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Gustav Holst (1874- 1934)

Gustav Theodore Holst (21 September 1874 – 25 May 1934) was an English composer and a music teacher. He is most famous for his orchestral suite The Planets. He grew up in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire and developed an early interest in music.

1882 - [from Imogen Holst] His mother ided when he was eight . . . stepmother was a theosophist. [Theosophists tended to be vegetarian]

1892 - on July 12, Holst, age 17, attended a performance of Richard Wagner's Götterdämmerung under Gustav Mahler at the Covent Garden. He was said to be 'overwhelmed by the lush sonorities.' It was reviewed by George Bernard Shaw as music critic for 'The World' newspaper.

1893 - presumably in September, the start of the academic year, Holst began at the Royal College of Music. The college is not far from Hammersmith where he apparently found lodgings.

1894 - Some time soon after arriving in London Holst joined the Hammersmith Socialist Society, led by William Morris, and meeting at Morris's home, Kelmscott House in Hammersmith. We are told that he listened to Bernard Shaw's lectures though Shaw was a member of the Fabian Society, not the Hammersmith group, but he lectured there. Shaw's diaries give the first possible encounter as Sunday March 11, 1894 when he lectured at Hammersmith on 'Progress in Socialist Ideas'.

Holst became an ardent Wagner enthusiast and it is reported that 'after hearing Tristan and Isolde in the gallery, he walked all night through the streets of London with his mind in a whirl.' This appears to have been the production at Drury Lane, Theatre Royal, on June 30, 1894. GB Shaw reviewed it.

Wagner had been promoting vegetarianism, Mahler had followed him, at least for a while, and Shaw was well-known as a vegetarian, but it's not clear how much, or when, Holst knew of all that. However he became a vegetarian himself at some point during his student days. This is likely to have been from the influence of the Socialists, many of whom were vegetarians. We are also told that he was frugal, and that he never smoked nor drank, which is all very similar to Shaw.

1895 - Holst began his interest in all things Indian, presumably related to his vegetarianism.
- [from Imogen Holst] In 1895 Holst's music was staurated with the influence of Wagner. . . . It was possibly at William Morris's house that he first heard about Hindu literature. . . . Many years later he could say: 'I still believe in the Hindu doctrine of one's path in life.'

1896-98 - Holst conducted the Hammersmith Socialist Society Choir, also based at Morris's home.

1901 - He married Isobel Harrison, one of the sopranos from the choir.

1903 - [from Imogen Holst] He had been following Wagner for ten years, and the time had come for his own ideas to escape.

from the biography at
. . . It was in 1895 that Holst first became interested in Hindu philosophy and Sanskrit literature. His immediate impulse was to set some hymns from the Rig Veda , the most important of the Hindu scriptures, to music. Finding the English translations he discovered were hopelessly stilted, Holst decided to learn Sanskrit so that he could translate the words to his own satisfaction. In doing so, he opened an entirely new world for himself. . . . Holst began work in an opera, Sita , in 1899. It is based in the Hindu epic Ramayana . He worked on it, on and off, until 1906. Although it was never performed in his lifetime, he learned a great deal from it. . . . In 1903 he also wrote a symphonic poem titled Indra, which was a vivid portrait of the god, Indra, and his battle with the drought. . . . By 1907, Holst had finished the music for Sita and was beginning work on the first group of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda.

. . . By 1907, Holst had finished the music for Sita and was beginning work on the first group of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda.

. . . At home in England again, a reinvigorated Holst began working on another Indian opera which he called, Savitri. This was a much smaller work only lasting a little over thirty minutes. The music was written for three soloists, a small hidden chorus, and a chamber orchestra. During this time, Gustav was at the height of his interest in setting Sanskrit texts. From 1908 to 1912, he wrote four sets of hymns from the Rig Veda, the Vedic Hymns for voice and piano, and the large scale choral work called The Cloud Messenger.

. . . Gustav was not conventionally religious. He believed strongly in supra-human forces and besides dabbling in astrology, he was much influenced by Eastern religious theory - particularly the doctrines of Dharma and reincarnation.

Around this time [1905], folksong was beginning to exert an influence over Holst's composition. VW, Cecil Sharp, and Percy Grainger were touring the country trying to save the traditional music of England from extinction [Sharp and Grainger both became vegetarian]. Speaking of outside influences, he explained 'I believe very strongly that we are largely the result of our surroundings and that we never do anything alone. Everything that is worth doing is the result of several minds playing on each other.' which approaches the essence of folk music itself. A Somerset Rhapsody contains tunes from rural England and was one of his first big successes being widely performed throughout the country. The simple and often modal melodies found in folk tunes served as an antidote to his predilection for Wagnerian chromaticism and this trait begins to disappear at this point. [sleeve notes from a recording of the Somerset Rhapsody state that Cecil Sharp had collected this and persuaded Holst to arrange it.]

The Hymn of Jesus: Holst’s Gnostic Exploration of Time and Space by Raymond Head (page 2/4)

(This essay originally appeared in Tempo Magazine (Boosey and Hawkes, London), July 1999 issue.)
[refers to the piece written in 1917]

. . .Suddenly the listener is jolted back to a mundane world of suffering by a sharp, piercing chord in the orchestra. This musical indicator of pain, an intensification of Ex.1, is surely an objet trouvee. Christopher Palmer has shown (Note.4) how similar it is to the suffering motif of Amfortas in Parsifal, and the borrowing must be deliberate. Holst thought highly of Parsifal [written at the time that Wagner was promoting vegetarianism], even going so far as to satirize it in his opera The Perfect Fool. In Wagner’s opera, Amfortas, through his own sin, is a king whose wounds will not heal. His motif has therefore become a symbol for suffering humanity. The Wagnerian allusion must have been intentional, for in composing Saturn (1915) Holst had already written original music capable of evoking the most intense anguish. Such a personal exposition of suffering would have been very appropriate in the Prelude, but Holst seems to want to suggest something else: that humanity as a whole is wounded.

. . . Very few Gnostic texts had been published or studied; they were generally classed among New Testament Apocrypha. However one scholar actively engaged in making these texts better known was Theosophist G.R.S.Mead [most theosophists were vegetarian], who was friendly with Holst and had published an edition of the major Gnostic gospel Pistis Sophia (The Testimony of Truth) as early as 1896.(Note.5)

. . . according to Mead, it was not a hymn at all in our sense of the word but perhaps the earliest surviving Christian, or indeed pre- Christian, mystery-ritual. Its appeal to Holst was similar to that of the Vedas he had treated in the works of his ‘Indian’ period: . . .

. . . But Holst does not become involved in speculation. Instead, he moves swiftly on to an almost Buddhist position: ‘Learn how to suffer and ye shall overcome’. . . .

. . . The distant heavenly choir (‘Fain would I move to the music of holy souls’) brings a faint reminiscence of the 5/4 dance, suggestive of the divine dance of Shiva in Hindu mythology. . . .

. . . Just as some chorus members had objected to singing Holst’s hymns to Hindu gods so, even as late as the early 1950s, so did Vaughan Williams mention with some disgust that (while rehearsing for a performance of The Hymn of Jesus) some members of the Leith Hill Festival choir had objected strongly to the idea of dance in the Christian religion. . . .

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