Gustavus Theodore von Holst (he dropped the "von" during World War I in response to anti-German sentiment), a highly original and inventive composer, was born in Cheltenham, England in 1874. His grandfather was Gustavus von Holst of Riga, Latvia, a composer of elegant harp music who moved to England, married an Englishwoman, and became a fashionable harp teacher. Gustav's father Adolph, a pianist, organist, and choirmaster, taught piano lessons and gave recitals; his mother was a singer who died when Gustav was only eight. Holst was a frail asthmatic child whose first recollections were musical; he was taught to play the piano and violin, later changing to the trombone, and began to compose when he was about twelve.
Holst met Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1895 while they were students at the Royal College of Music and the two remained lifelong friends, although there is little similarity in their music. They depended heavily on one another for lifelong support and assistance. Vaughan Williams introduced Holst to folk songs, which pleased and surprised him with their beauty, and to plainsong hymns, which Holst loved throughout his life.
In those days of no royalties or large performing fees, Holst, finding it difficult to earn a living performing and composing, took posts as a music teacher. After the success in 1918 of The Planets, he found it much easier to get his music performed and published, nevertheless he remained a teacher until his death. He was considered an original and gifted teacher with lasting influence on his pupils, and he found himself a frequent and popular, albeit reluctant, lecturer who visited the United States twice, once in 1923 to lecture at the University of Michigan, and again in 1932 to spend a six-month period as teacher and lecturer at Harvard. After a lifetime of poor health exacerbated by concussion following a backward fall off the conductor's podium, from which he never fully recovered, he suffered a bleeding ulcer during his last stay in the U.S. and in 1934 he underwent surgery to relieve the condition. He died two days later, four months short of his sixtieth birthday. Gustav Holst is well-known today as the composer of The Planets, which remains wildly popular, but for few other compositions except his St. Paul and Brook Green suites.
Around 1904 Holst was appointed Musical Director at St. Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith, his biggest teaching post and one which he greatly enjoyed, remaining there until his death. When a music wing was added onto the St. Paul's Girls' School, a sound-proof teaching room was built for Holst. For the nearly twenty years of his remaining lifetime, this was where he wrote nearly all of his music. The St. Paul's Suite for the school orchestra is the first composition he wrote there. Originally written for strings, Holst added wind parts to include an entire orchestra if necessary.
The first movement begins with a robust "Jig" in alternating 6/8 and 9/8 time. Holst introduces a contrasting theme, then skillfully develops and blends the two themes. The "Ostinato," marked Presto, opens with a figure played by the second violins which continues throughout the movement, then a solo viola introduces the principal theme. In the "Intermezzo" a solo violin introduces the principal theme over pizzicato chords, then the solo viola joins the violin in a duet. After an animated section the original melody is again heard, now performed by a quartet of soloists. Finally the folksong "Dargason" is introduced very softly, then cellos enter playing the beautiful "Greensleeves" and the two folksongs are played together to end the suite.
Copyright © 1997 by Jane Erb, All Rights Reserved.