Gustav Holst: Beyond The Planets

Not only do we underestimate Holst’s signature work, Sir Andrew Davis tells John von Rhein, but there’s so much more to discover

The adjectives “brisk” and “avuncular” fit Sir Andrew Davis as comfortably as the patterned pullover sweaters that are his chosen rehearsal attire. The eminent British conductor is pleased to welcome me into the office he occupies on the fourth floor of the Civic Opera Building in Chicago, where since 2000 Davis, the former Glyndebourne Opera music director, has held the same position with Lyric Opera of Chicago. He is taking a break from rehearsals for a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado – the first of his career, he tells me, excitedly – that was to open soon after our late-autumn conversation. As I ready my cassette recorder, my gaze falls on his many wall adornments, including a watercolour of a Canadian glacier he visited last summer with his son, Edward. Edward is a senior in music education at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, who is planning on following in his old man’s footsteps, in a manner of speaking: he wants to become a choral conductor.

Davis père settles into a cream-coloured sofa and gets straight to the point. The man whose steadfast championing of English music for most of his 66 years helped earn him a British knighthood in 1999 wants to share his views on the music of Gustav Holst. That music was very much on his mind in late June 2010 when he and the BBC Philharmonic gathered in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall to record Holst’s The Planets as part of Davis’s long-term contract with Chandos. This recording gives Davis an opportunity to share his feelings about a piece he unabashedly adores, yet whose vast popularity, he concedes, has deluded us as to the “real” Holst, overshadowing his gifts as a true original, perhaps the most individual among his English contemporaries.

Is there, I ask Davis, any validity to the hoary criticism that Holst was a one-trick pony, that nothing else he composed was equal to The Planets? None whatsoever, the conductor replies, firmly. “That charge doesn’t begin to do justice to his compositional range, even if The Planets is the big piece that everybody knows. What is true is that he never again wrote anything on that kind of scale, either in terms of orchestra size or length. So much of his other music has a lot of very intimate qualities.”

Davis clearly believes that although the ubiquitous interplanetary suite may not be representative of Holst’s large and diverse output, or his musical style in general, it is nevertheless an inspired piece – without which 20th-century English music would be much the poorer. “I find the score endlessly fascinating. It was written for this extravagant orchestra at the time of the First World War, when everything was being rationed and money was tight. It was given a private performance in the last weeks of the war and then had its first public performance in 1920, when its reputation was already established. We tend to take it for granted because we know it so well, but there are extraordinarily original things in it.”

With that he opens a well-thumbed miniature score of The Planets to point out passages that illustrate his point. “Look at this,” he says, directing my attention to the fiercely martial opening movement, “Mars”. “The sheer inexorable brutality of that section is quite breathtaking, because it never lets up!” Davis is amused when I bring up Imogen Holst’s disclaimer that her father had “never heard a machine gun when he wrote it, and the tank had not yet been invented”. He continues: “And ‘Neptune’, with the women’s voices fading away into nothingness at the end, is quite magical, an effect he tried to duplicate in certain of his later works but never managed quite so well. What makes The Planets so remarkable, as a whole, is that every movement has its own character, every one so extraordinarily delineated in sound world and style.”

My private survey of online retail outlets reveals that there are no fewer than 53 orchestral versions of The Planets available in the US, and around 20 in the UK (the numbers don’t include the several recordings of Holst’s own version for two pianos, a transcription for symphonic band or an electronic realisation by Tomita). Davis’s own previous recordings of The Planets still grace the catalogue – the first made with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for EMI in 1986 during his tenure as music director there, the second with the BBC Symphony Orchestra for Teldec/Warner in 1993 during his term as that orchestra’s principal conductor, from 1988 to 2000.

I ask Davis how his approach to The Planets has changed over the years. “I hate that question!” he exclaims with affable indignation. “All I can say is, things evolve! I haven’t listened to either of my earlier recordings for a long time. The funny thing is, there are some recordings I’ve made over the years that I’ve never listened to at all. The truth of the matter,” he says, lowering his voice, “is that there is almost no recording I have ever done that I have been completely satisfied with. There are always those where you think, ‘Oh, that phrase could’ve been turned more elegantly’, or ‘That other one was not quite right’.

