Gustav Holst | Compositions, The Music of Holst

The Hymn of Jesus: Holst’s Gnostic Exploration of Time and Space

by Raymond Head (page 1/4)

(This essay originally appeared in Tempo Magazine (Boosey and Hawkes, London), July 1999 issue.)

Gustav Holst’s The Hymn of Jesus (written in August 1917) has always been one of his most widely performed works. Its first performance in London in 1920 was an outstanding success; Ralph Vaughan Williams, the dedicatee, said he just ‘wanted to get up and embrace everyone and then get drunk’. Yet perhaps it is taken too much for granted. There remains the mystery why Holst chose to set an obscure Gnostic text in ancient Greek at a time of national catastrophe in the First World War. What was he offering his audience?

Undoubtedly, the work is Holst’s artistic and philosophical response to the War; to suffering so intense, and on such a scale, that it was scarcely comprehensible. By 1916 hostilities had reached a pulverising stalemate and conscription had been introduced in Britain. Unlike his friend Vaughan Williams (who had enlisted in 1914) Holst had been denied participation because of his health. The final impetus for producing The Hymn of Jesus may well have been the Battle of the Somme. During five months of 1916, over two million people were slaughtered, including George Butterworth and others of Holst’s friends. Despite a successful Whitsuntide musical gathering at Thaxted, his mood had become edgy and uncharacteristically explosive.(Note.1) Yet far from being elegiac, The Hymn of Jesus - his first major work after completing The Planets - is a very positive and constructive response to suffering.

Holst, as usual, was not forthcoming about his work; his daughter Imogen described his feelings about it as impenetrably reticent, and letters written at this time in his usual chirpy manner give no hint as to his depth of emotion. However, the text he chose to set, and the music that resulted from it, are immensely profound and challenging. The text is worth investigating - not least for the light it throws on Holst’s forgotten performance instructions.

Why, for instance, does he ask that the two mixed choirs be ‘well separated’ (in the Venetian style) -a performing instruction I have never seen observed? Some of the other spatial relationships can best be understood by closer scrutiny of the score. Holst was one of the first composers to explore spatial relationships as an integral part of a work’s structure, and not merely as a quasi-operatic effect. In the Hymn the two mixed choirs are well separated for a very legitimate reason, as will become clear. Two other distant choirs (one of treble voices, the other of tenors and basses) create a curious effect because their music, which is derived from plainsong, creates a sensation of distance in time as well as space. We seem to swim in a different, multi-dimensional musical universe, as past and present come together. This is a more sophisticated development of the spatial ideas that Holst had begun to explore purposefully in Savitri (1908-9) and The Planets (1914-16). In The Hymn of Jesus Holst used another multi-dimensional technique that alters our sense of time and space, that of two musical ideas being played simultaneously at different tempi and in different places (eg. seven bars after fig 2).

The work is divided into two sections: a Prelude and the Hymn proper. The Prelude is divided into two halves, the second half being a vocal realization of the material in the first. At the outset the tenor trombone affectingly ‘sings’ the Pange Lingua plainchant. (Holst himself was a professional trombonist for many years, and it is worth remembering that in his day the tenor trombone was altogether softer and sweeter than its powerful modern descendant.) Thereafter the chant is put into a loose harmonic framework of G minor before reaching a new lento idea of intense suffering (Ex.1). This suffering seems to reach a resolution of profound mystery when, in the senza misura bar that follows, double basses and organ pedals, very quietly and very low, play the plainchant Vexilla Regis Prodeunt. Out of which deep, slow, oscillating string chords in fourths and fifths gradually ascend heavenwards over a low pedal bass A. In manner this section is not too dissimilar to the opening bars of Debussy’s La Cathedrale Engloutie.(Note.2) Almost imperceptibly, a distant treble choir enters singing Vexilla Regis Prodeunt three octaves higher. The effect is magical; the music has literally been elevated and shines forth likes stars in the night sky. (‘The royal banners forward go, the cross shines forth in mystic glow.’)

The material for the Prelude is derived from the two plainchants Vexilla Regis Prodeunt and Pange Lingua. (Note.3) Both of these Easter chants are to be found in the Sarum Antiphoner and were intended for use in Passion Week. In a harmonized form they had appeared (as Nos.94 and 95) in the 1906 edition of the English Hymnal, for which Holst had contributed some new tunes. It was a modest attempt by the editors (who included Vaughan Williams) to popularize plainsong singing which at that time, like some early music, was beginning to be heard again. A facsimile edition of the Sarum Antiphoner and Gradual had been published by the Plainsong and Medieval Music Society, founded in 1888. It would have been uncharacteristic of Holst not to have looked at original sources, or not to have learned how to sing them properly. Certainly he was not content with the English translations for the plainsongs in the English Hymnal, but went back to the Latin versions written by Bishop Venantius Fortunatus in the sixth century.

(See Notes on Page 4.)

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