Gustav Holst’s music remains as memorable as the company of socialist friends together with whom he shook the town of Thaxted in Essex, muses an inspired PETER FROST.
GUSTAV HOLST’S Planets must be one of the most popular pieces of classical music ever written. It was composed over a number of years, being finally completed exactly a century ago in 1916.
He was a socialist and his principles show in much of his music which reflects a time of misery, plague and economic collapse culminating in WWI.
Another great British composer and the one who had introduced Holst to left-wing ideas at his socialist musical gatherings in Hammersmith was Ralph Vaughan Williams — Holst would become conductor for the Hammersmith Socialist Choir.
Vaughan Williams described Holst’s music as supra-human. “It glows with that white radiancy in which burning heat and freezing cold become the same thing,” he wrote.
Holst was born in Cheltenham and lived most of his life in London but it was in a cottage near Thaxted, Essex, that much of his most famous work, the Planets suite, was written.
The work took much of its inspiration from Thaxted, its impressive church and the surrounding north Essex landscape.
He was of Latvian-Russian descent and called himself Gustav von Holst, only dropping the von in the heat of anti-German fervour during WWI.
His mother was English and he was brought up in a house full of music, studied at the Royal College of Music in London and settled down to a life as a Cheltenham church organist until arthritis in his hands forced him to abandon the keyboard.
For some years he made his living as a trombone player, but eventually took up teaching at St Paul’s Girls’ School in 1905 and director of music at Morley College in 1907 — posts he retained until the end of his life.
The teaching work gave him the drive and the stimulus to compose. He also became an avid collector of folk songs — spurred on by his friend Vaughan Williams — and used many of these collected folk tunes in his later pastoral works.
Holst discovered Thaxted on a walking holiday in 1913. He stayed at a pub in the town and explored the impressive church, where he met and immediately struck up a friendship with the eccentric vicar Conrad Noel (below), nicknamed the Red Vicar of Thaxted.
Noel had become vicar in 1910 and was to stay until his death in 1942. He had strong communist beliefs and was a member of the Independent Labour Party.
Holst asked Noel to let him know if a house turned up in the area and after a few months the red vicar wrote telling him about a thatched cottage for rent just outside Thaxted.
He fell in love with the place: “It stood high above the surrounding cornfields and meadows and willow trees, with a view of the church spire in the distance. It was so quiet that we could hear the bees in the dark red clover beyond the garden hedge.
“We could watch the meadow grass being scythed, and in the cornfields we saw the farmer sowing the seed by hand, scattering it in the breeze as he strode up and down.”
He decided to rent it as a weekend and holiday cottage and installed a grand piano with a light action that allowed his arthritic fingers to play.
As war clouds gathered he used the piano to compose Mars the Bringer of War. It was a striking piece of music — quite unlike anything he had previously written — and he would never write anything quite like it again.
In 1912 he had heard Sergei Diaghilev present Firebird and the following year Petroushka and the Rite of Spring. He was impressed with Stravinsky’s orchestration and rhythmic vigour.
Holst became an occasional organist and choirmaster at for Noel at Thaxted church and also developed an interest in bell-ringing.
He and the vicar started an annual music festival at Whitsuntide in 1916 where students from Morley College and St Paul’s Girls’ School performed together with local participants.
His carol This Have I Done for My True Love was dedicated to the red vicar in recognition of his interest in the ancient origins of religion and was first performance during the Third Whitsun Festival at Thaxted in May 1918.
During that festival Noel, a staunch supporter of Russia’s October revolution of the previous year, called on his congregation for greater political commitment in church activities.
Later when the Whitsuntide concerts were revived in peacetime school and college authorities insisted that the venue should be moved to Dulwich. It appears Noel’s communist themes and sermons from the pulpit upset them too much.
The red vicar owed his Thaxted appointment to Daisy Greville, countess of Warwick (below), the owner of nearby Easton Lodge. She had once been singled out as a suitable bride for Queen Victoria’s youngest son Leopold and although she remained part of the royal circle she was also an enthusiastic Fabian Socialist.
She campaigned for better standards of health and education and advocated a great number of the ideas that later became part of the welfare state.
The countess played a major part in the arts and crafts movement inspired by the ideas of her friend George Bernard Shaw. Together with the red vicar they brought to the Thaxted church medieval plainsong, incense, flower-processions, folk-dancing as well as radical socialist politics.
Noel dedicated a chapel to English Peasants’ Revolt preacher John Ball and decorated his church with red socialist flags and Sinn Fein banners. The red flag flew over his church steeple every May Day.
Daisy’s huge Essex estate became a hothouse of socialist thought and among her many guests were Ramsay MacDonald, Manny Shinwell and Charlie Chaplin. H G Wells lived in a house on the estate.
She became an early environmentalist and the house swarmed with animals including a collection of monkeys.
Holst, as a socialist composer, fitted in beautifully to her vision of a community of like-minded left-wing artists and so he too later came to be one of her tenants.
He delighted Daisy by writing Christian socialist music for what were called people’s processions at Thaxted and his music was always inspired by Fabian principles.
He cycled around Thaxted delivering left-wing papers.
The Countess had made the house the place of innumerable Labour gatherings and later offered to donate her entire estate to the TUC — an offer that was turned down over concerns of the high cost of maintenance.
Today Thaxted is still a well-visited and pretty tourist town and its socialist past a fascinating footnote of political history. But Holst’s Planets — not least his Mars Bringer of War — remains one of the greatest expressions of humanity and a lasting testament to the horror and futility of conflict.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 30 September 2016.