvořák to John Adams, and write eight interesting books, music criticism forThe Observer and a weekly column in The Spectator. We are honoured to have him as our guest. 

Tickets, etc.

Tickets for the show will be £10, through the Playhouse’s booking office. The show itself will be at 19.00, with Tony’s little talk coming just before that. I am also planning some events for earlier in the day, to make it a proper Holst birthday celebration for all Cheltonians. But we have to sell a few tickets to the main event first. Tell your friends.

Our Posters

If anyone would like some of these to print or distribute, let me know. Collect the set!

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