Correspondence of Gustav Holst, 1874-1934, composer, from William Gillies Whittaker, 1876-1944, composer

Scope and Content

  • 7 letters to Holst from William Gillies Whittaker 1912 to 1932
  • Letter sent to subscribers for the repairs to Vally Lasker's (b1885) sofa

Administrative / Biographical History

Gustav Holst, composer, was born Gustavus Theodore von Holst in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England, on 21 September 1874 . The von Holsts were of Swedish origin though long settled in England.

At an early age Holst began to learn the violin and the pianoforte, his favourite composer being Grieg. He was educated at Cheltenham Grammar School where he started to set Macaulay's Horatius to music for chorus and orchestra. However, his father discouraged composition and wished him to be a virtuoso pianist, but neuritis prevented this and at the age of seventeen he was allowed to study counterpoint.

In 1892, Holst obtained his first professional engagement as organist of Wyck Rissington, Gloucestershire. At the same time he conducted a choral society at the neighbouring Bourton-on-the-Water. Next year saw the first public performance of his work in Cheltenham, the music for an operetta, Lansdowne Castle. As a result of this success his father sent him to the Royal College of Music, London, where he studied composition with C V Stanford. At this time he got to know the later works of Wagner and heard Bach's B minor Mass; thenceforth Bach and Wagner became his passion until in later years the influence of English folk-song and of the Tudor composers tended to weaken the Wagnerian supremacy although Bach was never dethroned.

In 1895, the Royal College awarded Holst a scholarship but his neuritis became so bad that he could not hold an ordinary pen and his eyesight suffered severely. These two weaknesses persisted throughout his life.

In 1898 Holst became first trombone and repetiteur to the Carl Rosa Opera Company and shortly after joined the Scottish Orchestra as second trombone.. His student compositions had grown in competence but his work show great originality or force.

He joined the Kelmscott House Socialist Club in Hammersmith and here he met Isobel, daughter of an artist Augustus Ralph Harrison, who he married in 1901. They had one daughter, Imogen, who followed her father's footsteps as composer and teacher.

Mysticism had always attracted Holst, and he had read Walt Whitman and Ibsen. In 1899, with no other training than a little 'grammar school' Latin he learnt enough Sanskrit to make translations of the Vedic hymns for musical setting. On these followed the opera di camera, Savitri (1908).

In 1903, although still comparatively unknown, Holst decided to give up the trombone and devote himself to writing music. He soon found he could not live off his compositions and became a music teacher at the James Allen Girls' School, Dulwich, London, and at the Passmore Edwards (later the Mary Ward) Settlement, where he gave the first English performances of several Bach cantatas. In 1905 he was appointed director of music at St Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith. Here he did away with the childish sentimentality which schoolgirls were supposed to appreciate and substituted Bach and Vittoria.

St Paul's was a clean slate, but at Morley College for Working Men and Women in South London, where Holst became musical director in 1907, a bad musical tradition had to be broken. The results were at first discouraging, but soon a new spirit appeared and the music of Morley College, together with its off-shoot the 'Whitsuntide festival' held at Thaxted, Essex, and elsewhere, became a force to be reckoned with.

The year 1914 marked the inception of Holst's most famous work, 'The Planets', a suite for orchestra, each movement being suggested by the astrological attribute of a planet. This was completed in 1917.

During the 1914-1918 World War , the Young Men's Christian Association invited him to organise music for the troops in Salonika. In view of this official appointment he decided to discard the prefix 'von' from his name. He returned after a successful year abroad to find, rather to his dismay, that he was becoming a popular composer. The American orchestras were fighting for the first public performance of The Planets which was produced at the Queen's Hall in 1919 and followed there by The Hymn of Jesus in 1920.

From 1919 to 1924 Holst was professor of composition at the Royal College of Music and he held a similar post at University College, Reading, from 1919 to 1923.

His third visit to the United States of America in 1932 was interrupted by illness, but he recovered quickly and he returned to England apparently well though without some of his old energy. At this time he wrote the six choral canons which are a puzzle to many although some have succeeded in plucking out the heart of their mystery.

In these later years Holst's constant companion was his daughter, and whenever they could meet, he and his lifelong friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams, would spend whole days discussing their compositions.

He died in London of heart failure following an operation 25 May 1934 .

R Vaughan Williams, 'Holst, Gustav Theodore 1874-1934',Dictionary of National Biography ( London, 1949 )


The arrangement of this material reflects the original order in which it was received

Access Information

owned by the university of glasgow


Acquisition Information

Gift : Imogen Holst : October 1974 : ACCN 4286

Other Finding Aids

Item level descriptions are available via the department's online manuscripts catalogue available at  searching by the call number MS Gen 1353

Alternative Form Available

No known copies

Conditions Governing Use

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the Keeper of Special Collections

Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use and condition of documents

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 247 procedures

Custodial History

Held by the family of Gustav Holst


None expected

Related Material

GB 247 MS Whittaker Papers of William Gillies Whittaker

GB 247 MS Gen 1350-1352 Manuscripts from the personal library of William Gillies Whittaker

GB 2027 Add MSS 47804-838, 52915, 57863-910 Correspondence, compositions and notes books of Gustav Holst (British Library, Music Collections)

GB 058 Add MS 56726 Papers of Gustav Holst (British Library, Manuscript Collections)

For contact details of all repositories with a GB code, see the Archon repository search page

Various other collections of correspondence and ephemera relating to Gustav Holst and William Gillies Whittaker can be found by searching the personal name index of the National register of Archives at

Material in other repositories: no material associated by provenance

Location of Originals

This material is original


Published in Michael Short (ed.), Gustav Holst, Letters to W.G. Whittaker(  Glasgow:  University of Glasgow Press ,  1974 )

Additional Information


No alterations made to date