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Tony Palmer’s “Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter” is a generous
two-hour and 17-minute film which is apparently the first one
devoted to the life of Gustav Holst (1874-1934). It is a
handsomely budgeted project that was released in 2001 by
the Gonzo Multimedia label, and includes input from his
daughter, Imogen (1907-1984), as well as numerous people
in the British music world.

This classy biographical portrait of a largely misunderstood
composer is punctuated with copious musical examples from
Holst’s roughly 200 compositions, taking the viewer from his
childhood in rural England to his death from cancer when
59-years old. It should be noted that his true name was
originally “Gustavus von Holst,” reflecting his German ancestry.

This film also discusses his study of the trombone, “to help
with his asthma,” and his early musical careers as an organist
and choirmaster. While a student at the Royal College of
Music, he befriended composer Ralph Vaughan Williams
(1872-1958) in 1895, and shared his interest in the English folk
song tradition. In fact, these two composers would critique each
other’s works throughout the years. To allow time for
composition, Holst was a true working musician, holding
multiple teaching positions. These jobs included positions as
the Music Master at St. Paul’s Girl’s School in 1905 and as
Director of Music at Morley College during 1907.

Holst also developed a deep interest in Indian culture
and Eastern mysticism and taught himself Sanskrit.  His
hatred of Imperialism and his Socialist political leanings were
also discussed. As with many other composers, his earliest
music reflected the strong influence of Richard Wagner and
Johannes Brahms.  However, unlike other famous British
composers who stayed close to home throughout their lives,
Holst was an inveterate rambler who cycled into the Sahara
Desert, and spent time living on a street of brothels in Algiers,
among other places. Naturally, many of these Eastern and
international influences were reflected in his music, and his
mature style often included a healthy dose of Hindu
spiritualism. He later developed a highly original compositional
style with a distinct harmonic vocabulary, coupled with a knack
for clarity in his voicings, and a revolutionary approach to rhythm.
Holst was a prolific composer in all genres, and was one of the
first well known composers who seriously considered the
possibilities of the wind band, thereby composing several
works for it.

Accented by newsreel footage of the Great War, this film covers
many aspects of Holst’s life. Both professional and amateur
musical organizations are featured, including the Savaria
Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tamas Vasary, the Royal
College of Music Orchestra conducted by Sian Edwards, the
BBC Symphony Chorus conducted by Stephen Jackson, the
Besses O’ Th’ Barn Band conducted by James Holt, and many
others. All of them perform large chunks of Holst’s music,
including a complete “Mars” from his most famous work,
“The Planets,” which he composed between 1914 and 1916.

This movie definitely fills a void, providing a well-rounded
portrait of a composer who was relatively unknown and
under appreciated during his lifetime. There’s much more to
Gustav Holst than “The Planets!” In my opinion, kudos
should be given to Tony Palmer for his work on this highly
recommended project.

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