Gustav Holst | Compositions, The Music of Holst

(1908) Savitri Op. 25

This piece is published by Curwen.

Whereas much of Gustav Holst's earlier work was saturated with influences from his favorite composer, Richard Wagner, in 1908 Holst composed the chamber opera Savitri. This small scale opera is performed in one movement and with no overture. It was considered revolutionary because there are only three characters and the accompanying orchestra consists of no more than 12 musicians.

Colin Matthews remarked that this approach in creating the opera is due to the story's plot. In Holst's last major opera before Savitri, Sita (1899-1906), the storyline was based on a great war in the Hindu "Ramayana." With this epic story, the musical forces required were also epic. Savitri is also based on Hindu literature, a setting in the Mahabhrata, yet the message is simple and clear. This simplicity is represented in the economy of Holst's musical composition.

The story of Savitri begins when Death visits the woodland home of Savitri to take her husband, Satyavan. He proclaims in the opening if the opera, "I come for thy husband: For him the gate doth open." Savitri and Death exchange words when Satyavan is heard coming from the distance. When Death seems to have claimed Satyavan, the tension heightens and a female choir is used to symbolize the bridge between the divine and mortal worlds. It's pretty cool.

Savitri respects this power of Death to end life and chooses to treat him as a divine figure. Shocked by honorable treatment, Death allows Savitri a gift, saying that she will be granted any gift as long as she does not ask for her husband. She asks for life, and in the end, Savitri tricks Death because she says that she can not have life as she knows it without her husband. The opera ends with Death retreating defeated and Satyavan awaking in the arms of his wife.

Savitri was the first English chamber opera since the end of the seventeenth century.