Gustav Holst around 1921

For my last article on Thaxted I will tell you about the composer Gustav Holst, who although not from Thaxted, did make it his second home, and where he composed some of the 20th century’s most rousing classical compositions including The Planets, but being a rather shy man he did not welcome fame and preferred to be left in peace to compose.

Gastavus Theodore von Hoist, whose family came from Latvia, was born in Cheltenham in 1874 and he trained at the Royal College of Music hoping to become a pianist, but neuritis in his right arm prevented him for gaining his aim, but despite his father’s concerns he pursued a career as a composer studying at the Royal College under Charles Villiers Stanford.

statue of Holst in Cheltenham – baton in left hand due to his neuritis

During the First World War he dropped the ’von’ and became known as Gastav Holst. It is claimed that one day whilst on a walking holiday in rural Essex in 1913, he became so enthralled by the beauty of Thaxted church – see last week’s article – that he rented a cottage just outside the village and started his writing of the Planets, where in those days it was very quiet, with only the occasionally horse and cart passing to distract him.  Between 1917 and 1925, he spent time away from London in a house known then as ‘The Steps’, but now known as the Manse, in the centre of the village.  During his time in the village he developed a strong relationship with the church where he used the organ to compose his scores, and became involved with the choir.  Perhaps Holst’s most well-known connection with Thaxted is the hymn, ‘I vow to thee my County.  A poem by Cecil Spring-Rice was put into his Jupiter Suite, and the country’s most evocative hymn was created and when played, the piece of music is known as Thaxted, a fact that the residents are very proud of, and over the years the hymn as been sung either during weddings or funerals. It was first performed in 1921 and is still associated with Remembrance Day services by the Commonwealth of Nations.  It was sung at the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, and Diana, Princess of Wales requested that the hymn be sung when she married Prince Charles in 1981, claiming that it had been her favourite hymn since schooldays.  It was also played at her funeral in 1997 and her 10th memorial service in 2007.  It was also quoted by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 in her sermon on the Mound to the General Assembly of Scotland, and sung at her funeral in 2013.

quote by Gustav Holst

Harvard University in America offered Gustav a lectureship for the six months in 1932, and upon arriving in New York he was delighted to be reunited with his brother, Emil, who had become an actor on Broadway under the name of Ernest Cossart, but Gastav was upset by the continual attentions of the press interviewers and photographers, and was eventually taken ill with a duodenal ulcer.  He returned to England who joined him briefly for a holiday in the Cotswolds, but his health declined and he withdrew from musical activities.  One of his last engagements was to guide the young players of the St Pauls Girls’ School orchestra through one his is final compositions, the Brook Green Suite, in March 1934.  Gastav Holst died on London on 25 May 1934, at the age of 59, of heart failure following an operation on his ulcer, and his ashes were interred in Chichester Cathedral in Sussex, close to the memorial of Weelkes, his favourite Tudor composer.  Bishop George Bell took the service and his friend Vaughan Williams conducted music by Host and himself.  I am sure you will agree a sad end to a very gentle man who gave us so much wonderful music to enjoy.

The Manse in Thaxsted