Tony Palmer film sheds new light on the composer of The Planets

Tony Palmer film sheds new light on the composer of The Planets

Two hundred recordings exist of The Planets by Gustav Holst making it the most recorded work by any British composer. But for most people Holst is a shadowy figure. How many other works can you think of by him? If you can name half a dozen, you are doing well. What happened to him after The Planets? Did he, in fact, burn himself out, like a shooting star, composing this extraordinary work?

Film-maker Tony Palmer has been intrigued by Holst for many years ever since he visited Benjamin Britten in Aldeburgh and noticed a photo of Holst in his music room. When pressed for an explanation, Britten exclaimed: “I owe him more than I can tell you.” Imogen, the composer’s only child, was assisting Britten at this time and tried to persuade Palmer to make a film about her father, but it is only now, four decades on, that the project, entitled Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter, has come to fruition. The completed documentary was transmitted on Easter Day this year on BBC4 – reportedly attracting the second largest audience ever to tune in to this the channel.

“Making a film for me is always a journey of discovery,” Parlmer declared at a public showing of the film arranged by the Holst Birthplace Trust (May 2011). Some of his findings surprised him and led him to challenge  preconceptions we have of the composer. He is particularly intrigued by the little known episode when Holst went to Algeria on health grounds, lived in the Street of the Dancing Girls and went for bike rides in the Sahara. Desert – an experience which inspired hin to write the Beni Mora Suite. Then there was the occasion when out walking with Vaughan Williams that he saw the red flag flying in Thaxted Church and decided to put down roots in the village; it transpires that this frail, genteel man who taught at two expensive girls’ schools was an ardent Socialist at heart. He attended lectures by George Bernard Shaw and became a great friend of Conrad Noel, the “red vicar” of Thaxted, a prominent anti-imperialist who arranged for prayers to be said in his church on Empire day for the “victims of Empire”.  Holst evidently sympathised with Noel’s views and was annoyed when the theme from Jupiter was used for the patriotic song “I vow to thee my country” (which is presented in an array of versions in the film).

The film gets off to an unconventional start, not with shots of leafy Cheltenham Spa where Holst was born, but with sand dunes and desert landscapes; one expected Lawrence of Arabia to come riding over a dune at any moment. The landscapes and Palmer’s assertion that Holst cycled over the Sahara made the audience sit up and take notice. The director is keen on landscapes and never misses an opportunity to feature them in the film, including panoramic views of the hills of Hardy’s Dorset to the accompaniment of Egdon Heath. There is stock footage of Edwardian London street scenes,  pilgrims at Benares and Indian temple fairs, despite the fact that though he would have been familiar with London Holst never actually visited India; his knowledge of Indian culture and religion came  tabout hrough extensive reading and study. I also take issue with the suggestion that his fascination for all things Indian resulted from visits to curry houses in Cheltenham’s elegant Promenade. There were plenty of former officers from the East India Company and Indian Army residing in the town during Holst’s youth, whom the Holst family may have known, but I rather think the colonels would have eaten their curries at home.

The Holst family was of German extraction and his branch of the family left Riga for England. Fortunately Palmer managed to track down a representative of the German branch,  who had retained the title von Holst; Gustav had the “von” removed during the First World War at around the same time King George V changed his name to Windsor for similar reasons.  Two Holst experts, Raymond Head and Stephen Johnson considered Holst as a composer, the latter showing how innovative his style was by reference to Mars, the opening movement of The Planets. The repeated four note motif from In the Street of the Ouled Nails (Beni Mora) is seen as a precursor to minimalism. But the the most interesting insights into Holst the man came from Imogen Holst (on archive film) who described what a busy life her father led in order to earn a living, which meant he could only devote weekends and the month of August to composition. After teaching all day at school he would then go and teach music at Morley Working Men’s College in South London, since he believed that people in dull menial jobs deserved the chance to enjoy much as anyone.

The strong musical tradition continues till this day at Morley College and the film showed the current director of music encouraging today’s students from various backgrounds to stand up and sing out. The same is true at St Paul’s School where we glimpsed the School Orchestra being put through its paces by conductor Yeo Yat-Soon and heard accounts from former pupils of the school who nicknamed him “Gussie”. There are generous helpings of Holst’s music throughout the film including the ebullient Sian Edwards conducting the Royal College of Music Orchestra in The Cotswold Symphony and other works. An intense looking Tamas Vasary coaxes some very committed playing from the Savaria Orchestra in the Planets Suite and there are other notable contributions from Gloucester Cathedral Choir, the City of London Choir and the BBC Symphony Chorus.

I would have been quite content to sit back and watch the musicians playing, but Tony Palmer obviously felt his audiences would get bored easily so he spices up each performance with footage from other parts of the film. Unfortunately, after you have seen shots of Edwardian London, sand dunes, the Dorset Hills and Indian dances three times they become repetitive and tedious.  Still, it was good to hear a range of Holst’s music performed including ballet music from A Perfect Fool with dancers from the Royal Ballet School, The Brook Green Suite, movements from The Planets (of course), some of his folk song arrangements, Egdon Heath and last, but not least, his posthumous Lyric Movement for Viola and Chamber Orchestra, which I was hearing for the first time. I don’t  think his opera Savitri was included nor his Hymn to Jesus, but there was enough of Holst in this 140 minute programme to satisfy me. Lone can but hope the film will encourage musicians to try out the various works of his which exist only in manuscript form having never been published or performed.

I felt fortunate in being able to watch the performance on a big screen. (While I accept that “small is beautiful” in cases like this “bigger is better”). If you are unable to persuade an enterprising art cinema near you to screen the film, you will have to buy or rent the DVD Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter, which is about to be released by Isolde Film Productions. It is an eye-opener, though for a more balanced and chronological account of Holst you would still need to refer to Michael Short’s biography Gustav Holst: The Man and his Music. I sincerely hope Tony Palmer’s documentary will awaken interest in this intriguing but underrated English composer whose star (or planet) may at last be in the ascendant: he now has a museum dedicated to him, a statue in his home town and, since May of this year, a 35 mile walk named after him. The Gustav Holst Way runs from Wick Rissington, where he got his first job as an organist, to the village of Cranham. Does the name Cranham ring a bell? Yes, this is the name of the the tune he wrote for that well-known Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter.

Roger Jones