“On the other hand, I just listened to the first edits of [the new Chandos disc] and, on the whole, I like it very well. We did a concert performance of it in Bridgewater Hall before recording it there, which was nice, because The Planets, which uses such a big orchestra, needs that kind of space. What Ralph Couzens [Chandos’s managing director extraordinaire] wanted was to get a sound that really has the big space around it. The only comments I made when I sent the edits back were that I thought a couple of things sounded too closely miked.”

The most controversial aspect of Davis’s old EMI recording was his use of a children’s choir – the Toronto Children’s Chorus – instead of women’s chorus in the wordless vocalise that trails off into the endless cosmic beyond, at the end of “Neptune”. Davis laughs. “It was certainly a talking point at the time! But I certainly would not do so again. I thought the innocent sound of children’s voices would be interesting, but it’s not right. Holst wrote it for women’s voices, and that’s the way it should be.”

Another thing you won’t find on his Planets remake is Pluto, the Renewer, the pendant that composer and Holst scholar Colin Matthews attached to the suite 82 years after its premiere, and which Simon Rattle (EMI), Mark Elder (Hyperion), David Lloyd-Jones (Naxos) and other conductors have included in their recent recordings of The Planets. “Well,” Davis observes jocularly, “since Pluto has in more recent years been downgraded by the International Astronomical Union, it’s not a true planet anymore, and in any case, the idea of filling out the sequence is one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard of. Matthews’s addendum is actually not a bad little piece, but it’s still very redundant.”

Chandos has coupled Davis’s new Planets with two less familiar pieces of Holstiana, the charmingly exotic “oriental suite”, Beni Mora (1909‑10) and the Japanese Suite (1915). “Beni Mora is a three-movement piece. The first movement is a bit Shéhérazade-like. The second is sort of whimsical and bangy, Arabian-style. The third is a remarkable piece. Holst was on holiday in Algeria and he was in a marketplace where an Arab played the same phrase on a bamboo flute for more than two hours, non-stop. He was so taken with it that the four-note figure dominates the movement. It reflects his uncanny ability to encapsulate a mood or a concept. The Japanese Suite is a real rarity – ours, I believe, is only its second recording. It is rather uneven, but has some moments that are absolutely exquisite.”

I ask Davis which other works of Holst’s he particularly admires and would recommend to Holst newbies determined to get beyond you-know-what and other popular pieces such as the St Paul’s Suite and the two Suites for military band. “Well, for starters, his lovely little opera Sāvitri is exquisitely delicate. Do you know The Hymn of Jesus? An extraordinary work! And then there are all sorts of other things of smaller scope – part-songs and folksong settings and the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, all beautifully crafted music that merits greater attention.” I venture my opinion that Egdon Heath, Holst’s strange, bleak and brooding orchestral homage to Thomas Hardy, is one of the great landscape paintings in music, another score that’s still too little known. Davis, who recorded the piece with the BBC Symphony Orchestra during the 1990s, nods in agreement, reminding me that Holst considered it his best work.

The composer’s canon is extraordinarily wide-ranging. The influence of Wagner colours Holst’s early works, but he put that aside as he developed his interest in such far-flung subjects as Sanskrit literature, English poetry, neo-classical and Baroque styles, astrology and, especially, teaching. In 1905, he was appointed head of music at St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith, where the tireless pedagogue remained until the end of his life. Although his music shares certain traits with that of his close friend and colleague, Ralph Vaughan Williams – particularly a love of English folksong – he marched to his own drum, refusing to embrace the obvious and shallow, or to follow up on the success of The Planets with other orchestral blockbusters. Indeed, according to Colin Matthews’s valuable entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Holst was “constitutionally incapable of repeating himself”. This, coupled with the composer’s often unconventional musical language (his use of modality, for instance) and the unevenness of his output, has made Holst if not the most elusive then certainly the least known of the major English composers, underrated during his lifetime and insufficiently appreciated today.

