About this Recording
8.554369 - HOLST: Music for Two Pianos
English 

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
The Planets, Op. 32; The Perfect Fool (Ballet Music) Op. 39
For two pianos

Born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, Gustavus Theodore von Holst came from a family of mixed English, German, Russian and Swedish origin, his great-­grandfather, a lesser contemporary of Beethoven and Chopin, having emigrated from Riga in Latvia during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1893, following an asthmatic boyhood spent learning the piano, directing village choirs and tackling Berlioz's treatise on orchestration, he was sent at his father's expense to London and the Royal College of Music. Here he studied under the German-trained Charles Villiers Stanford, who thought little of his talent, and met Vaughan Williams, soon to become his closest friend and mentor. In late Victorian London, with its music-halls, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and varied cultural life, the period of Oscar Wilde and of Bernard Shaw's music criticism, he "dreamed… ate and drank" Wagner at Covent Garden, read Hindu philosophy, taught himself Sanskrit, came under the spell of the pre-Raphaelite William Morris, and met his future wife, "the lovely, sunny-haired" Isobel Harrison, youngest soprano with the Hammersmith Socialist Choir. As a jobbing trombonist, bespectacled and good-humoured, despite the worries of Henry Wood that his "delicate" constitution was "not physically fitted" to the demands of the instrument, he found seasonal work playing the seaside resorts in summer and pantomime in winter, eventually, on leaving college in 1898, earning a living at the crisis-ridden Carl Rosa Opera Company (staging operas in English), before going on to tour with the new Scottish Orchestra. During spare moments he would keep his hand in at composition with easy-on-the-ear theatre pit entertainment, works such as the unashamedly un-snobbish Suite de Ballet.

In 1903 this rooming-house, rank-and-file existence was exchanged for one more domestically stabilising and financially secure, the life of a teacher, As Director of Music at both St Paul's Girls' School Hammersmith from 1905 to 1934 and Morley College, south of the river in Kennington, from 1907 to 1924, Holst became responsible for nurturing generations of young people and "working men and women" to "learn by doing". To his social discomfort, establishment reward, appointments at the Royal College of Music and University College, Reading, and an "overwhelming" Holst Festival in Cheltenham came his way in the 1920s, followed by the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1930 and in 1932 a visiting lectureship at Harvard, evidence of his popularity in America.

Robbing English musical life of one of its kindlier, wiser presences, his death in May 1934, within months or even weeks, of those of Elgar and Delius, left friends and colleagues desolate, and at least one, Vaughan Williams from his college days, lastingly bereft.

Writing mostly at weekends or during the August holidays, Holst the teacher, like Liszt the pianist, Mahler the conductor, Rachmaninov the virtuoso in exile, was typical of the part-time composer. Valuing "the company of honourable men," rejoicing in "the fantastic unexpectedness of life," he was, his daughter Imogen tells us, an unfailingly practical music-maker, "endlessly patient" with amateurs, "ruthless" with professionals. Mendelssohn, Grieg and Wagner (on his own admission), Purcell, Gilbert and Sullivan, Byrd, the Tudor and Jacobean madrigalists, the English folk-song revival, the non-Western from North Africa to India, modal pasts and poly tonal presents, the playful and the contemplative, the emotional and the intellectual, Bach, were the disparate forces that helped shape his world and sound.

Publicly introduced by Adrian Boult at the Queen's Hall in Langham Place on 15th November 1920, The Planets, composed between 1914 and 1916 "for large orchestra" (Naxos 8.550193), the ultimate week-end work, evolved against the omens, battles and fading lamps of the Great War. But even though some, such as the novelist Henry Williamson, claimed to hear in its pages the trauma of conflicts witnessed at first hand, it did not grow out of them. Medically unfit, Holst himself never saw active service. Rather, its inspiration and symbolism was astrological, the ascribed characters, associations and influences of the seven known planets (Pluto not then having been discovered). As Imogen Holst says, "the storm that sweeps through the [5/4] music [of Mars] is a storm in the mind… Holst had never heard a machine-gun when he wrote it, and the tank [first used at the Somme in 1916] had not yet been invented". Creative reservations aside, the suite proved a sensation, with three sets of 78rpm recordings alone released by 1926, the year of the General Strike. Tapping ancestrally, prophetically, into the mystic and the astral, imagination and myth, pagan man and old gods, nature and the cosmos, here was magisterial, picturesque yet avowedly non-programmatic music embracing the spiritual and epic, the gigantic, the remote. Resonating with a physicality, an impressionism, an association of vibrations, a subterranean gravity, a via lactea delicacy, a virtuoso orchestral/timbral palette beyond Anglo-Saxon experience, even those cognoscenti tuned to the esoteric wave-length of Scriabin and the primeval, Stravinsky and the Nordic Sibelius found its vision all-consuming. The two-piano arrangement, the manuscripts of the movements variously distributed between the Royal College of Music (i, ii, v, vi, vii), Royal Academy of Music (iii) and British Library (iv-vi), was published in 1949.

The Perfect Fool, written between 1918 and 1922, to Holst's own libretto, was a one-act comic opera, first performed under Eugene Goossens at Covent Garden on 14th May 1923. Set in "no particular country or period" but parodying the conventions of romantic grand opera, especially Verdi and Wagner, its opening ballet is all that remains in current repertory. Drawing on an incidental score to a play by Clifford Bax, brother of the composer Arnold Bax, The Sneezing Charm, staged at the Royal Court Theatre in June 1918, as well as the Intermezzo from the St Paul's Suite of 1912-13 (Naxos 8.550823), the three dances, played without a break, feature the Spirits of Earth, Water and Fire. Summoned by a Wizard, a (baritone) figure descended from Urauus, Earth is brought to life by a famous 7/8 tune rising Nibelung-like from the deep, in Sir Donald Tovey's metaphor, to explode in riotous brilliance. Lazy dragon-fly music of summer twilight sonority conjured out of some Morphean reach of the upper Thames, Water unfolds a scene of calm and haze, "the essence of love distilled from Aether." Crackling flame and cleansing heat is the imagery of Fire, a pulsating ostinato of the night. Holst conducted the first integral performance at the Royal College of Music in Kensington Gore on 30th June 1921. His unpublished transcription for two pianos is held by the College library (MS 4547).


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