Everyday Rather Live in Classic Eras

Rereading the interviews of Imogen Holst for Gramophone in September 1974

Imogen Clare Holst  (12 April 1907 – 9 March 1984) was a British composer and conductor, and the only child of Gustav Holst. To celebrate Gramophone‘s 90th anniversary, they reprinted the interviews of Imogen Holst, who spoke to Alan Blyth for Gramophone in September 1974, here the dialog of Imogen Holst:

‘The one I would most like recorded now is the Ode to Death. It’s hardly known except by choral societies. One of the reasons that it’s been neglected is that we’ve had to wait 50 years for a study score to be available; this year, at last, one is being printed for the centenary. It’s uneven I know with a few weak passages, but as a whole I think it’s marvellous music and very characteristic.

‘Then the other work I’ve so far failed to get recorded is the second group of Rig Veda for female voices and orchestra. They’re excellent, much better than the first and fourth groups. The third is, of course, on the record with Sāvitri (Argo, 6/66). They exactly went together as both require a female-voice chorus and then just the harp had to be added for the songs. This second group is very well contrasted, and I should very much like to hear them done. The good news is that EMI is releasing the Choral Symphony this month, which I’ve tried for so long to have recorded. Sir Adrian Boult is the conductor.’

‘I was never actually in the recording studio with him, but I do remember an occasion when, after making his 1923, pre-electric recording of The Planets he came home so tired that he was unable to walk up the stairs to bed. I recall his description of the terrible recording conditions in those days. Everyone was crowded into a tiny room, and even Aubrey Brain, that wonderful horn player, broke down 13 times at the beginning of Venus, just because of the physical discomfort. In that way, recording was much more arduous in the early days.

‘Conditions were already better for the 1926, electric performance. But there was still the difficulty in those days that you simply had to go on recording –there was no sticking together of bits of tape. A whole side had to be done at a time, as you probably know, and there was no stopping for a second chance. That meant my father had to put up with slight imperfections, so there are obvious weaknesses in this performance, and I think the conditions are one of the reasons why he takes ‘Mercury’ so cautiously. I have very clear memories of how he took it at live performances in the Queen’s Hall; it was quicker and lighter, and the contrapuntal joins and entries were much clearer. Also, in the live performance the final chord, which should be as light as a pinprick, was just so, while on the record it’s obviously too loud. It was so near the end that rather than risk not getting it absolutely together he just made too quick a gesture.

‘He wasn’t an experienced conductor of professional orchestras at that time. There’s quite an interesting letter written sometime in 1932, where he declares: “At last I’m beginning to learn how to conduct my own things”.’

The 1926 recording of The Planets has as fill-up the ‘Marching Song’, second of his orchestralTwo Songs without Words. ‘I was thrilled to hear that, especially the opening. It’s so vital, the rhythm especially – it sounded so like him. Listening to it at the British Institute of Recorded Sound – I don’t have a recordplayer or any of these old records – I was dismayed later at a bit of hurrying. You see he had such a good sense of rhythm; in fact rhythm mattered to him more than anything else. He didn’t say that outright, but I’ve got it in his lecture notes. He thought that it was the most elementary, most elemental, first-and-last thing in life and in art. Then I realised that that hurrying was again caused by the awkward conditions.

‘He also conducted “Country Song”, the first of the Two Songs, pre-electrically. Then there’sBeni Mora (11/25) but the pressing I heard seemed to me so worn that I couldn’t judge the performance. If one’s more used to these things, one could probably get more out of them. I don’t listen enough for that. But I often have a similar reaction to a tape playback of my own performances, and I’ve suffered intensely, thinking I couldn’t be as un-rhythmical as that – that suffers when the texture and timbre sound wrong.’

Didn’t Dharma, the Indian idea of an appointed path in life, play a big part in Holst’s thinking ? ‘Yes, that and his dislike of success. He thought that the few years when he was successful were a waste of time. There was that remark to Clifford Bax that every artist should pray not to be a success; it interfered with his work. Besides, my father always had to lead this double-life, almost up to the end, something that people today cannot comprehend, with royalties, film rights, TV rights and so on. It was impossible in his day to earn your living just by composing. It had to be combined with something else and that made life very exhausting.

‘So he planned his days very carefully. Even three-quarters-of-an-hour like this having an interview with the press was that much time impinging on the short period he had for composing. He certainly did get very tired, yet looking back on his life, I find that his sense of endurance was of a kind you don’t often come across these days. He had physical disabilities, the neuritis in his right arm made things difficult for him, but he just kept going until that year when he had to give up work on doctor’s orders. Shortly after having what was I suppose a nervous breakdown, he found that, although he was forbidden teaching and so on, he could compose. I recall him saying that ‘I’m leading the life of a real composer for the first time’; he could begin at the right time every day of the week. Of course, there is the other side to it: someone like Balfour Gardiner, who was such a marvellous help to my father and to so many composers at that time, didn’t perhaps achieve much on his own account as a composer simply because he didn’t have to earn his living by it.’

‘I often feel today that I’m awfully ignorant about a great deal of music. My father brought us up following Samuel Butler’s advice: “Never learn anything until not knowing it has become a positive nuisance to you”. Some of his students thought that was a bit of a joke, but he was deadly serious, and for the way he worked that was right. So we learnt the things that he passionately cared for in music. Without consciously following that advice all my life, I’ve found that it works best, and I’ve brought up my own pupils on that – and then they were so astonished when they passed exams, so I’ve proved to myself that it can work.

‘But this means that there have been enormous gaps in one’s musical knowledge – the 19th century is almost a blank to me apart from a few very special names such as Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn. Verdi, for instance – I adore the Requiem, one of the very great works, but I don’t yet love or know the operas. I’ve rather spent the time on exploring Perotin, for instance, with my Dartington students, say 30 years ago, when there were perhaps not more than half-a-dozen people who had even heard his name in this country, and there isn’t room for everything, so one must choose. Where broadcasts are concerned I mark my Radio Times very carefully each week and if it doesn’t interfere with work, I listen. I’m passionately interested in the link between oriental music and folk music everywhere.’

‘Then The Wandering Scholar. People said at first that the ending was too abrupt; now we accept it of course. I remember Ralph Vaughan Williams – he and my father used to exchange views on each other’s compositions – often said that my father was too peremptory in moving from A to B, but my father wouldn’t take his advice. In one of his letters, Ralph wrote, very sweetly, that my father very wisely kept to his own ideas in Egdon Heath – Holst knew exactly what he wanted. The only piece where the timing seemed to me wrong is in The Perfect Fool, but now I realise that the bits I meant in fact parody the hanging-around in other operas.’

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