Gustav Holst | Compositions, The Music of Holst

The Hymn of Jesus: Holst’s Gnostic Exploration of Time and Space

by Raymond Head (page 2/4)

(This essay originally appeared in Tempo Magazine (Boosey and Hawkes, London), July 1999 issue.)

When Holst arranged for these plainchants to be sung in their original Latin versions the meaning of the hymns would have been rendered obscure to all except specialists. It can hardly be doubted that this obscurity was deliberate. The presentation of Vexilla Regis by a distant choir of trebles over an orchestra of independently oscillating high chords creates a feeling of an ageless, unknowable, cosmic mystery (Ex.2). The device of two musical ideas sounding simultaneously, but moving at different, independent speeds invites comparison only with Holst’s exact contemporary Charles Ives.

Suddenly the listener is jolted back to a mundane world of suffering by a sharp, piercing chord in the orchestra. This musical indicator of pain, an intensification of Ex.1, is surely an objet trouvee. Christopher Palmer has shown (Note.4) how similar it is to the suffering motif of Amfortas in Parsifal, and the borrowing must be deliberate. Holst thought highly of Parsifal, even going so far as to satirize it in his opera The Perfect Fool. In Wagner’s opera, Amfortas, through his own sin, is a king whose wounds will not heal. His motif has therefore become a symbol for suffering humanity. The Wagnerian allusion must have been intentional, for in composing Saturn (1915) Holst had already written original music capable of evoking the most intense anguish. Such a personal exposition of suffering would have been very appropriate in the Prelude, but Holst seems to want to suggest something else: that humanity as a whole is wounded.

Immediately, from a distant region, the Pange Lingua is intoned by a choir of tenors and basses (Ex.3). Their sound is distinctly ecclesiastical and consolatory as they sing reassuringly of ultimate victory: ‘Sing my tongue the glorious battle, sing the ending of the fray...’. In such similar soothing tones had the trombones uttered this plainchant at the Prelude’s opening. This second half of the Prelude ends in an atmosphere of unearthly resolution and celestial bliss. A bar’s silence allows the listener to absorb the experience. By the end of the Prelude the G minor of the opening has begun to resolve, as from a long dominant pedal, toward C.

At this point we could have expected a meditation on the resurrection but what follows is the Gnostic Hymn of Jesus, which exhorts the listener not just to follow Jesus, but to understand why humanity suffers. Holst offered his audience hope through spiritual knowledge. Hence the affirmative, confident and daring setting - as far as is known, the first ever made of a Gnostic text. At a stroke Holst had cast aside the Victorian and Edwardian sentimental oratorio and created the precursor of the kind of works that John Tavener, for instance, was to write in the 1970s.

Since the discovery of a large library of Gnostic texts and mystical gospels in Egypt at Nag Hammadi after World War 2, we now know that the Gnostic church offered a coherent mystery alternative to conventional Christianity (based on the ideals of faith and obedience), interpreting it instead in symbolic terms and offering to unfold a secret doctrine that would lead to true spiritual knowledge (gnosis). This was hardly generally known when Holst encountered the Hymn. Very few Gnostic texts had been published or studied; they were generally classed among New Testament Apocrypha. However one scholar actively engaged in making these texts better known was Theosophist G.R.S.Mead, who was friendly with Holst and had published an edition of the major Gnostic gospel Pistis Sophia (The Testimony of Truth) as early as 1896.(Note.5)

In its original form, the Hymn probably dated from the 2nd century or earlier. Despite a call by Augustine for its destruction in the 4th century, when Gnostic Christianity was extirpated as heretical by the Greek and Roman churches, somehow a single manuscript copy managed to survive the vicissitudes of time. This was unearthed in the Imperial Library in Vienna in 1897 and published in 1899 by the Cambridge University Press in Apocropha Anecdota Part 2, edited by M. R. James. In this form it quickly came to the attention of Mead, who gave Holst a copy of the text. Attentive to new scholarly work coming from Europe, Mead had published his own translation of the text in Fragments of a Faith Forgotten in 1900, and in 1907 the Theosophical Publishing Company produced a his translation and commentary on the Hymn as a separate volume. (Note.6) Mead also published a further article in The Quest Vol 2, No 1 (1910) and another exposition of the Hymn in Quests Old and New (1912). Clearly he was fascinated by this text. Why?

The answer seems to be that, according to Mead, it was not a hymn at all in our sense of the word but perhaps the earliest surviving Christian, or indeed pre- Christian, mystery-ritual. Its appeal to Holst was similar to that of the Vedas he had treated in the works of his ‘Indian’ period: not only its authentic message, but its very early date and its origins outside of the distorting effects of the established churches.(Note.7)

(See Notes on Page 4.)

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