Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gustav Holst

The composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is today best known for his Planets suite, but he also wrote numerous other pieces inspired by, among other things, English folk songs, Indian mythology and the poetry of Walt Whitman. Holst lived in west London for most of his adult life, including Barnes, Richmond and Hammersmith - for a period he conducted the Hammersmith Socialist Choir at William Morris's house.

Holst worked as a jobbing musician (playing trombone on Brighton pier) and then as a music teacher, including a long connection with two South East London institutions. His first teaching job was at James Allen's Girls School, the independent school in Dulwich. Holst taught there one day a week from 1904 to 1920, and according to the school's website: 'In 1905 the school performed Tableaux from Tennyson's Princess, for which Holst composed settings of the poems. The songs were sung from manuscript (some of which are in the school archives) and were published in 1907 as Songs from The Princess, Opus 20A, with the dedication 'to the girls of the James Allen's Girls' School. His Golden Goose, a ballet with chorus, also received its first performance in the gardens here'. There is now a Holst House at JAGS and a Holst Hall.

Holst was also Director of Music at Morley College in Waterloo from 1907 to 1924. The Morley Memorial College for Working Men and Women was established in 1889 to make adult education accessible to the less-well off of South London, and was based in the Old Vic until it got its own site in the 1920s. Holst involved the Morleyites (as he termed his students) in his wider musical endeavours, including a series of Whitsuntide festivals of music and dance in Thaxted in Essex from 1916 to 1918. These came about as a result of his friendship with Conrad Noel, the famed 'Red Vicar' of Thaxted.

In teaching his students, Holst 'made them believe in their right to make music as much as any professional. He spent nearly every evening at Morley College now, and much of his social life revolved round its weekend events, which included excursions into the countryside and long rambles, dances and tea parties. He also encouraged his music students to mix with the James Allen pupils and girls of St Paul's [in Hammersmith], often bringing them to perform at the schools and join in school events' (Holst: his life and times by Paul Holmes, 1997).

Holst's friend Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote to him in 1916 that: 'I sometimes feel that the future of musical England rests with you - because every Paulina who goes out, and for the matter of that every Morleyite, will infect 10 others and they in turn will infect 10 others - I will leave you to make the necessary calculation'.

Here's one of the Songs from the Princess (O Swallow, Swallow), which since it was written to be performed by young women at a school in East Dulwich Grove could at a stretch qualify for inclusion in the list of South London Songs:

(performed here by a choir from George Mason University in Virginia)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Also a keen Clarion cyclist