We went to the Royal Albert Hall yesterday. It was the first time I had ventured to this mythical venue.
The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar… just to drop a few names amongst the many great musicians who have blessed this place by their presence.
The place worked its magic on me, as I discovered a little gem. I discovered Gustav Holst.
I didn’t know much about him before, but the way he was introduced to us before the orchestra played one of his pieces intrigued me and lead to me reading his full biography on wikipedia.
I discovered that Gustav Holst was a British composer, who was born in Cheltenham in1874 – thirty years before the turn of the 20th century – and who died in London, 30 years after, in 1934.
He was also a teacher, in favour of musical education for girls. He wanted the arts to be available to everyone, regardless of their social status.
Holst was a vegetarian who practiced meditation every day. He was also a rambler, inspired by his long walks in the Cotswolds. And he was also frequently inspired by literature, especially Walt Whitman.
He wrote an orchestral Walt Whitman Overture in 1899. While on tour with the Carl Rosa company Holst had read some of Max Müller’s books, which inspired in him a keen interest in Sanskrit texts, particularly the Rig Veda hymns. He found the existing English versions of the texts unconvincing, and decided to make his own translations, despite his lack of skills as a linguist.
He enrolled in 1909 at University College, London, to study the language.
His daughter Imogen commented on his translations:
“He was not a poet, and there are occasions when his verses seem naïve. But they never sound vague or slovenly, for he had set himself the task of finding words that would be ‘clear and dignified’ and that would ‘lead the listener into another world'”.
His settings of translations of Sanskrit texts included Sita (1899–1906), a three-act opera based on an episode in the Ramayana (which he eventually entered for a competition for English opera set by the Milan music publisher Tito Ricordi); Savitri (1908), a chamber opera based on a tale from the Mahabharata; four groups of Hymns from the Rig Veda (1908–14); and two texts originally by Kālidāsa: Two Eastern Pictures (1909–10) and The Cloud Messenger (1913).
To me that sounds extremely impressive. But that’s not even what he is famous for.
Back in the Albert Hall, the symphonic orchestra before us performed a piece he composed called Mars. Boy thought it was the Star Wars score and was excitedely expecting an army of Storm Troopers to come marching on stage.
The similarities between the two pieces are rather striking.
Here is Mars (the Bringer of War…)
I read on line that there’s no composer in the classical repertoire who’s more closely associated with outer space than Gustav Holst. The Planets has been mined for any number of sci-fi spectaculars, and Mars in particular has been a favorite of film composers including John Williams, whose stormtroopers march to a distinctly Martian beat, so Boy wasn’t far off.
Although Wagner and Tchaikovsky were mentioned before as John William’s influences for the Star Wars score, I do believe that Gustav Holst was not far behind on the list.
The other highlight of the concert was an amateur Carnatic orchestra from Harrow, playing Tamil music. It was profoundly beautiful. I was very impressed to see so many talented amateur musicians on stage performing at such a high standard.
It really provides much needed perspective to think that Gustav Holst achieved so many incredible things – he wrote The Planets and many other pieces of music as well as learned and translated Sanskrit, all while teaching full-time during the day, giving evening classes and fulfilling the roles of father and husband. The achievements he is most famous for were undertaken during his spare time on weekends or during his annual leave in August… This is some serious material for contemplation! Imagine what we could achieve if we were more focused and dedicated to specific tasks rather than scattering our attention all over the place via social media addiction etc…
It’s interesting how sanskrit has captured the imagination of the world for such a long time, probably because of the popularity of the vedic culture.
I have heard before that sanskrit was a language which had been created by sages and was influenced by bird songs.
All through history, so many great artists, musicians, writers and thinkers have been influenced by this ancient language.
I’d like to think that when I’m pronouncing, reading or hearing the sanskrit names often used in yoga, they were influenced by the songs of ancient birds somewhere in India.
So here is my thread, or ‘sutra’ in Sanskrit.
Here is a video of Imogen Holst remembering her father: