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Book of the Month

September 2004

Gustav Holst

Letters to W. G. Whittaker

Sp Coll MS Gen 1350

2004 is the 70th anniversary of the death of the composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934), and to mark the occasion the September Book of the Month will focus on the correspondence between Holst and his friend and colleague William Gillies Whittaker. Over two hundred letters written between 1913 and 1934 are held by the Library, as well as a small number of manuscripts of works by Holst. The letters were donated to the University Library in 1963 by Whittaker's daughter and son-in-law, Mary and Edward Pollitzer, along with the scores that comprised Whittaker's working library.

Beginning of letter 4 (MS Gen 1350/4): December 13, 1915

Holst and Whittaker were born within two years of each other, Holst in 1874 and Whittaker in 1876. Best known nowadays as the composer of the Planets Suite, Holst was a prolific composer as well as a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher. He undertook his education at the Royal College of Music between 1893 and 1898. Following a short period as an orchestral trombone player Holst then moved to teaching as his main occupation, and became Director of Music at St Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith, and later the Director of Music at Morley College. Later in his career he took on appointments at University level. His works range from orchestral, choral and operatic works to instrumental music.

Whittaker had a less conventional music education, starting his education as a student of science but then deciding to switch to music. Unlike Holst he was never an orchestral player, but immediately entered the teaching profession. He was appointed as an Instructor of Music at Armstrong College, Newcastle in 1898. In 1929 he was appointed as the first Gardiner Professor of Music at Glasgow University, while also simultaneously holding the post of Principal of the Scottish National Academy if Music (now the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama). Whittaker's compositions include choral and orchestral music as well as many arrangements of North country folk tunes.

Holst and Whittaker were both busy and enthusiastic teachers as well as being composers. It is clear from the letters that the two composers were keen supporters of each others work, and were happy to offer advice on compositional matters. Here Holst offers some suggestions on the process of composition:

I'm no good at teaching by correspondence, but here are three suggestions.

1) Let me see yr next thing in its early stages.

2) Never write music when you feel excited.

3) Avoid jumping about from one key to another. The modern tendency is to enlarge the scope of a key - a very different thing. This is only the fringe of the matter but we must meet some time and then we'll have a good whack in. However these points are sound as far as they go.

Beginning of l
etter 12 (MS Gen 1350/12): April 24, 1916

The letters reveal that they regularly sent one another compositions in preparation, and furthermore that both men undertook to perform each others compositions whenever possible:

I like the two folksongs very much and will undertake to use at least 100 of them within 12 months of their publication. Also I think I can help to make them sell. I only wish I could play the piano parts - I'm afraid they will be a bit hard for incapable people like me to play when we want to give all out attention to the singers.

I hope I am not making matters worse by sending 'The Seeds of Love'. I had given up all hope of writing anything for yr concert when this 'came' all at once just 24 hours ago along with some more ideas for arranging folksongs.

The work referred to, 'The Seeds of Love', became the first in a set of Holst's 'Six Choral Folk-Songs' scored for unaccompanied mixed voices. Whittaker was a keen choral conductor, and during the period of his life spent in Newcastle founded the Newcastle Bach Choir in 1915 and became conductor of the Newcastle and Gateshead Choral Union. The autograph score of the work referred to is dedicated to 'W. G. Whittaker and his singers'.

End of letter 12 (MS Gen 1350/12): April 24, 1916

Beginning  of letter 123 (MS Gen 1350/123): January, 1922

Excerpt from letter 40 (MS Gen 1350/40): May 23, 1917

Whittaker was a great Bach enthusiast, and during his time in Newcastle gave numerous performances of the Bach Cantatas. The above letter shows him seeking advice from Holst on programming Bach. However, it is apparent from Holst's reply that not surprisingly Whittaker's knowledge was superior to his own, and so he only felt able to affirm Whittaker's suggestions:

I wish I could be of more use to you but the truth is that I only know one cantata in each five you mention and of course I have not got the Gesellschaft.

Your programmes look all right to me as far as I understand them and that is as far as I can go.

I think no one would object to JSB's bourees and minuets in church - anyhow in London.

 Letter 115 (MS Gen 1350/115): May 24, 1921

Verso of l
etter 115 (MS Gen 1350/115): May 24, 1921

Later letters reveal continued mutual support. This postcard refers to Whittakers's work for piano quintet 'Among the Northumbrian Hills', which he dedicated to Holst. The work earned Whittaker an award from the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, hence Holst's delight:

Hooray! Proudanappy to be Dedicatee.

Excerpt from letter 198 (MS Gen 1350/198):
December 19, 1929

Later in their friendship Holst was keen to support Whittaker as he sought a new post. Between 1926 and 1929 Holst refers in his letters to posts at both Leeds and Liverpool, and offered to write in support of any applications Whittaker may wish to make. In fact it was not until 1929 that Whittaker was appointed as Gardiner Professor of Music at Glasgow University, a move Holst evidently approved of:

I send you this with my warmest greetings. You will find most of the tales soothing in the midst of all your labours and worries while settling down. When once you are fairly fixed in Glasgow I believe you will be recognised and honoured by people whose regard will mean much. I know of no other place where I would prefer you to be and I know no man whom I want to see in your post as much as I want to see you.

So it's a case of congratulations all round - to Glasgow as well as to you.

Continuation of excerpt from letter 198
(MS Gen 1350/198): December 19, 1929

When war broke out in 1914 Holst was keen to enlist, but poor health prevented this. Holst found this particularly frustrating, and so he was excited to be given an opportunity to contribute to the war effort when he was asked by the Y.M.C.A. to take on the post of Musical Organizer for troops stationed in Salonica. In fact he was originally asked to go and work in Holland, but it was decided that his name (Gustav von Holst) suggested that he was of German descent, and that this would be inappropriate. Holst was actually of Swedish descent, but took the decision to drop the 'von' from his name before taking up the post in Salonica.

Do any old thing you like with the 'song' bless you!

I'm going with the YMCA to Salonica for a year - it is a special educational mission. In order to be of more use I am dropping the 'von'. I'm here under canvas and in mud learning my job.

During his time in this post Holst also worked in Constantinople. Letters he wrote to his wife and other friends during this period (accessible in Imogen Holst's Holst: a biography) provide a fuller picture of his work here.

Beginning  of letter 73 (MS Gen 1350/73): September, 1918

Beginning  of letter 75 (MS Gen 1350/75):
February 4, 1919

However, the small number of letters written to Whittaker during this period give a flavour of the constantly changing and somewhat erratic nature of the work:

Thanks so much for your jolly letter. Now that demobilisation is setting in in earnest work here is rather erratic and uncertain. You journey 80 or 90 miles up to a camp and find that most of the men left three hours ago! It is all very right and very jolly so I don't mind.

I shall probably move to another centre before long where things and men are more stationary. Meanwhile I feel the most useful job I can do is to keep things going here as long as possible. For instance Colles of the 'Times' started an orchestra at the Artillery School here. He left in November and now his deputy is leaving so I am carrying on. It is very jolly having a chance of doing Schubert's 'Unfinished' etc. as an example for a lecture'

The rest of the work - lecturing, class teaching, organising - continues in spasms. Probably some effort is produced but it doesn't show on the surface because one gets a fresh lot of pupils every few weeks - sometimes days.


Letter from Whittaker to Holst (MS Gen 1353/1/5): 20 March, 1919

To the average concert goer Holst is probably best known as the composer of the suite The Planets. Glasgow University Library does not hold any manuscript material relating to this work, but a number of the letters refer to it. The Planets was first performed privately in 1918 by the New Queen's Hall Orchestra under Adrian Boult, and this was followed by a number of performances of various movements. In fact the first public performance of the whole suite did not take place until 1920, when the London Symphony performed the work under Coates. Holst mentions The Planets in passing in a number of his letters to Whittaker, but not in any great detail. Of more interest in confirming the impact created by this work is a letter sent by Whittaker to Holst in March 1919:
Everything seems to show that The Planets have made the biggest impression of any of your things up to now. More than one personal account has come to me, and all are impressed by their bigness, their originality and their beauty. For instance, Dunhill, whom I saw recently, was carried away with them, and spoke in glowing terms.

Heartiest of Congratulations! You have had a rare long time to wait, but at last you are coming into your own. How I wish I could have heard them!

Various manuscript copies of an important early work, 'Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda' op.26 are held. The background to this work arose from Holst's interest in translations of Sanskrit literature. He decided to try and set a number of Sanskrit hymns to music, but was not happy with the existing English translations. He therefore decided to try and learn Sanskrit - a massive undertaking! Although he did not reach a level of familiarity which enabled him to read without a dictionary he was able to translate twenty hymns from the Rig Veda. These became four groups of hymns, which he composed between 1907 and 1911.

Beginning of the 'Hymn to Varma' from Rig Veda (MS Gen 1352)

Christmas letter  sent to Vally Lasker (MS Gen 1353/2): 1932*

On a lighter note, the letters between Holst and Whittaker show Holst's lively sense of humour. One of the more unusual items in the collection is a hand drawn Christmas card sent to Holst's friend and fellow member of staff at both St. Paul's and Morley College, Vally Lasker. This is explained in the following letter:

Vally is distressed (mildly) that her sofa is going phut so some of us are signing a comic Xmas letter begging to be allowed to subscribe for the necessary surgical operation.

As I know you'd like to be 'in' this the document will be sent you for signing in a fortnight or so.

Excerpt from letter 215 (MS Gen 1350/215): November 28, 1932

The reference to 'the Jolly Talgarth' in the card refers to that fact that Vally Lasker lived at 103 Talgarth Road. In a letter sent to the 'subscribers' a few months after the Christmas in question the writers, Holst and the card's artist, Amy Kemp, inform them that the 'Talgarthian Sofa' has been repaired, and that the cost to subscribers will be 2/1.


Manuscript dedication from Holst to Whittaker on Whittaker's copy of the published work 'The Hymn of Jesus' by Holst
Sp Coll Case Whittaker Music MH760.095

Holst's letters to Whittaker are a valuable resource in enabling us to learn more about Holst as teacher and composer, as well as providing an insight into musical life in England at the time they were written.


Imogen Holst Gustav Holst: a biography London: 1969. Level 4 Main Library Music HH760 HOL3.

Gustav Holst and Michael Short (ed.) Letters to W. G. Whittaker Glasgow: 1974. Level 4 Main Library Music HH760 HOL4 and Sp Coll Reference.

Michael Short Gustav Holst: the man and his music Oxford: 1990. Level 4 Main Library Music HH760 SHO.

Colin Matthews: 'Holst', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 24 August 2004]), <>.

See also: the Whittaker collection description for further material from and relating to William Gillies Whittaker.


Please note that copyright for the Holst letters lies with G. & I. Holst Ltd, reproduced here by permission.

* Copyright for the following items lie with:
Card sent to Vally Lasker (MS Gen 1353/2): Vally Lasker and the artist, Amy Kemp.
Photograph of Holst: Mr David Loeb; photograph by Sydney J. Loeb (reproduced here from University of Glasgow publication Gustav Holst: letters to W.G. Whittaker)
Photograph of Whittaker: Pollitzer family trust (reproduced here from University of Glasgow publication Gustav Holst: letters to W.G. Whittaker)

The original suggestion for this book of the month feature came from the trustees of the Holst Birthplace Museum.



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Morag Mackie (subject librarian for music) September 2004