Gustav Holst | Compositions, The Music of Holst

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

by Raymond Head (page 3/4)

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

Holst may well have come across Mead’s 1907 booklet soon after it was published. On 3 November that year he gave a lecture at Morley College on the origins of modern music during which he mentioned the origins of dance in religion, a subject which deeply interested him and offended others. In his booklet Mead quotes extensively from Philo of Alexandria’s famous descriptive treatise On The Contemplative Life, about the sacred dances and rituals of the Therapeuts in Upper Egypt. (Note.8) In any case Holst was not one to compose in a rush and he laid ideas in store for many years. Clifford Bax (Arnold Bax’s writer brother, who was also a Theosophist) referred to this as Holst’s ‘elephantine gestation’ period.

The tragic events of 1914-16 prompted Holst to find a deeply philosophical and musical response and he looked again at The Hymn of Jesus. Early in 1917 he began to translate the Greek text with the aid of his pupil Jane Joseph (who was later to make the remarkable vocal score), Clifford Bax and G.R.S. Mead. This process, as with translating the Vedas some years before, was musically suggestive to him; it also helped to clarify the meaning of the text. In the end Holst’s translation was quite different from Mead’s published version, much more direct and more rhythmic.

Very briefly, according to Mead the ‘hymn’ is a ritual of initiation involving a Master (Jesus?) and his disciples, who form a circle enclosing a would-be initiate in a question-and-answer dialogue. Hence the Holst’s request that the two choirs should be ‘well separated’. Mixed choir 1 represents the Master, mixed choir 2 the initiand. But at the beginning both choirs are united, singing the majestic affirmations ‘Glory to Thee, Father! Glory to Thee, Word!’. Characterized by astonishing, explosive chordal dislocations - C to E major (Ex.4), and C to A flat minor - these outcries are fortified by a large orchestra, including organ and piano, and a walking step bass which allows for harmonic ambiguity. There is also an invocation to ‘Grace’ and the remarkably original spoken setting of ‘Glory to Thee, Holy Spirit’ in which the sounds should span the distance between one mixed choir and the other. After each affirmation the ‘heavenly’ treble choir responds with an ‘amen’ (whereas in the original Greek text it is the assembled disciples who say ‘amen). Sounds are thrown backwards and forwards between each choir, soon reaching a powerful climax at ‘O shadowless light! Amen’. Imagine how overwhelming this would be if the audience were placed in between the two choirs!

The mystery ritual proper begins; a penitent initiand pleads:

Student (Choir 2): Fain would I be saved
Master (Choir 1): Fain would I save
S: Fain would I be released
M: Fain would I release (Note.9)
S: Fain would I be pierced
M: And fain would I pierce
S: Fain would I be borne
M: Fain would I bear
S: Fain would I eat
M: Fain would I be eaten (Note.10)

Urgently, excitedly, the demands of the intiand become more animated as each request is answered immediately by the Master (Ex.5). The two choirs interact with increasing passion, culminating in the Master’s serene ‘I am Mind of all’. (This is one example where Holst’s translation from the Greek is much more direct than Mead’s.) Suddenly all the pent-up energy is released on, ‘Mind’ into a calm pool of pianissimo E major. This E major stasis of Mind (Mead refers to understanding and stability at this point) engenders invigoration, as a 5/4 allegro dance begins in the orchestra. This is a major change: although the music has been impassioned before, has not been vigorous.

The distant trebles lead the dance with ‘Divine Grace is dancing’: it seems to be an answer to ‘fain would I be known’ - in other words, dance is an essential ingredient of the Divine and therefore an essential element in its praise. We know Holst held this view. In this extended section the dance element takes on, at times (beginning at ‘The heavenly Spheres make music for us’), a Bacchic exultancy, a Martian drive recalling The Planets and foreshadowing the Choral Symphony. At its height the choirs sing, in the extreme brightness of C sharp major, ‘Ye who dance not, know not what we are knowing’. The soul must join the dance to attain true Gnosis. ‘Amen’ (‘so be it’) sing the distant trebles.

But the suppliant continues his yearnings to be spiritually set in ‘order’, to be ‘infolded’ or brought within the mystery. In this process there follows fear of loss of home, of resting place and temple, as the initiand yearns for the ultimate experience of hierogamos and unio mystica. But while in each case the Suppliant’s music is in an agitated 5/4, in each case the Master is reassuring, always answering with composure and authority in 5/2. The dance section reaches a climax in F sharp major in the full orchestra before it dissolves into one of the most striking sections of the whole work: the refulgent proclamation ‘To You who gaze, a lamp am I. To you that know, a mirror. To you who knock, a door am I. To you who fare, the way’ (Ex.6).

Holst’s versions are so much more succinct and memorable than Mead’s published translations. Who was responsible - Clifford Bax, Jane Joseph or Holst himself? All we can be certain about is that the result is the one that satisfied his musical imagination. The extraordinary sound of the downward- sliding chords in the second choir, against the iconic resolve in the first choir, has created one of the 20th century’s astounding musical moments (and this in 1917, in Britain). It shows too, how tremendous musical effects can be simply written. (Holst always had in his mind the technical accomplishments of amateurs.) These moments of assured restraint are understated; despite the luminous discords the music never rises above forte - there is no need of power. Unio mystica has been achieved. From now on the choirs unite and speak with one voice as the Master. They begin to sing ‘Give ye heed unto my dancing. In me who speak behold yourselves’ to the Pange Lingua melody. This is one place, amongst many, which shows how careful Holst was with the rythm of the translated words.

(See Notes on Page 4.)

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