Gustav Holst was born Gustavus Theodore von Holst in Cheltenham, England, on September 21 1874, the son of Adolph von Holst and Clara Lediard, both talented musicians. Gustav was a somewhat sickly child, and although his father taught him piano from an early age, neuritis in his right arm made it clear that he was unlikely to have a career as a pianist. He also learned the violin (for which he had little enthusiasm) and, as a cure for asthma, the trombone. His first efforts at composition were made in his early teens, and by 1891 he had achieved a number of local performances of vocal and instrumental pieces.
In 1893 he gained admission to the Royal College of Music, London, where he was accepted into Charles Villiers Stanford’s composition class. His other teachers included Hubert Parry. In 1895 he was awarded a scholarship in composition. Also in 1895 he met Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was to become his closest friend, and a profound influence.
In 1896 he was asked to become conductor of the Hammersmith Socialist Choir. Among the early members of the choir was Isobel Harrison, whom he was to marry in 1901 (their daughter Imogen was born in 1907). At about this time he also became interested in Hindu literature and philosophy, and took lessons in Sanskrit at University College, London.
Holst’s second study at the Royal College was the trombone, and he undertook freelance engagements while still at the College. Although offered an extension of his scholarship in 1898 he decided instead to join the Carl Rosa Opera Company as trombonist and répétiteur. His compositions up to this point had been competent but uninspiring: he had published only a handful of songs, and a career as a composer was a distant prospect.
He decided to give up his orchestral career at the end of 1903, and was offered a teaching appointment at James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich, in succession to Vaughan Williams. In 1905 Holst was appointed head of music at St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith, where he was to remain until the end of his life.
The sound-proof music room at St Paul’s School became his refuge for composition at weekends and during the school holidays; from 1916 he also worked at a cottage near Thaxted in the Essex countryside. Here he established a Whitsun festival in the local church for both amateur and professional musicians, which continued until his death.
Although his reputation had been steadily growing during the years before the First World War, it was not until The Planets, written between 1914 and 1916, received its first performance (given privately as a gift from his friend Henry Balfour Gardiner in 1918) that he achieved genuine recognition. Before that took place he had already written, in 1917, the choral and orchestral Hymn of Jesus, perhaps the most characteristic and original work of his maturity.
The sudden popular success of The Planets led to the publication and performance of many earlier works, most importantly of the opera Savitri, which had been composed in 1908, towards the end of his Sanskrit period. 1927 saw the first major festival devoted to his music. This was in Cheltenham, where in 1928 the first British performance of the orchestral Egdon Heath took place, the day after its New York premiere. Though acknowledged today as one of his most significant works, it met with a lukewarm reception. This had indeed been the case with much of Holst’s music since The Planets: he refused to court popularity by writing what was expected of him. The huge success of this one work disconcerted a man who was essentially an introvert, although an inspiring figure to his many pupils and followers, and totally without pretension.
In 1932 he was visiting lecturer in composition at Harvard but he was taken ill and had to return prematurely to England. During the last eighteen months of his life, in spite of having to live largely as an invalid, he composed some of his most individual works, including the Brook Green Suite and the Lyric Movement for viola and orchestra. He died of heart failure on May 25 1934, after an operation for a duodenal ulcer; his ashes were buried in Chichester Cathedral.
You can find out more about Gustav Holst through the Holst archive.