Wednesday, January 24, 2007

In praise of Holst

I've just listened to The Bringer of Peace a radio play on BBC Radio 4. It was about Gustav Holst, who is known really only for his Planets Suite. This is a shame, as there are other, really good pieces by him. Unfortunately, they are ruddy difficult to get hold of. Despite his name (he called himself von Holst, for much of the time, but more of that later) I think he's very much a British Composer of his time, ie. the early 20th century. He has own particular very sweet tone (his use of orchestra can be very delicate) and the overall impression is of a very good natured and sensitive person. And this is very much what the play put over, funny enough. The play can be listened to for seven days.

He was of Swedish extraction, with German connections. Unfortunately, being called von Holst was not a good idea come the First World War. This was the time when the British royal family chose to change their German family name to Windsor, after all. And a whole other bevy of British royalty also changed their names, eg. from Battenburg to Mountbatten. Holst was reported for taking long walks, and asking questions near the village where he lived. Due to his short-sightedness he tended to get lost, then asked the locals where the pub was as he was in need of a beer. Fortunately, the local police decided that this gentle teacher and composer was unlikely to be a threat to national security.

Besides The Planets, a lot of his other music is based on English folk tunes, very much like his friend Ralph Vaughn-Williams. A Somerset Rhapsody, for example is very much what I would expect a British composer of the early 20th century to produce. He also does some very exotic stuff, again in vogue at this time, but he really does have his own voice.

It's well worth tracking down his stuff. Blast! I've just found out that my CD of his ballet music for The Perfect Fool is faulty. I shall have to get another recording. There's a good one with The Planets, The Perfect Fool & Egdon Heath conducted by Previn. I like Previn; his recording of Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet is my favourite (as a conductor he seems to err on the side of warmth, which I like), so I'll go with his Holst recording too.

From Somerset Rhapsody onto the Japanese Suite. Holst is so mercurial. In the radio play, he says that Mercury is his planet; quite right if his music is to go by. Knowing all too well what is in The Planets as well, I suspect that my 5th century novel now has a source for its theme music ...


At 10:26 pm GMT, Blogger Carla said...

Thanks for this; I'll try and catch it on Listen Again.

What's the 5th century connection?

At 8:04 am GMT, Blogger Alex Bordessa said...

Well, there isn't one (as per the music for SoD), but there's the range of music (from the martial to the gentle) to inspire a lot of moods.

btw in the play there's a wonderful telling of the first performance of The Planets and how the Female Chorus did their singing. Magical.

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