Music Gustav Holst
Richard Greene
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0207


Gustav Holst (1874–1934) was a major figure on the English music scene in the first half of the 20th century and noted for his creative use of neo-tonal language and formal experiments while remaining well within the bounds of the English nationalist scene. The high regard in which Holst was held in his native England is based primarily on the general acclaim of his orchestral suite The Planets (1914–1916), especially as performances spread through Europe and America as a popular icon of English music. Within the borders of Great Britain, Holst had also gained popularity as a choral composer, supported by both local choral directors, such as W. G. Whittaker whose choirs performed many of his works, and established composers and commentators, such as Donald Tovey and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Holst’s interest in experimentation and his apparent lack of interest in conventional large forms kept him somewhat on the periphery of the musical mainstream in England, although he was fully involved in the English folksong revival movement and the movement to create an English national opera tradition. He spent most of his time teaching until late in his life when income from The Planets Suite allowed him to retire from full-time teaching. As a result, his list of compositions includes many works for student and amateur performers, but fewer large-scale sophisticated works than is found in the catalogues for other composers. Among his most significant efforts beyond The Planets are the one-act opera Savitri; three works for chorus and orchestra—The Hymn of Jesus, The First Choral Symphony, and A Choral Fantasia; the Double Concerto; and the symphonic poem Egdon Heath (Holst’s personal favorite). Holst also produced works of significance for those focused on genres less favored by musicologists. For example, his wind band works were often considered equal in substance to orchestral works, and their success appears to have prompted others, including Vaughan Williams, to compose their own works for military bands. Areas of continuing research interest include Holst as a compositional presence in the 20th century, his preoccupation with amateur music making, and his role and influence in the English Musical Renaissance (c. 1840–1940). As a 20th-century composer, his steady use of tonal language led him to be labeled “conservative,” whereas his apparently simple formal structures—often linked to “folk” forms—were interpreted by some critics as “light” and not sophisticated. His operas were seen by some continental critics as clever, but not really “opera” as defined by (more sophisticated) European practice. Thus, both culturally and musically, Holst remains an enigmatic figure whose significance remains an open question.

Historical Contexts

General discussions of Holst’s life and works are found largely in English Musical Renaissance studies. Of interest is the difference in coverage from one source to another, sometimes apparently linked to date of publication, with earlier discussions giving Holst more prominence and later publications giving less coverage. Compare, for example, Bacharach 1946, which is quite robust; Caldwell 1999, in which Ralph Vaughan Williams as a figure dominates over Holst; and Hughes and Stradling 2001, in which Holst is little more than part of the crowd. For a succinct summary of Holst’s life that manages to suggest the many cultural and musical influences undergirding the composer’s activities, see Matthew’s entry “Holst, Gustav” in Grove Music Online.

  • Bacharach, Alfred Louis, ed. British Music of Our Time. Harmondsworth, UK, and New York: Pelican, 1946.

    This short general history provides a much earlier view of Holst than those published in the second half of the 20th century and also covers a number of composers who no longer occupy a prominent place in general histories of English music. Chapter 3 (pp. 44–63) gives a brief narrative of Holst’s life as a context for his work. The discussion is liberally interspersed with observations, both technical and aesthetic, by Bacharach and deals mainly with the inconsistent critical reception Holst received.

  • Banfield, Stephen, ed. The Blackwell History of Music in Britain. Vol. 6, The Twentieth Century. Blackwell History of Music in Britain. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

    Banfield approaches his history through separate topics in which composers are discussed. Holst is discussed in the chapters on instrumental music (9 and 10), opera (11), and vocal music (12). Banfield effectively places Holst within the context of music practice and criticism of the time, which serves well as a context for discussions of the mixed reception the composer received in his lifetime.

  • Caldwell, John. The Oxford History of English Music. Vol. 2, From c. 1715 to the Present Day. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    The six-page main entry on Holst (pp. 331–337) includes a discussion of the range of the composer’s works and a reflection on his reputation and the adventurousness of his major works. Other mentions of Holst throughout the book give some indication of his place in the English music world in the early 20th century.

  • Howes, Frank. The English Musical Renaissance. New York: Stein and Day, 1966.

    Like Caldwell 1999, Howes provides one main entry on the composer (Chapter 12: “Holst and Vaughan Williams: Emancipation” pp. 230–245), which presents Holst’s work as fundamental to the shift away from continental developments and toward an English national school. Includes many other references to him throughout the book. Primarily a stylistic and biographical overview, although almost hagiographic in places.

  • Hughes, Merion, and Robert Stradling. The English Musical Renaissance 1840–1940: Constructing a National Music. 2d ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2001.

    A part of the Manchester University Press “Music and Society” series, this book seeks to identify the intellectual, social, and political issues surrounding the drive toward a national music in England. The focus is on ideas and intellectual leaders—composers, conductors, critics, scholars, public administrators, and others—who set the direction and tenor of discussion toward political as well as cultural goals. Holst’s name is mentioned many times, but only as one of many individuals involved in projects.

  • Matthews, Colin. “Holst, Gustav.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Shigeo Kishibe. New York: Oxford University Press.

    This article provides all the pertinent biographical facts of Holst’s life and a clear trajectory of his musical development. The selected bibliography provides research published between 1919 and 2000 representing a wide range of research interests and approaches to both the life and works. Available online by subscription.

  • Matthews, Colin. “Holst, Gustav.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Edited by Stanley Sadie. Grove Music Online. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

    This article is a more detailed discussion of Holst’s output in the genre of opera than that found in the entry by Matthews in Grove Music Online. It covers Holst’s development and the broad outlines of the reception of his operas. The selected bibliography represents a variety of research issues published between 1923 and 1990. Available online by subscription.

  • Pirie, Peter J. The English Musical Renaissance. New York: St. Martin’s, 1979.

    Pirie has organized this history as a discussion of major works written year by year, 1890–1978. Holst is mentioned numerous times in conjunction with his work in a given year (all listed in the book’s index), but there is little sense of his or any other composer’s objectives or work outside composition. Caution: Some works are discussed in the year composed but not the year premiered. Overall, the book is useful as a very clear context in which English music composition was being created.

  • Trend, Michael. “Heirs and Rebels: Vaughan Williams, Holst, Butterworth.” In The Music Makers: The English Musical Renaissance from Elgar to Britten. By Michael Trend, 95–105. New York: Schirmer, 1985.

    This chapter focuses on Holst’s ideas, interests, and objectives as a composer and a proponent of an English school of composition. Includes a brief discussion of his life (especially struggles) and a description of him as a teacher. No technical discussion of any specific works, but a brief mention of general characteristics.

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