Letters from Gustav Holst

Scope and Content

Five letters from Holst to a Mrs Cohen, with a signed postcard. Mrs Cohen appears to have hosted Holst during the Leeds Triennial Festival 1925, and to have invited him on several occasions to holiday with her and her husband in the Lake District. Holst cannot accept her invitation for August 1926 as "it is most important that I am entirely alone as much as possible during the summer holidays" (f.8).

Administrative / Biographical History

Gustavus Theodore von Holst was born in 1874, the son of Adolph and Clara von Holst. He gained admission to the Royal College of Music in 1893 and joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company in 1898 as trombonist and rptiteur. After two years he joined the Scottish Orchestra (now Royal Scottish National Orchestra) in Glasgow, combining this work with freelance engagements. Although grateful for the opportunity to have learnt about the orchestra from the inside, he took the decision to give up an orchestral career at the end of 1903 and, after several months of unemployment, he was offered a teaching appointment at James Allen's Girls' School in Dulwich, in succession to his friend Vaughan Williams. In 1905 Holst was appointed head of music at St Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith, where he was to remain until the end of his life. Among other teaching posts he held was that of director of music at Morley College from 1907 until 1924, where he acquired a great feeling for amateur music-making.

Holst's reputation as a composer had been steadily growing during the years before World War I, and in 1917 he wrote the choral and orchestral Hymn of Jesus, perhaps the most characteristic and original work of his maturity. But it was not until The Planets (1914-16) received its first performance in 1918 that he achieved genuine recognition. Teaching still continued to occupy a great deal of his time, and in the 1920s he held posts at the RCM and University College, Reading. Then, after a fall while conducting in 1923, followed by an arduous first visit to the USA, he was advised on medical grounds to take things more easily. He spent much of 1924 in Thaxted, and in 1925 gave up all his teaching commitments apart from those at St Paul's School.

The first major festival devoted to his music took place in 1927 in Cheltenham, his birthplace. In 1932 he was visiting lecturer in composition at Harvard, but he was taken ill and had to return prematurely to England. During the last 18 months of his life, in spite of having to live largely as an invalid, he composed some of his most individual works, including the Brook Green Suite and the Lyric Movement for viola and orchestra. He died of heart failure on 25 May 1934. He had married Isobel Harrison, a member of the Hammersmith Socialist Choir which he conducted from 1896, in 1901.

Access Information

Open for consultation.


Description by M Sarah Wickham based on Colin Matthews: 'Holst, Gustav', The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 18 August 2003), [ http://www.grovemusic.com ].

Other Finding Aids

Royal Northern College of Music Archives catalogue (CALM).

Conditions Governing Use

Subject to Copyrights, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Custodial History

The source and date of acquisition of these letters is not known.