Scoring the Solar System: Holst and the RSNO - Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Scoring the Solar System: Holst and the RSNO

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Scoring the Solar System: Holst and the RSNO Posted Fri 12 April 2024

Scoring the Solar System: Holst and the RSNO

(7 minute read)

By Ewen McKay, Head of Orchestra Management

In April 2024, John Wilson will conduct Gustav Holst’s The Planets with the RSNO, a piece the Orchestra has a very special connection with, not least because composer Gustav Holst was once a member of the Orchestra. Gustav Von Holst, as he was known then, played Second Trombone in the Scottish Orchestra between 1900 and 1904 (pictured above on the top row, third from the left), and during the summer breaks between orchestra seasons he played in a seaside touring group called ‘The White Viennese Band’.

Adolph Holst, Gustav’s father, was a professional pianist and encouraged his son to study from an early age. Violin and piano were young Gustav’s main instruments, although Adolph later suggested he take up the trombone, thinking it would help with his son’s asthma. The young Holst went on to study at the Royal College of Music in London, learning Composition with Hubert Parry and Charles Stanford and Trombone with George Case. Case was leader of a respected Trombone Quartet which performed Beethoven’s Equale for the funeral of William Gladstone in 1898, and at a memorial service in Westminster Abbey on the day of the state funeral for Queen Victoria in 1901. Although in later years Holst didn’t mention his influence, it is possible that the short funeral chorale played by the trombones in Saturn, The Bringer of Old Age, came from his experience of Case and his funeral trombone quartet.

Pictured above: Holst’s trombone by Hawkes & Son, now in the Instrument Museum of the Royal College of Music in London.

On completion of his studies, Gustav Holst joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company as repetiteur and in Autumn 1900, he got the job of Second Trombone with the Scottish Orchestra and moved to Glasgow. Letters in the British Library’s collection show he lived in different places around the city, at one time c/o Madame Bavay 334 St Vincent Street, and on another occasion 109 Hill Street. For nearly four years, he would spend the dark winter months from October until March living in Glasgow performing the Choral and Orchestral Union’s Subscription concerts and working with some notable stars of the day including Richard Strauss, Eugene Ysaye, Henry Wood, Fritz Kreisler, Ernst Dohnanyi and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, to name a few. He performed in Scottish premieres of works such as Elgar’s Cockaigne and Froissart Overture, the Symphony No8 and Othello Overture by Dvořák, Brahms’ Requiem, Glazunov’s Symphony No6 and Francesca da Rimini and Symphony No3 by Tchaikovsky.

Pictured above: An orchestra list from a 1900 programme featuring Holst’s name.

Many years later, Holst would comment that he learnt the art of orchestration from the inside out, likely referring to his years in the Scottish Orchestra. He certainly enjoyed his time with the Orchestra in Scotland, and in a letter to his dear friend Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1903 he writes that he ‘should be sorry to leave the Scottish’. He enjoyed something else about Scotland, as letters from both Ralph Vaughan Williams and his wife Adeline to Holst in 1901 contain thanks to their friend Gustav for posting them shortbread:

“Your Scotch present arrived on the same day as we returned to London – we had it for our first tea. I am so glad you did not succeed in sending us Scotch weather instead – this was so far nicer.”

Holst left the Orchestra in 1904, taking up a teaching position at James Allen’s Girls School in West Dulwich, South London, a position previously held by Vaughan Williams. Shortly after, he took on another position at St. Paul’s Girls School, where he remained working for the rest of his life. Without hours of travelling and evening concerts away from home, Holst found the time he had been missing for composition and in the years that followed he became established as a respected composer, educator and an occasional conductor.

By early 1914, audiences in Britain had been introduced to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Pétrouchka, Debussy’s Nocturnes, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, and Holst would have been familiar with all of them. It was around this time his interest in astrology was growing, perhaps following his study of Sanskrit and Theosophy which had been developing since his days as a touring trombonist. Composition of The Planets Suite started in earnest in May 1914, shortly before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. At a Cramb lecture hosted by Glasgow University in St Andrews Hall in 1926, Holst was asked if the first moment of the suite, Mars, The Bringer of War was inspired by the commencement of War. The Glasgow Herald’s report on Holst’s lecture describes his response:

“He was not usually affected by what the critics said, Mr Holst continued, but he really was a little upset by the theory that had arisen that when the war broke out he went home and wrote a piece called ‘Mars’. When war broke out most composers found it difficult to write anything. He was a very slow writer indeed and had the whole scheme of The Planets fixed in his mind before August 1914.”

It would take Holst several more years to complete his Suite, and strangely, it may have been a consequence of war that led to the first performance of The Planets in Scotland. In 1922, a performance of Scriabin’s The Divine Poem had to be replaced at short notice as the orchestral material was not available. After the war, it would have been difficult to order and transport scores and orchestral parts from Russia, so on 17 January 1922, Scottish audiences instead heard Mars, Venus and Jupiter for the first time.

Pictured above: The prospective concert announcement in 1922, advertising the performance of Mars, Venus and Jupiter.

The new pieces were very well received, and movements from Holst’s Suite were performed in subsequent seasons, conducted by Julius Harrison and Vaclav Talich. The programme notes for those performances make a small apology that some of the movements could not be performed – notably Neptune, due to the complexity of the writing for double choir and the amount of rehearsal required. In his 1926 Glasgow University lecture, Holst commented on his dissatisfaction with the practice of incomplete performances of the Suite, and in December the same year put this right when he conducted the first ever complete performance in Scotland, in St Andrews Hall. The orchestra for that occasion was the ‘Station Symphony Orchestra’, an ensemble of 19 musicians (mostly from the Scottish Orchestra) for the 5SC radio station, considerably augmented for Holst’s orchestration. This concert was part of a live broadcast series of large-scale works conceived by the innovative Herbert Carruthers, founding Director of the Scottish Station. The 5SC Station Orchestra would eventually become the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Pictured above: The Radio Times announcing the broadcast under Northern Programmes.

The Herald’s music critic was mostly positive about the complete performance, however noted that “Even Mr Holst’s best friend would not claim that he is a heaven-sent conductor”. Holst’s best friend at the time was Mr Vaughan Williams.

Sadly, this first complete Scottish performance and live broadcast was not recorded, however, from the 1920s, The Planets Suite would become part of the Scottish Orchestra’s regular repertoire and all the Principal Conductors would perform it at one time or another. Sir Alexander Gibson conducted the Orchestra’s first album recording of it in 1978, notable for being the first ever digital recording of the work. Ralph Couzens, Managing Director of Chandos, recalls “We had to go to London with our digital tapes to transfer to a large video editor to edit it. It was some time after that Sony developed the Audio Digital editor.”

Pictured above: Sir Alexander Gibson and team in the control room during the recording session in 1978.

The RSNO recorded The Planets again in 2001 for the NAXOS label, another groundbreaking recording this time in glorious SACD DTS Surround Sound, and with the notable addition of a new movement Pluto, composed by Colin Matthews. With the 150th anniversary of Holst’s birth in 2024, it is fitting that the RSNO should celebrate its unique relationship to the composer who seemed to perfectly express the timeless human quality of looking to the sky and asking questions of creation, life and death.


This article was researched and written with grateful thanks to the Holst Society, Mitchell Library, Hugh MacDonald, British Library, RCM Museum, RVW Foundation and The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society.

First published in the Winter 2024 Issue of Inner Circle – an exclusive magazine for members of the RSNO Circle. Find out more about the benefits of becoming a member of the RSNO Circle here.

You can watch the RSNO’s performance of Holst’s The Planets as part of our Digital Season. Available from 19 April to 30 June 2024.


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