An intriguing bit of biographical detail first. Gustav Holst tried to fight for Britain at the start of the First World War but was rejected on health grounds. At the time his name was still Gustav von Holst, but anti-German feeling forced him to ditch the "von" and by 1918 he was officially called Gustav Holst.
So, what did Gustav Holst write during the war, as well as completing The Planets? Well, he was being himself and doing the unexpected - and doing so with a vengeance.
The next opus number along, the Japanese Suite (written for a Japanese dancer who whistled some of his country's tunes to Holst for him to work into the piece) is a work that no one would place on the same level of inspiration as The Planets. As well as not sounding very Japanese, for the most part it reverts to the exotic picture postcard manner of the first movement of Beni Mora - which, given that it sounds more Algerian than Japanese, is apt! Still, I have a real soft spot for it. It is first-rate light music. Light music is a wonderful art form that is too easily dismissed. There is a prelude. 'Song of the Fisherman', with a pleasant tune and some enjoyable harmonic turns, which returns as a short interlude later. There's also the colourful and rather exciting 'Ceremonial Dance' and a charming music box-like 'Dance of the Marionette' (audibly influenced by Stravinsky's Petrushka), plus a pretty 'Dance under the Cherry Tree' and a Kevin Costner-friendly finale called 'Dance of the Wolves' where Holst sets motor rhythms to work.
So a spot of exotic light music, and that was followed by a work for mixed a cappella chorus where my reaction on first hearing the Ave Maria of 1900 (see my first post about Holst) - one of disbelief that it was actually by Holst - resurfaces. It is remarkable that the composer who was finishing off The Planets at that time could also write the Nunc Dimittis of 1915 - a fresh and beautiful work for double choir that may have some touches of modern Anglican harmony but mostly breathes the air of late-Renaissance polyphony. I doubt I would have named Holst as the composer of this piece until I'd gone through at least a couple of hundred other guesses first!
First-rate unaccompanied choral music is a key feature of this period of the composer's development. Some of it is English folksong-or-medieval/Renaissance-song-inspired, but some of it only sounds as if it is. Holst's arrangement of the lovely Middle English carol Lullay My Liking falls into the first category, as does one of my favourite Holst pieces, Diverus and Lazarus (unavailable to be linked to), There was a Tree, our old friends The Song of the Blacksmith, I Love My Love and Swansea Town (familiar from the suites). The best example of the second category is the famous part-song This Have I Done for My True Love of 1916. Many people (including me) simply assume that its tune is an old folksong. It isn't. Gustav Holst wrote the tune himself. The words are a traditional Cornish poem, Tomorrow Will Be My Dancing Day. ('Tomorrow' was often Holst's dancing day, especially when spirituality and dancing went hand in hand.) Each verse is given its own treatment, starting unforgettably with a soprano solo. The harmonies mix modality with tonality in a way that gives the piece a timeless quality. (Is it medieval? Is is modern?)
Among the accompanied choral pieces of the time, there is a special warmth to Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence - a Christmas carol based on a 17th century French carol known, thanks to Vaughan Williams, as Picardy - and his arrangement of Turn Back, O Man has a bass-line that could not be more characteristic of the composer.
Before we come to the crowning triumph of Holst's war years, The Hymn of Jesus, space must be given to the introspective Four Songs, Op.35 for soprano (or tenor) and violin (or viola) of 1916-17. Here voice and instrument are equal partners (like a singer and her soul) and the four songs (Jesu Sweet, Now Will I Sing, My Soul Has Nought But Fire and Ice, I Sing of a Maiden That Matchless Is and My Leman Is So True) fully capture the spirit of their medieval texts. They were inspired after the composer hear one of his pupils quietly singing to herself while playing her violin in church. They are very beautiful.
We've now reached another of the highest peaks of the composer's output, the glorious Hymn of Jesus of 1917.
Listeners looking beyond The Planets, longing for a piece that comes close to that suite's soundworld, often don't discover what they are looking for in the rest of Holst's output. The Hymn of Jesus is what they are looking for (I think) - and more besides. It is a wonderful masterpiece applying the spirits of Venus, Neptune, Uranus, Jupiter & Co. to a religious text (an ancient Gnostic one). Audiences love it. Vaughan Williams memorably said after hearing its first performance that he just ‘wanted to get up and embrace everyone and then get drunk’.
In the wake of bloody battles like the Somme, when morale back home needed a boost, what more affirmative work could there be that Holst's Hymn of Jesus?
The Prelude opens to the Easter plainchant melody Pange lingua played on a pair of trombones, unaccompanied. The chant is repeated with enchanting humanity on cor anglais against changing harmonies. Rocking major-key chords pierced by dissonance follow quietly and the organ, with a gentle tread, hints at what is about to be, summoning a distant treble (or female) semi-chorus who sing (to magical effect) a second Easter plainchant melody Vexilla regis over swaying, ethereal chords (alternating independently, as in sections of The Planets), with piano and celesta adding further enchantment. A second distant choir composed on tenors and basses then sing Pange lingua over a long-held chord on the strings. This is followed by a short orchestral coda, where memories of Venus are strong.
The Hymn proper then begins with a full-blooded affirmation of ‘Glory to Thee, Father!' The words 'Glory to Thee' are chanted unaccompanied on a unison C, and then a blazing chord of E major for chorus and orchestra, over a ground bass, makes its thrilling impact on 'Father!' A characteristic six-note falling figure in the bass becomes an ostinato tread and, along with further choral cries, come magical recurring 'amens' in parallel thirds from the distant semi-chorus and a fascinating imitation of 'the Gift of Tongues' (the choir speaking). The next passage prepares us (through a series of exchanges between the two halves of the double choir) for the great dance to come. This breaks out at the words 'Divine grace is dancing' - which could have been Holst's motto! Note that it is in 5/4 time (just like some of the Rig Veda hymns), which was typical of Holst but not in any way typical of English choral music. This great dance is fast and colourful and turns into an exhilarating, syncopated outburst of joy at 'The heavenly spheres make music for us' - an eruption of delight fully involving the orchestra. Eventually the tempo slows and, to gorgeously harmonised chords, the words 'To who you gaze a lamp am I' are sung (the harmonies, tinged with bitonality, resolving onto consonance). In the next passage Holst weaves back in both the plainchant melodies and swaying chords of the Prelude. Vexilla regis is set dancing on the bassoons and becomes festive as the sopranos take it up (to the accompaniment of drums and piano). A new theme appears at 'Beholding what I suffer' (the only under par section of the work) and this climaxes. The treading bass-line and the 'amens' return and other earlier ideas are recalled, including the syncopated dance (softly). Listen out here for the fascinating whole-tone clusters on 'wisdom'. The great cry of ‘Glory to Thee, Father!' leads to a partial reprise and some more final beautiful 'amens'.
The Hymn of Jesus is, I think, Holst's greatest piece.