Gustav Holst | Compositions, The Music of Holst

(1930) A Choral Fantasia Op. 51

A Choral Fantasia was written in 1930, fulfilling a request made by Herbert Sumison, organist of the Gloucester Cathedral. He wanted a piece which would incorporate a substantial organ part for him to play at the Three Choirs Festival. It is a setting of some verses from Robert Bridge's Ode to Music. The subject of the text is somewhat reminiscent of that of The Evening Watch, where there is a dialogue between the body and the soul. In this set of verses, we are instead contemplating a vision of man and a quest to understand the nature of his creation, ultimately finding that nature a good one.

And as requested by Sumison, the organ rises above mere harmonic support of the choir and soloist, becoming somewhat of a figure of mystery, where it guides us to understand the text presented by the choir, yet at times, serves as a devils advocate to challenge the intention the questions of the text. The piece starts with a fortissimo ascent up a phrygian scale, about which one music critic from The Observer commented, "when Holst begins his new Choral Fantasia on a six four of G and a C-sharp below that, with an air of take it or leave it, one is inclined to leave it." However I think that this short introduction serves the purpose of exposing the desire of man to know his origins, and the dissonance could be seen as the inability for man to ever resolve or understand, his efforts are almost in vain. From this point on, the stage is set for an uneasy relationship between the organ and the choir.

Composer Edmund Rubbra called this piece "one of Holst's finest works and most poetical." This poetic battle through the music is at times very personal; Holst recalls a folk song like melody with the choir at "Rejoice, ye dead..." and we discover a warmth in Holst's music at "Alone of Heavenly love ye did excel," reminiscent of that in Egdon Heath. However as this quest for understanding marches through the next stanza, at its end we are confronted with the organ once again, repeating the opening, and are left with doubts.

The piece continues its battle within, and we hear Holst's own experience with such battle at "He striveth the know, to unravel the mind," and wonder how long Holst had himself struggled in anguish over this question of creation. The choir exemplifies a little text painting with the women opening at "He dreameth of beauty." And at the choirs last proclamation, "No ill shall be," we find ourselves confronted once again with the austere march that seems to bring us to doubt, when at that point the soprano reminds of of the beauty of creation, repeating the "Rejoice, ye dead.." stanza.

The piece was first performed on September 8, 1931 with Dorothy Silk as the soloist and was conducted by Holst.