You are currently viewing Gustav Holst’s Career: A Roller Coaster Ride (Spring 2023 Mini-Experience Part 3/3)

Gustav Holst’s Career: A Roller Coaster Ride (Spring 2023 Mini-Experience Part 3/3)

After you got to know a “tin soldier” with Anton Bruckner in Part 2, today‘s focus is on a “roller coaster rider”. (If you’re wondering what’s meant by these terms, find out in Part 1 😉)

There is a commonality and a difference between tin soldiers and roller coaster riders. The commonality is that a single piece provides the breakthrough. The (tragic) difference is that roller coaster riders are forgotten again after their breakthrough… (which is not to say that they can’t be “rediscovered” – sometimes decades or centuries after their death).

The career path of a roller coaster rider looks like this:


Now, just as with whiz kids and tin soldiers, there are maaaany roller coaster riders in music history. One of them is the British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934).

The Ups and Downs of Gustav Holst

What makes Gustav Holst a roller coaster rider? It is the alternation between (usually big) failures and (usually small) successes. Let’s take a closer look. Here are 6 situations from Gustav Holst’s life where not everything went according to plan:

1) Gustav Holst actually wanted to become a pianist. But that didn’t happen – because of an inflammation of the nerves (does this sound familiar to you? It was similar with Robert Schumann…).

2) Holst’s music studies were complicated, because he didn‘t get a scholarship. His father had to pay for the (expensive) studies out of his own pocket. In addition, Holst was forced (see point 1) to change his main instrument during his studies (from piano to trombone).

3) That Holst’s performance in his studies was not exactly exhilarating after these initial difficulties should not surprise anyone. He found counterpoint the worst (which many music students still struggle with today). Private counterpoint tutoring was necessary… the father wasn‘t happy…

4) At the end of this all but glamorous study, Holst was broke.

5) Although he repeatedly helped out as organist and choirmaster, he never got a job. The jobs always went to his competitors….

6) He was not successful in any of the major composition competitions.

It all sounds rather grueling, doesn’t it?

But, as I said, the career of a roller coaster rider is not always downhill. So it would be unfair to present only the failures, because there were small intermediate successes…

1) Holst taught with great enthusiasm. He was a music teacher at a girls’ school in South London, where he was very popular.

2) Individual performances of his works received positive reviews, for example the children’s operetta Fairy Pantomime of Cinderella and the Cotswolds Symphony.

3) Holst won first prize several times in a youth magazine composition contest.

But somehow…it all wasn’t enough. Do you know that feeling when the failures always outweigh the successes? That must have been how Holst felt.

But, as you know: the roller coaster riders get their breakthrough sometime. And so it was with Gustav Holst. For the year 1913 came, in which Holst spent a vacation in Mallorca…

What a vacation in Mallorca can be good for!

There he probably looked at the sky quite a bit, because he developed a great interest in astrology. What was a hobby at first (Holst created horoscopes for acquaintances), matured into a big idea…

…why not turn astrology into music?

Between 1914 and 1916, Holst worked on the orchestral work that was to become the greatest success of his life: The Planets. Each planet is characterized musically in this piece (if you want to know more about it: I presented Holst’s Planets here).

A private premiere of The Planets on September 29, 1918 was already encouraging – but the public premiere shortly thereafter was a rip-roaring success.

Suddenly Holst was a very popular composer…

…but don’t forget the tragic fate of the roller coaster riders: their breakthrough is not sustainable. Holst was never again able to match the success of The Planets; his popularity, partly due to unsuccessful premieres (At the Boar’s Head and First Choral Symphony), waned again toward the end of his life. Aaah…

…and then there is also this mercilessly selective music history: Have you ever seen a performance of At the Boar’s Head? I haven’t. That’s not to say that the music is bad. It just hasn’t caught on (so far) in the music business. What does get played a lot, though, is of course – The Planets.

I hope you enjoyed the Spring 2023 Mini Experience. You’ve met one tin soldier and one roller coaster rider each – but music history is full of them. It’s worth discovering them and their works.

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