One thing Donald Rumsfeld didn’t refer to in his infamous circumlocutions was ‘unknown knowns’ (I had to check, though). Gustav Holst’s fascination with Indian literature, music and mysticism falls into that category. Every Holstian is aware of this key dimension to the composer’s mindset, not least as expressed in such works as the opera Savitri, the many Hymns from the Rig Veda and the cantata The Cloud Messenger. And yet what do we really know of this ‘known’?
In this delightful and fascinating monograph, claimed as the first serious study of Holst’s ‘Indian works’, Raymond Head sets us on the way to obliterating that ignorance – surely there’s a substantial volume on the subject to be written which picks up the baton from here.
In part this is a biographical study, offering plentiful detail on how Holst’s interest started and then grew. At root, it belonged to the same desire to find new post-Wagnerian forms of expression as moved Schoenberg. In Holst’s case, the stimulation seems to have come via many intriguing sources – for example, the various late 19th-century international exhibitions which featured Indian culture (the 1895 Empire of India Exhibition in London inspired R W Frazer’s Silent Gods and Sun Steeped Lands, which so influenced Holst); the presence in Holst’s native Cheltenham of a colony of ex-Indian Civil Service types (not to mention a five-star curry house); and Holst’s love of Walt Whitman, which notably embraced the poet’s admiration for things Indian.
Head also, though, analyses a range of Holst’s works, tracing just how the composer’s appreciation of the intricacies of Indian music were expressed in his own work – even in The Planets. One key element in expressing what he had learnt was the juxtaposition of sounds in a mosaic form rather than embracing symphonic development. I for one will be rushing back to the substantial clutch of India-inspired works to appreciate them afresh.