If you know anything of the composer, Gustav Holst, I imagine you’d immediately think of The Planets. Perhaps also Egdon Heath, or the ballet music from The Perfect Fool, but little beyond that. I can’t claim to be much further forward, though I have explored some of the lesser-known works. Wandering around our stacks in my usual search for inspiration, my eye was caught by a couple of works by Holst, about which I knew virtually nothing.

The scores don’t look attractive or have colourful front covers, but I think we’ll have an interesting time nevertheless.

King Estmere: old English ballad for chorus and orchestra (publ. 1906)

Luttrell psalter harpist
A kingly harpist from the Luttrell Psalter

I am indebted to Raymond Head’s notes for the Hyperion recording. They made my research for this entry a lot easier. You can also sample the music for this and The Golden Goose from the Hyperion site.

King Estmere is early Holst: Wagnerian in style and use of leitmotifs. Yet, mixed up with this is Holst’s long-lived interest in the cultural clash between East and West. The story comes from  Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry , an eighteenth-century collection of old ballads and other folk poetry. In it, King Estmere is transformed into a harpist to entrance a Moorish princess in Spain.

If you’re interested in the poem, there’s a recording on YouTube:

Holst doesn’t shy away from including words which have long since fallen into disuse. Apparently, Vaughan Williams chastised Holst for using pseudo-archaic language in an earlier work so he decided to keep the real examples. Here’s a taste:

And when they came to king Adland’s hall Of red gold shone their weedes. And when they came to king Adland’s hall Before the goodlye gate: There they found good king Adland Leaning himself there-att … 

Part of a concert review from The Independent, also by Raymond Head, gives this verdict:

In today’s terms, the sentiments … may seem somewhat fey and Pre-Raphaelite. But it suited a composer who had just had a belated honeymoon in Germany. … 1903 vintage Holst is sensual, romantic and bursting with ideas.

If you do know The Planets, Head points out a musical connection between ‘Mars’ and track 26 on the recording.

The Golden Goose: a choral ballet  (publ. 1928)

Golden goose from Weissenburg Marketplace
A German golden goose from Weissenburg (original, uncropped photo: Wolfgang Sauber) CC licence

If you know anything about Holst the man, it is probably that he combined his composing with being a teacher, both at Morley College (an adult education centre), and St. Paul’s School for Girls. He began teaching at Morley College shortly after he composed King Estmere and was still doing so in the mid-1920s. Students from there and from St. Paul’s took part in the first performance of The Golden Goose.

So just what is a choral ballet? As it sounds, it’s a piece for singing and dancing. Not the classical ballet kind of dance, but more historical or folk dances, and mummery. At the start of the twentieth century, there was renewed interest in historical forms like masques. And Cecil Sharp’s folk arts collecting extended to dances as much as songs, leading to outdoor performances of morris, and maypole dancing. Following WW1, there was more interest in celebrating the art forms indigenous to the UK.

The story is derived in part from one section of a Grimm fairy tale. A princess cannot laugh, and a reward is offered for anyone succeeds in making her do so. As you might expect, this is a great excuse for comedy, and in Holst’s hands, grotesque and absurd humour. Take this as an example:

Enter organ (people dressed as organ pipes pushed by mummers, two of whom stop as blowers.) … The showman ‘plays’ the organ, with feet and hands, in a great frenzy. The two gnomes (mummers) ‘blow’ and the singing pipes stand perfectly still.

There is a licensed alternative to the Hyperion recording for this piece and I suspect it will be worth a listen:

I’ll close with a couple of short quotes from the same concert review as before:

By the time The Golden Goose was written, in 1926, Holst had long arrived at his mature style. … But the orchestral dances, with their transparent lines and often earthy orchestration, were mature Holst at his very finest.

It seems a pity that neither of these pieces has a place in the current concert repertoire.