Gustav Holst and Ivor Gurney Remembered at Cheltenham 2012

Iain Burnside, A Soldier and a Maker: Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, 13-14.7.2012 (RJ)

Holst, Rig Veda Songs Set No. 3; Savitri: Sarah Connolly, James Oxley, Benedict Nelson, Savitri Singers, Trondheim Soloists / Benjamin Nicholas (conductor), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 14.7.2012 (RJ)

Holst, Vedic Hymns: Jennifer Johnston (mezzo), Joseph Middleton (piano) Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 15.7.2012 (RJ)

Sometimes people are so intent on gazing at distant horizons that they overlook what is closer to hand. The Cheltenham Music Festival is no exception having never been particularly supportive of composers from its immediate locality. But this summer it has made up for this previous neglect by focusing on two composers born in Gloucestershire: Ivor Gurney, perhaps better known as a war poet, and Gustav Holst, the composer of The Planets Suite. And much much more.

Gurney, who died 75 years ago this year on Boxing Day is examined sympathetically in Iain Burnside’s new biographical play A Soldier and a Maker Maker. An episodic drama drawing on Gurney’s words and his music, it traces the poet/composer’s journey through life from his days at the Royal College of Music, through the trenches of Northern France to shell shock, post-war deterioration and eventual confinement to a mental institution in Kent.

I was expecting a rather stilted session of readings, songs, and piano works, but it turned out to be a proper drama with plenty of dialogue, music and singing. Burnside had assembled a multiskilled group of actor/singer/musicians from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama able to dance, portray the exuberance of student life, enact scenes fron the trenches and undertake countless costume changes over a two hour period. All were expertly choreographed (for want of a better word) by Victoria Newlyn who also played the part of Marion Scott, a person who recognised Gurney’s genius and became a great friend and supporter, even during his darkest days. A point of interest is that, like Victoria Newlyn, Miss Scott was no mean organiser herself.

The only drawback to Siôn Alan Davies as Gurney is his modern spectacles (they should be round and steel rimmed!). Otherwise he gives a realistic portrayal of the erratic composer so full of joie de vivre at college and with his comrades at arms, but later developing odd and irritating tendences. In the second half of the play he starts to withdraw into the shadows and by the end cuts a truly pitiable figure. By contrast, Gurney’s friend Herbert Howell (played by Kevin Phelan) seems terribly conventional, assured and strait-laced. The most remarkable portrayal to my mind is Bethan Langford as the composer’s sister Winifred dressed in 1950s clothes who fills in the gaps of Gurney’s life for an unseen writer. With her prim and proper manner and broad accent she epitomises Gloucester woman of that period.

Woven into the play is plenty of Gurney’s own output, such as the songs Captain Stratton’s Fancy and Sleep, his arrangement of the poem by John Fletcher.  Extracts from his letters are read out and poems read out, such as Severn Meadows in which he expresses his love for his home county of Gloucestershire. It is a great tragedy that once he was incarcerated in Dartford Asylum, he would never again see the countryside he loved.

Mercifully, though Holst may have suffered from physical ailments like neuralgia and asthma, he had a questing mind which he retained to the end. Where his interest in India sprang from is unsure, but he may well have come into with former members of the East India Company and Indian Army who settled in his home town of Cheltenham on retirement. Whatever the reason, he developed an interest in Sanskrit literature, enrolled for Sanskrit lessons at University College, London and made translations of Sanskrit texts into English, some of which he set to music.

These settings are rarely performed, but the final weekend of the Festival offered an opportunity to sample some of them, including the Vedic Hymns. These are invocations to various Hindu deities and therefore have a ritualistic character. Jennifer Johnston, a mezzo-soprano with a well-rounded voice, made a very persuasive case for them but simply on a first hearing I am reluctant to rush to judgement. Instead I shall listen to them again when the BBC broadcasts the recording it made of the recital and I would encourage others to do the same. (For details access the website It forms part of a recital entitled Songs of the Exotic.)

The previous evening the accomplished Savitri Singers conducted by Benjamin Nicholas had given a performance of Holst’s Rig Veda Songs Set No 3. This is the earliest of his Rig Veda settings and demonstrates his growing capacity for writing choral music. The opening Hymn to the Dawn had an ecstatic quality while the Hymn to the Waters had rippling effect. There was an element of mystery in the Hymn to Vena while the final Hymn of the Travellers exhibited more movement with a prayer for safety on their journey. Elizabeth Scorah’s harp accompaniment added greatly to the enjoyment of the work.

Holst’s chamber opera Savitri is based on a tale from the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and deals with the tribulations of a woman who learns that Death is about to snatch her beloved husband from her. The composer has stripped the story of much of its local colour and in so doing has given it universal appeal and focus. A small instrumental ensemble consisting chiefly of members of the Trondheim Soloists and the Savitri Singers provided support to a cast of three: Savitri, Death and Satyavan, Savitri’s husband..

Taking the role of Savitri was Sarah Connolly who normally appears on much larger opera stages these days. But she also retains the ability to tackle music on a much more intimate scale, and the role of the frail, apprehensive Savitri seemed tailor-made for her. Tenor James Oxley was an excellent, good-natured, reassuring sort of chap, but one gets the impression that he doesn’t really understand what is about to hit him.

This was Death, played by Benedict Nelson, straight from his success at English National Opera as Billy Budd in the Britten opera of that name. The sound of his assured bass-baritone issuing forth from what seemed to be the bowels of the auditorium announcing his imminent arrival caused a frisson in the audience, and one was well able to comprehend Savitri’s fears. When he finally arrived, there were no shrieks of anguish from Savitri, simply a polite welcome and some gentle pleading.

The tension between Death and Savitri was utterly riveting with subtle psychological shifts. Gradually the Grim Reaper seemed to adopt a more benign attitude, so touched was he by Savitri’s innate goodness and generosity of heart. Even so, nobody would believe he would actually succumb to the heroine’s persuasion and grant Satyan a reprieve. Yet it happened and as Death left it was difficult not to feel sorry for him as he realised the limits of his power, that he too was Maya (illusion).

While one could doubtless debate the meaning of Maya, a concept that Holst grafted on to the plot from Indian philosophy, there is surely little pointI. The play’s the thing. Although small scale, Savitri is capable of making as profound an impact as the grandest of grand operas provided the right people are in it, and tonight the right people were! Thanks to performances by Sarah Connolly, Ben Nelson and James Oxley of such commitment, subtlety and sincerity and with singing of sheer perfection this was a truly memorable experience.

Roger Jones