Monday, 9 July 2012

Holst 3: Going East

If you have been kind enough to follow all the links on my previous Gustav Holst posts, you will have heard a large number of pieces. Not one of them sounds like much like the Holst of The Planets or, indeed, of the other masterpiece that immediately followed it, The Hymn of Jesus. Did these extraordinary works come out of nowhere in Holst's development? No. Though they display some of the characteristics of the works we've met so far, they are much more closely related to the music that is the subject of this post - the Eastern-influenced music of 1907-14. These works are where the composer truly freed himself from his Romantic beginnings and became the great original he was.

Holst was strongly inclined to mysticism and very interested in Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism. He learned Sanskrit so as to be able to read and later translate Hindu texts. His three-act opera Sita was based on a story from the Ramayana and the one-act opera Savitri (1908) was based on a story from the Mahabharata.

Savitri is the key work. This short chamber opera (the first in Britain for over two hundred years), scored for soprano (Savitri), tenor (her husband, Satyavan), baritone (Death), a wordless female chorus an orchestra of just 12 musicians (two flutes, cor anglais, double string quartet and bass), places a value on austerity and simplicity - virtues some of the composer's late works also partake of. The opening, with no overture, is simply for two unaccompanied solo voices - that of Death, followed by that of Savitri. Three minutes of just two voices in counterpoint to each other. The story is just as simple:

Satyavan returns home to his wife Savitri to find that Death has come to claim him. Death is moved by Savitri's welcome for him and, in promising to her life in all its fullness, finds that he is forced to surrender his claim on her husband.

It was a highly radical work for its time and place. Some music lovers both at the time and since have deeply appreciated the beauty and originality of this work while others have found it a chore to watch (or listen to). Oddly enough, given that this work is sometimes said to be anti-Wagnerian and given its undoubted originality, this is the first piece where I have heard clear evidence of Holst's Wagnerian influences. The vocal writing may owe something to Wagnerian recitative but it's the lit-from-behind orchestral writing of the second half of the opera where the spirit of the Ring, Tristan and Parsifal shine through most strongly. Perhaps that is why at least one leading critic held it to be an unsatisfactory experiment. Alongside this, there are flavours of folksong in some of the woodcutter Satyavan's music and certain phrases that have an Eastern (or, to my ears, North African) tinge. (Holst had just returned from Algeria before writing the opera). I have to say that it all hangs together perfectly for me. That unaccompanied opening, as Death draws near through the forest, is spine-tingling and Savitri's "Welcome, Lord", set against gorgeous harmonies from the hidden female chorus, is truly beautiful. The opera lasts a mere 35 minutes, so please give it a listen and see what you think.

Around the time of Savitri, Holst began setting his own translations from the Rig Veda. There are songs for voice and piano, but also choral pieces for various forces. I've never heard any of the songs, but all of the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (an almost complete selection), plus the enchanting Two Eastern Pictures, are a must for anyone wanting to get to the heart of Holst and his music. I quite lose myself in them.

The Choral Hymns come in four groups: the first from 1908 (1. Battle Hymn, 2. Hymn to the Unknown God, 3. Funeral Hymn) are for mixed chorus and orchestra (or piano); the second from 1909 (1. To Varuna (God of the Waters), 2. To Agni (God of Fire), 3. Funeral Chant) for female chorus and orchestra (or piano); the third from 1910 (1. Hymn to the Dawn, 2. Hymn to the Waters, 3. Hymn to Vena, 4. Hymn of the Travellers) for female chorus and harp (or piano); and the fourth (1. Hymn to Agni (The Sacrifical Fire), 2. Hymn to Soma, 3. Hymn to Manas, 4. Hymn to Indra) are for male chorus and string orchestra with brass ad libitum (or piano). The Two Eastern Pictures from 1911 (1. Spring, 2. Summer) are for female chorus and harp (or piano). 

Just to highlight a few things, there is a striking example of what was fast becoming a defining feature of Holst's music in To the Unknown God - that remarkable descending bass line - and Battle Hymn is in the 5/4 time of Mars. As early as To Agni there are remarkable foretastes of various fast sections in both The Planets and The Hymn to Jesus. (It is also in 5/4 time). The purity of sound in the third set is remarkable. (My favourite of the Choral Hymns, the delicious Hymn of the Travellers, ends this group). The fourth set (including the Hymn to Indra, one of the numbers missing from the link above), is a disappointment after everything that has gone before. It's as if the spell has been broken and something ordinary (if pleasant) has been put in its place. From that set, the Hymn to Soma always comes as a surprise, given that it had something of English folksong about it (with a slight twist of North Africa), while the Hymn to Manas, has parallels fifths that anticipate Venus. Better to forget the fourth set and listen to the magical Eastern Pictures instead (an alternative amateur performance is provided, with each word linking to one of the two 'pictures'!)  

Where did the new melodic shapes and modal harmonies found in these exotic pieces come from? By the looks of it they were imported into his style from Algeria following the composer's visit to that country (for health reasons), and seem to be North African-inspired rather than Indian. The best-known - and most openly expressed - result of that visit is the orchestral masterpiece Beni Mora. The first two movements - First Dance and Second Dance - are respectively vibrant and mysterious picture postcards, full of 'exotic' melodies of the kind the Russians had been delighting audiences with for decades. The First Dance is old-fashioned but fun, while the Second Dance has moments of unearthly harmony and orchestration that anticipate Venus from The Planets. The third movement, In the street of Ouled Naïlshowever, is an astonishing piece of writing. In it Holst recreates an experience he had when he heard a man in the streets of North Africa playing the same four-note snatch of melody over and over again on his flute - for hours! Holst repeats his own snatch of melody a remarkable number of times in the course of this movement - apparently 163 times. Around this nagging figure he conjures a atmospheric nocturnal scene in a way that reminds me partly of Debussy's Iberia, and partly of Charles Ives's Central Park in the Dark, counterpointing various pieces of music against it and against each other - the music of procession, music from dance halls, music from cafés. The effect is hypnotic, disorientating and delightful. 

When I was much younger I borrowed a library book on the music of Gustav Holst written by his remarkable daughter, Imogen. The most striking thing about that book was both Imogen's enthusiasm for certain of his father's works but also the remarkable sharpness of her criticism of many others. She could be merciless about her father's music. She was far more of an uncritical enthusiast for another British composer, Benjamin Britten, to the extent of being widely seen as having set aside her own composing career to help promote his. I've always felt that Imogen rather set aside her father's music to help promote Britten too. She liked the works of her father that were most Britten-like and loathed those that didn't meet her highly exacting standards. Even three movements from The Planets failed to please her. Most of the early works that I've looked at so far were 'Wagnerian' failures for Imogen and her view was (understandably, given who she was) highly influential and kept many of these wonderful pieces away from the public ear for decades. One such piece was The Cloud Messenger, his ode for solo alto, chorus and orchestra of 1909-10. Imogen called it "a dismal failure".

The story, taken from the Meghaduta of the Classical Sanskrit writer Kalidasa, was one Holst himself partly translated. Its story, according to the Holst Society, runs as follows:

The Cloud Messenger is about an exiled poet from Central India who sends a cloud toward the Himalaya Mountains to relay a message of love to his wife, who is lonely. There are great moments of dance laced throughout the piece, which serve to symbolize the cloud listening in on the dances in the temples of the holy city. In the end, the cloud delivers its message by speaking softly into the sleeping ear of the poet's wife.

Next to Savitri, the Rig Veda hymns and the final movement of Beni Mora, parts of The Cloud Messenger do indeed appear like a backwards step, though generally its style isn't too far from the first two movements of Beni Mora; however, other parts of the piece are clearly the work of someone who would go to write The Planets and The Hymn of Jesus. I can't say I love it in its entirety, but there's such a lot of wonderful music in The Cloud Messenger that its long neglect was, to say the least, unfortunate. The march-like choral section beginning some twenty minutes in ('Tarry not, O Cloud, tarry not') is splendid (especially prophetic of the future), the climactic dance is exciting and the closing section, where the chorus speaks softly and the orchestra enters the terrain of The Planets most closely, is full of beauty and subtlety. The piece couldn't be further from being "a dismal failure". 

There are a few more pointer works before we man the rockets and journey to The Planets. One of the most attractive and little known is the 1912 setting of Psalm 86 ("To my humble supplication") for tenor, chorus and orchestra (or organ). This points specifically towards The Hymn to Jesus, with its plainchant-like use of a tune from the Calvinist Genevan Psalter of 1543. After the altos and basses have quietly sung the tune, the orchestra develops it beautifully over a pizzicato bass line. The solo tenor (who sings a plainchant-style recitative) enters and engages in lovely antiphonal exchanges with the sopranos and altos. Ethereal string writing and a short soprano solo follow before a climactic passage brings us to the work's quiet close. Why is this gem not better known? Its companion Psalm 148 ("Lord, Who Hast Made Us For Thine Own") is a different kettle of fish - and a pointer to nothing else in Holst's output. Written for schoolchildren, it has an Anglican feel that is very unusual for Holst; indeed, it sounds more like Vaughan Williams! It, too, is based on an old hymn tune, namely a tune from the Geistliche Catholische Kirchengesäng of 1623 - a tune many an Anglican knows as the popular hymn All Creatures of our God and King. It is a work whose warmth will win many listeners' affections. 

Much more characteristic of Holst (though unusual in setting Greek literature) - with its ostinatos and plainchant style melody, its female voices, its fanfares, its dancing rhythms, its brilliant orchestration - is the Hymn to Dionysus of 1913, a setting of one of the choruses from Euripides's Bacchae. Dancing worship was a running theme with Holst from the Rig Veda hymns onwards, reaching its apogee in The Hymn to Jesus, and the spirit of the Hymn to Dionysus was to be revisited in the Choral Symphony. Some of the orchestral passages might remind you of Jupiter.

Finally, as World War One was about to break out, Holst composed his powerful Walt Whitman setting A Dirge for Two Veterans (from 'Leaves of Grass') for male voices, brass and drums - a work that most naturally leads to Mars from The Planets. The stark austerity, the inhuman tread, the ominous drum-rolls, the menacing fanfares, the terse tone of this setting contrasts strikingly with that of his friend RVW, whose Dona Nobis Pacem of 1936 sets the same words. 

OK, it's time to make a cup of tea, don a spacesuit, reach for the horoscopes page of the daily paper and journey to The Planets.

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