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Gustav Holst's Debt to Cecil Sharp

Author(s): Imogen Holst

Reviewed work(s):
Source: Folk Music Journal, Vol. 2, No. 5 (1974), pp. 400-403
Published by: English Folk Dance + Song Society
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Accessed: 07/10/2012 15:19
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GustavHolst'sDebt to CecilSharp


the history of English music in the

twentieth century to be written, Cecil Sharp's name will stand out
above all others." I can remember hearing my father say this,
with passionate conviction in his voice, during a lecture he gave
in the early nineteen-twenties on "England and -her music".
I was then about fifteen, and I certainly agreed with him but, at
the same time, I wondered why he needed to be so emphatic
about it: the folk tunes that were at the centre of our lives seemed
secure enough to be taken for granted. It was not until fifteen
years later, when I was trying to analyse some of my father's own
music, that I began to understand his overwhelming sense of
personal gratitude.

It is difficult for us to realize today what it must have felt like

to be a young English composer during the eighteen-nineties.
Music meant German music: the operas of Wagner or the lieder
of Brahms. My father once admitted to a friend that "never
having managed to learn a foreign language, songs always meant
a peg of words on which to hang a tune". The possibility of finding
an English song where "the words and the music grew together"
had not yet occurred to him. He knew of the Elizabethan lyrics
that had appeared in anthologies, but the Lutenist-composers'
tunes belonging to them had not yet been republished. As for
folk songs, he had been brought up in the belief that they were
4'either bad or Irish". Then, in 1903, his whole musical life was
suddenly transformed. This was the year when Cecil Sharp
collected his first Somerset folk song from the gardener at
Hambridge rectory, and when Ralph Vaughan Williams collected
his first Essex folk song from Mr. Pottipher of Ingrave. During the
following year or two my father greeted each newly-discovered
folk tune as a revelation. The effect on his own song-writing was
instantaneous: from then onwards he was never satisfied until his
tunes were "at one with the words".
People have often asked me why he never collected any folk
tunes himself, except on foreign holidays in Algeria and Sicily.

I think the reason must have been lack of free time: he had so
much teaching to do that his only opportunities for composing
were at weekends and during the month of August. But the
thought of collecting folk songs was obviously in his mind, for
one of his ex-pupils who joined his singing classes in the years
before the 1914 war has told me that she remembers him asking
them all at the end of term to be sure to tell him if they heard any
traditional songs sung by people in country villages while they
were away on holiday.
Folk tunes revolutionized not only his song-writing but also
his instrumental works. His orchestral Somerset Rhapsody
(1906-7) is founded on "The Sheep-shearing Song", "High
Germany", and "The Lover's Farewell": an introductory note
printed in the full score says that "it was written at the request of
Cecil Sharp to whom it was dedicated". In this work, and in the
two 1906 Songs Without Wordsfor small orchestra, dedicated to
Vaughan Williams, my father found his own authentic musical
language for the first time.
In his earliest arrangementsof folk songs for piano accompaniment he was sometimes bewilderedby the unaccustomed discipline
of having to keep within the dorian or phrygian or mixolydian
mode. In a letter to Cecil Sharp1 he asked if it would matter if
he occasionally mixed the modes by combining several versions of
the same tune, "or would this", he added, "be too much like
mixing one's drinks?" As it happened, these experiments in
mixing the modes helped him to find his way out of the thickets of
nineteenth-century chromaticism and led him to the miracle of
his 1907-8 chamber opera, Savitri. "Miracle" is the only word
with which to describe it, for it was the first English chamber
opera since the death of Purcell, and it happened with astonishing
suddenness. Only a few years before this he had been struggling
with his first Indian opera, a discarded work which he afterwards
referred to as "good old Wagnerian bawling", on account of its
lengthy three acts, huge cast, immense orchestra, and almost
continuous fortissimo chromatic sequences. Savitri, his second
Indian opera, is a complete contrast in every way. It lasts just
half an hour: there are only three characters, a small choir
l See page 402.

offstage, and a chamber orchestra of twelve players. The opening

dialogue for unaccompanied voices is startlingly original, and
there is a radiance in the economy of the part-writing. It is a
radiance that is characteristic of my father's music at its best,
and he himself knew that he owed it not only to the lesson he had
learnt from Purcell's dramatic recitatives but also to the lesson he
had learnt from the simple directness of English folk songs.
He never "grew out of folk tunes", for he shared Bartok's
belief that they were "masterpieces on a small scale", and "real
models of the highest artistic perfection". Folk tunes helped him
in his commissioned works for military band and in his music
for amateur choral societies: they also helped him in such a highly
skilled work as the Fugal Concerto, where the tune of "If all the
world were paper" suddenly puts in an unexpected appearance in
the last movement and manages to sound thoroughly at home.
During the mid-nineteen-twenties, when my father was suffering
from the depression of overwork and illness, it was folk music
that brought him a new lease of life in his Shakespearean opera,
At the Boar's Head. And owing to this new lease of life he was
afterwards able to write some of his greatest music, during the
few years that remained to him.
It is no wonder that there was always such passionate conviction in his voice when he spoke of his debt of gratitude to
Cecil Sharp. What about his prophecy that Cecil Sharp's name
would one day stand out above all others in the history of
twentieth-century English music? It seems unlikely to be fulfilled
in any literal sense. But then, what is "musical history", apart
from the actual music that is being written and performed and
listened to? We need only hear the greatest of the English works
that have been written during the last fifty years to know that
my father was right to feel so deeply grateful to Cecil Sharp, on
his own behalf and on behalf of his contemporaries and his
successors. We can recognize the essential truth of his prophecy
every time we hear an exciting new English composition. And we
shall go on recognizing that truth, as long as we have ears to
listen with.
The letter referredto on page 401 is now held in the Vaughan Williams
MemorialLibrary.It is here reproducedin full for the benefitof readers.


31, Grena Road,

Dear Mr Sharp
I send you two arrangementsfrom Dr Gardiners'folksongs in order for
you to decidewhetherI am to arrangehis Hampshiretunes for your Novello
series or not.
I have no wish to do this unless you are quite sure that you have not got
anyone better.
Personalfeelingsshould not enter into these mattersat all and I shall most
cheerfullybow to your decision,whateverit may be. I have added F# to the
signatureof "The Seeds of Love". As it does not affect the tune I thought
I was justifiedin followingmy own inclinations.
Would it be "mixingdrinks"to much to have alternateverses of this tune
Dorian and Aeolian? If I am to do this volumewould you let me know when
it will be wanted.
Yours sincerely