Gustav Holst, by Kenric Taylor: A Biography, by Ian Lace

5. Musical Esotericism

At the time, Holst seemed to recover quickly from his head injury, and he accepted an invitation to go to America to conduct a music festival at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. During the voyage, he scored his Fugal Concerto for flute, oboe, and strings.

While he was in America, his recent opera, The Perfect Fool was produced by the British National Opera. Although its ballet music was enjoyed, the opera failed because the story line was too enigmatic. Several people in the audience demanded their money back. Holst was beginning to lose touch with his audience. Meanwhile in America, he was basking in adulation.

Back in England, he received a tremendous ovation after a performance of The Planets, but it brought him no joy. His nerves were very bad and he was finding it impossible to sleep at night. By the end of the term, he was on the verge of a serious nervous breakdown. Then, an anonymous rich man gave him several hundred pounds so that he night have more leisure for composing.

He decided to give up all his teaching for three months. He retired to Thaxted spending only one day a week in London. It was not entirely successful, for Holst was never one to be lazy. His nerves worsened instead of getting better. Although it was a year since his accident, he began to have violent pains in the back of his head. Even when the pains ceased, he could not bear anything touching his head, not even a hat or a pillow. Noise was torture for him; people talking, traffic, applause. He had nightmares about making mistakes or about his creativity drying up. His doctor ordered him to give up all work for the rest of the year. Afterwards, he wasn't able to resume any regular teaching except for a very little at St. Paul's where he continued to teach for the rest of his life.

Holst lived for nearly a year in a comfortable house in the middle of Thaxted. He was alone except for an ex-army boatman who became his cook, valet, and guardian. He worked on his Choral Symphony and a new opera called At the Boar's Head based on the Falstaff scenes from Shakespeare's Henry IV .

By the beginning of 1925, Holst was well enough to return to London and almost immediately he was plunged into rehearsal for At the Boar's Head. But the opera was not well received; it was too clever. Audiences felt cheated because as soon as they began to get hold of a tune, it was snatched away from them and woven into a restlessly changing pattern that baffled the ear. And the performers could not cope with the music's complexities and their acting.

Then the Choral Symphony failed, too. Listeners found it too difficult to take any delight in the work. Most critics savaged it; complaining of dreary wastes of dullness and the chilly vacillations of its harmonies. "Holst presents the melancholy spectacle of a continuous and unrelieved decline," said one reviewer. Holst was unimpressed but he was worried when Vaughan Williams wrote to confess that he felt a cold admiration for it. It should be noted, of course, that what seemed difficult to audiences in the 1920s is accepted much more easily today and modern recordings of Holst's works, from this period, now allow us to assess them anew.

In 1926 Holst was lecturing at Liverpool and Glasgow Universities. He now had a beautiful home in Thaxted, Brook End, but he only went there on occasional weekends. He was restless and seemed to have no desire for a fixed home. In London, he was happy enough going for solitary walks. He was not writing any large scale works now. The Golden Goose was a light hearted choral ballet. Another choral ballet, The Morning of the Year, was more ambitious.

In the spring of 1927 the citizens of Cheltenham organized a Holst festival, two hours of music which included A Somerset Rhapsody which had not been performed in years and, of course, The Planets. Afterwards, as an antidote to so much honor and glory he went off on a walking tour of Yorkshire. As we have seen, he was a prodigious walker. He must have walked over most of the counties of England in all seasons and in all weathers. He also covered appreciable tracts of Italy, France, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia and he had explored Istanbul and Athens during his war service. When he visited Chichester, to discuss program details for the Whitsuntide Festivals, he would walk over to Chichester from Midhurst and, afterwards, across the Downs to Pulborough before taking the train back to London. It was his habit to carry a train timetable in one pocket and bus route details in another.

In 1926 Holst was walking in Dorset. As a result he was stimulated to commence work on Egdon Heath dedicated to Thomas Hardy. It was inspired by the opening chapter of Hardy's Return of the Native and the desolate stretch of country between Wool and Bere Regis. The music was stark and austere and at its London premiere in February, 1928, a little more than a month after Hardy's death, listeners were profoundly uncomfortable. But Holst, as usual, was unmoved. This time he knew it was the best thing he had ever written.

[ 4. Planetary Fame ] [ 5. Musical Esotericism ] [ 6. Journey's End ]