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Music / Gustav Holst

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"Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you."

Gustav Theodore Holst (21 September 1874, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire - 25 May 1934) was an English composer (of Swedish and Latvian descent) of the late 19th to early 20th century. He suffered from neuritis, so he had significant difficulty with his right-hand motor skills. This shattered his childhood dream of being a concert pianist. Holst is most notable for his orchestral Suite The Planets, a composition that became very popular and would go on to influence many of the composers and musicians of the 20th century.

The music of "I Vow To Thee, My Country" is derived from the section "Jupiter" of The Planets, by the way, so you most certainly have heard of Holst's work if you're in Britain or other Commonwealth countries.

Tropes present in Holst's works:

  • Bookends: The Planets begins and ends with a composition in quintuple meter. It also begins with a Fade In and ends with a Fade Out.
  • "Bringer of War" Music: Named after "Mars, Bringer Of War", he also codified the militant, orchestral pounding that is the signature of that piece.
  • Drums of War: The "Mars" movement of The Planets, named for the Roman god of war, is suffused with a powerful, pounding drumbeat.
  • Ethereal Choir: "Neptune" from The Planets ends with a choir singing, suggesting the infinity of the universe.
  • Fade Out: "Neptune, the Mystic" actually does this in a live performance. Holst's note in the score says the female choir should be singing in a room adjacent to the concert hall, with the doors to the room slowly and silently closed during the final measures.
  • Last Note Nightmare: "Uranus: The Magician" is mostly whimsical and bouncy, until the end, where the 4th to last note is a dissonant crash, followed by a softer echo, and an unsettling resolution. It's a near-polar opposite from the previous movement, "Saturn: The Bringer of Old Age".
  • Patriotic Fervor: "Jupiter" from "The Planets" has a mid-section (now known as "Thaxted", named after the village in rural Essex where Holst lived) that was later used as the melody for the patriotic hymn "I Vow to Thee My Country", adapted from a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice. Even without the words, the pastoral tune easily evokes the green of the English countryside. With the words, it evokes the heartbreak of the British people in their millions who sent their sons to die in World War I believing (possibly rightly, possibly not) that in doing so they were protecting that green land.
  • Shout-Out: Edgon Heath was based on the novels of Thomas Hardy, whom Holst particularly liked. He also considered Edgon Heath to be the most perfectly realised of his own works.
  • Small Reference Pools: Better known for The Planets than anything else he ever composed, much to his annoyance.
  • Standard Snippet: "Mars", "Jupiter", and "Neptune" from The Planets are among the most plagiarized and quoted musical compositions of all time. Virtually every science fiction movie or battle movie has a score directly inspired by these movements.
    "The ghost of Gustav Holst will appear before you and refuse to leave until you admit that John Williams has been ripping him off for decades." — A Horoscope from The Onion.
  • Time Marches On: The Planets was composed in 1915, before Pluto was named a planet in 1930. Holst was still alive at the time, but his Magnum Opus Dissonance regarding The Planets meant that he had no interest in writing a movement for Pluto. For decades people felt this absence was unfortunate, and other composers such as Clive Strutt and Colin Matthews have added movements about Pluto to the work, which are occasionally included in concerts and recordings. The situation changed again when in 2006 Pluto was declared to be a dwarf planet, making Holst's musical piece up to date again.
  • Trope Maker: Almost single-handedly popularized the wind ensemble. Your school band would not exist if it weren't for Holst. He did this particularly with First Suite in E-flat for Military Band, and Hammersmith, named after his home neighborhood in London.
  • The Von Trope Family: He was born "Gustavus Theodore von Holst" using the noble prefix that his grandfather, a Baltic German, had appropriated because he felt it sounded more distinguished. Gustav didn't use it in his adulthood, perhaps because of the foreign implications. Ralph Vaughan Williams said of Holst "'in spite of all temptations', which his name may suggest, Holst 'remains an Englishman'".
  • War Is Hell: "Mars: Bringer of War" is a dark and brooding opener of The Planets, evoking the militaristic marching associated with warfare. It was composed during World War I too.
  • Winged Humanoid: "Mercury, the Winged Messenger" from The Planets.