Not long ago, I came across a tape of an interview with Imogen Holst in which she remarked that her father attended a concert of Schubert’s Quintet in C major, given only a few years before his death in 1934, and from it he realised that a central element missing from his own music was “warmth”. Perhaps the intensely self-critical Holst was being too hard on himself, but the increasing austerity of his late, post-Planets works tends to support his sober assessment. Perhaps there might have been a warming trend in his later works had he enjoyed the Indian-summer longevity of Vaughan Williams (Holst was only 59 when he died). Alas, we will never know.

One thing we do know: Davis has inherited the late Richard Hickox’s mantle as Chandos’s in-house Holst specialist. Hickox graced the catalogue with numerous fine performances of Holst’s music and had begun to record the remarkable Choral Symphony with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales when he suddenly died in November 2008. Davis plans to set down his own interpretation for the British label, although no sessions have yet been scheduled. The work, in a prelude and four movements, incorporates poetry by John Keats, and is, in his view, problematical. “It has some fantastic things in it, but it is kind of over-scored, and I’ve been thinking about actually pruning it.” He pauses. “But that’s for the future!”

As Davis prepares to dash back into Mikado rehearsals, I take my leave, but not before voicing my hope that his deep commitment to Holst’s music, like his commitment to the broad range of English music, will continue to bear fruit in the recording studio as in the concert hall. He flashes me a cheery thumbs-up on the run, as if to second the motion.

For all its unevenness, there is a visionary quality to Holst’s sometimes austere, often unpredictable, music that amply repays one’s listening efforts. The Planets has ensured the composer’s immortality, but it is dismaying that its vast, deserved if disproportionate popularity – undimmed for 90 years and counting – has not encouraged much further exploration among musicians and concert managers. Perhaps that day will come. Until it does, Alec Robertson’s verdict, which concluded his survey of Holst recordings in the September 1962 issue of Gramophone, must stand. Holst, he wrote, was “a distinguished and imaginative composer whose true worth awaits the recognition he never sought”.

Voyage beyond The Planets...

The Cloud Messenger (with A Choral Fantasia etc)

LSO & Chorus / Richard Hickox

This is one even avid Holstians don’t know, a lengthy (45 minutes), recently discovered (1984) choral masterpiece based on an ancient Hindu lyric poem. The beauty and power of certain episodes foreshadow the great Hymn of Jesus, which is included in this splendidly performed two-disc collection.

Read the review

Vedic Hymns, Four Songs for Voice and Violin, Humbert Wolfe Songs

Susan Gritton sop Philip Langridge ten Christopher Maltman bar Steuart Bedford pf


Originally released by Collins Classics, this offers an absorbing selection from the 72 solo songs Holst composed across his career. Of the performers, none is finer than Susan Gritton in the touching songs for voice and violin, where she’s ably partnered by Luisa Fuller.

Read the review

A Winter Idyll, Elegy etc

LPO, LSO / David Atherton


Eight early and late miniatures, variable in quality, although several gems are well worth discovering, most notably the Hindu-inspired symphonic poem Indra (1903), full of ravishing orchestral colour. Atherton does all of them to a fare-thee-well.

Read the review

The Morning of the Year, The Golden Goose, King Estmere

Guildford Choral Society, Philh Orch / Hilary Davan Wetton


If the Guildford choir sounds more conscientious than inspired in the two choral ballets and the old English ballad King Estmere, the music’s hearty, mystical qualities are put forth most appealingly.

Read the review

Sāvitri, Egdon Heath, A Fugal Concerto etc

Imogen Holst, Adrian Boult, Christopher Hogwood et al


One of the most valuable entries in Decca’s British Composers line, this two-CD collection of reissues is an absolute must for all who want a fuller understanding of Holst’s musical range. Worth having just for the young Janet Baker’s heart-stoppingly beautiful singing in the wondrous chamber opera Sāvitri.

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Gramophone. To explore our latest subscription offers, please visit:

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