Saturday, May 16, 2020

Underrated Classical Musicians 5/15/20: Gustav Holst

The problem with playing The Planets all the time is not that The Planets is a flashy showstopper, it is that, but listen just beneath the surface and the flash disappears: it's as profound and mysterious a work of art as you'll ever encounter in the concert hall, and we've been so incredibly lucky to hear played so many times a work whose meanings change on every new acquaintance and can make you think of everything from the newest science to our ancient ancestors to archetypes of human experience to the spiritual endowment of life to our insignificance before the cosmic infinities.
The world may not experience an orchestra large enough to play The Planets again for the rest of our lifetimes, and what a shame that will be. But imagine, for a moment, a generation of music lovers who'd experience it again for the first time: perhaps with no associations from John Williams scores, or from singing I Vow to Thee My Country in church, or from planetarium light shows. Imagine, perhaps, a generation, that only experiences The Planets for itself with no preconceived cliches. What would such a listener experience?
People always wonder why Holst never wrote a piece like The Planets again. I have no idea what the answer is, but the rest of Holst's music is little like Mars or Jupiter, it's quite mostly the austere and mysterious spirituality of Mercury, Saturn, and Neptune, and truthfully, those are probably the best movements of The Planets. If I had to take a guess, a work like The Planets probably took an enormous psychic toll on a man like Holst, who had to work every day for decades to increase his technical armor to the point that he could write with such adroit facility as he does in The Planets. The kind of stratospheric fame which The Planets brought him could probably not ever fall on a more otherworldly man less suited to fame. I cannot imagine that Holst would ever again want to undertake another hit like it. So rather than creating more Richard Strauss-like sensations, he retreated to the essense of what introverted composers generally love to do: small ensembled music for modest audiences.
Holst was a warm and well meaning sort, but he was not truly friendly like his BFF Ralph Vaughan Williams who wished to create music that expressed the longings of an English peoplehood. Holst was inspired not by the world but by the world beyond the world. He was a spiritual seeker who looked not just to Christianity for guidance but also to Hinduism, and, of course, to classical mythology. He was tail coin-side to Vaughan Williams's head. Vaughan Williams expressed the human longings of their place and time, Holst expressed their era's longing to transcend place and time.
It comes as an enormous surprise to many that most of the greatest music by such a magnificent orchestrator is for the voice. A work like 'The Evening Watch' has to be one of the perfect choral masterworks of the century, chords of fourths stacked one atop the other for five minutes without any consideration for establishing a tonal center for the singers to orient themselves - the effect of the overtones ravishes the ear. The Seven Part-Songs are not just beautiful - every major English composer writes beautiful choral music as their birthright, but utterly unique, filled with a kind of mysterious whimsical sadness cannot be found elsewhere in music - perhaps a true musical equivalent to the poetic tonalities of the English Romantics. The Hymn to Jesus is a work of ecstatic early musical modernism, in which choruses shout polytonal clusters. The early Ave Maria is another perfect miniature of music for 8-voice women's choir. And then there is the astonishingly creepy Ode to Death... And I almost forgot, his choral masterpiece: the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, which together make up a kind of Choral Symphony (There's the 50 minute 'Choral Symphony' in which Holst sets text for chorus through just about every moment of an orchestral work which is clearly both a symphony and an oratorio - sometimes magnificent, sometimes a tough slog...). Even more than The Planets, it is perhaps the zenith of his career, where his gift for expressing the transcendent finds its ideal outlet. Holst also has a number of great orchestral scores, I'm particularly fond of Indra and Hammersmith, and then there's Egdon Heath, which is usually the work everybody mentions when they talk about underrated Holst.
So many modern masters fall into the cracks because they write for chorus, the most useful and least sexy of classical music ensembles: we mostly remember Holst, Kodaly, Poulenc, Lili Boulanger, Bruch, for their marginal contributions to orchestralia, and therefore we remember them as good but marginal composers at the fringe of musical achievement, whereas were choral music the center of classical life rather than instrumental, it would be Poulenc and Kodaly holding center stage, while the music of Ravel and Bartok might regrettably live on the margins - imagine what we'd be missing and you begin to have some idea what we're already missing.
What makes The Planets uniquely great is precisely because Holst only had one work like that in him. What gives The Planets its mysterious beauty is the tension of a severe introvert writing a work for mass appeal. All Holst knew of the world was introspection, so whereas an extravert accustomed to the public eye like Richard Strauss would make a sonic extravaganza, or whereas an intellectual martinet like Mahler felt no discomfort in confronting audiences with the most daunting intellectual challenges, Holst had only one tool at his disposal, to use the infinitely colorful means of the orchestra to render a sublime cosmos.
(conclusion will be written later)

1 comment:

  1. An excellent assessment of Holst and his music, more and more of which is being belatedly recognised. The Planets is rightly regarded as his masterpiece. I find each and every movement remarkable