Gustav Holst | Compositions, The Music of Holst

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

by Raymond Head (page 4/4)

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

There follows a discourse on the purpose of suffering. This is the philosophical climax of the work, and in order to emphasise it Holst has rearranged the original text so that all the sentences about suffering come together. The Master (Jesus?) was ‘sent to you as a Word’ (Logos), ‘for yours is the passion of man that I go to endure’. The music in the orchestra responds with the sounds of pain and restriction reminiscent of Saturn. But within this there is a sense of release as the bassoon animatedly plays a 12/8 version of Vexilla Regis accompanied by trumpet fanfares. Clearly this is a moment of supreme triumph: for the first time, the trebles of both mixed choirs and the distant choir are united, singing to ‘ah’ the Vexilla Regis plainchant. For a moment the royal banners do seem to pass by as rhythmic percussion, horn fanfares and oscillating orchestral chords create a feeling of triumphant rejoicing.

It is short-lived. The ‘Amfortas’ idea returns and the Master reminds the disciples of the pain involved in personal experience. Mead suggests that here (‘And when ye had beheld it ye were not unmoved’) something ‘of a most distressing nature’ took place in the mystery ritual which ‘unnerved’ the disciples, since it encouraged them to search for wisdom (‘kindled to be wise’).(Note.11) But Holst does not become involved in speculation. Instead, he moves swiftly on to an almost Buddhist position: ‘Learn how to suffer and ye shall overcome’. A sense of ultimate triumph is indicated by the solo trumpet playing the opening of the Pange Lingua. In ‘Behold in me a couch, rest on me’ the luminous discords from earlier in the work have returned. The G major chord has become E flat major and finally a C major maestoso as at the beginning of the Hymn. But musically and philosophically this is not the end. Repeated E major chords alternating (in Holst’s irregular speech rhythms) with C major chords assert that it is only ‘when ye are come to me, then shall ye know: what ye know not will I myself teach you’.

The mystery of life, it seems, cannot be fully understood without the help of a Master (a Jesus?). The distant heavenly choir (‘Fain would I move to the music of holy souls’) brings a faint reminiscence of the 5/4 dance, suggestive of the divine dance of Shiva in Hindu mythology. The sliding chordal dissonances of Ex.6 return at ‘know in me the word of wisdom’, the final ‘m’ being held by closed lips and eventually dissolving into a numinous silence. A recall of the opening affirmations in the earlier chords eventually gives way to reiterated and peaceful ‘amens’ in all choirs. Heaven and Earth have been united. Holst stopped setting at this point in the Gnostic text since, according to Mead, (Note.12), the last sentences provide an alternative ending which must have been drawn from another source.

The musical remoteness of the Prelude is the antithesis of the forthright, declamatory immediacy of the Hymn. This (Ex.4) is ‘here and now’, this is 1917. What Holst offers his audience is not consolation for loss but an unorthodox, philosophical symbol which works on every level, from the literal to the analogical: only by deepening our spiritual understanding can there be an end to suffering. His inspirational music implores us to accept this view. The magnificent construction, the manipulation of musical ideas and the originality of the sounds leave us in no doubt that Holst felt deeply every occult aspect of his remarkable Gnostic text.


1. Evelyn Edgar, a recalcitrant singing pupil at St Paul’s, recorded Holst’s changing mood in her diary still with the family. 5 June 1916 'Gussy was ratty over his last people & vented it on me'; 6 June 'Gussie was furious'; 15 June 'I had a singing lesson, he’s most awfully strict nowadays'.

2. Holst, and his friend W.G. Whittaker, knew M.T.J. Gueritte, founder in London in 1907 of the highly influential Societe des Concerts Francais, which instituted an understanding of French music in England for the first time.

3. Vexilla Regis Prodeunt was written by Bishop Venantius Fortunatus in 569 to celebrate the receiving of a relic of the True Cross at St Mary’s Abbey, Poitiers, a gift of the Byzantine Emperor Justin II. It became the marching song of the Crusaders 500 years later. Vexilla was sung on Passion Sunday and until Maunday Thursday when the Blessed Sacrament was carried to the High Alter. Pange Lingua was a Good Friday hymn in the Roman Liturgy. Gounod had used Vexilla in his popular oratorio Redemption, dedicated to Queen Victoria. Jonathan Harvey (an admirer of The Hymn of Jesus) has used both Vexilla and Pange in his Passion and Resurrection (1981).

4. Notes to Chandos CD CHAN 8901, 1990.

5. For more about Mead see Tempo 187 (December 1993), p.17. Holst was never frightened to ask authorities in their field for help. At University College, London he had asked the distinguished historian Romesh Chunder Dutt (1848-1909) who taught Indian history and literature from 1898, for help with Sita (Letter dated 'Jan 17. 1901' in the Holst Foundation). He had Sanskrit lessons from Dr Mabel Bode (d.1922) who had been appointed Assistant Lecturer at U.C.L in 1909 and subsequently Lecturer in 1911.

6. Reprinted 1963 (London: John M Watkins).

7. See articles in Tempo 158, 160 and 166 (September 1988).

8. Just as some chorus members had objected to singing Holst’s hymns to Hindu gods so, even as late as the early 1950s, so did Vaughan Williams mention with some disgust that (while rehearsing for a performance of The Hymn of Jesus) some members of the Leith Hill Festival choir had objected strongly to the idea of dance in the Christian religion.

9. According to Mead, saved from the labyrinth of ills and released from the bonds of fate and genesis (The Hymn of Jesus translated with comments by G R S Mead, 1907, pp.37-8).

10. Pierced or wounded so that the knot in the heart might be unloosed and lead to a desire to be re-born spiritually; and a desire to eat the Bread of Life, the Supersubstantial Bread (of the Eucharist), the spiritual nourishment of life (Mead, ibid., pp.38-9).

11. Mead, ibid., p.38.

12. Mead, ibid., p.53.

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