Gustav Holst: Music of the Spheres

  • Gustav Holst
  • Holst Birthplace Museum
  • Holst Birthplace Museum

A visit to the Holst Birthplace Museum in Cheltenham reveals little known truths about one of Britain’s favourite composers

In a regency townhouse in Cheltenham, there stands a piano on which some of the most famous music in the world was composed. The composer bought the instrument secondhand for the princely sum of £12. That man’s name was Gustav Holst; the suite he wrote he called The Planets.

For this townhouse is where Gustav Holst was born, back in 1874, coming into the world in the same small, middle-class bedroom where his mother would die of pneumonia just seven years later. Soon after that sad incident, the Holst family left the home.

Today the building stands as the Holst Birthplace Museum, honouring not only his early years, but also his entire lifetime's worth of interests and achievements. Here you can learn all you could ever wish to know about one of England's best-loved composers - and some of it might just surprise you.

Amongst the first things that you’ll discover is that Holst was far from as stuffy or austere as some images would suggest. He had a very modern mind, for his time, and some almost mystical inclinations.

As some may know, it was a passion for astrology that influenced him to write The Planets, but he also had a great affection for all things Indian. Foreign music and many-limbed eastern deities stirred the composer's imagination: He taught himself Sanskrit and drew inspiration from Indian opera long before the Rolling Stones were influenced by jazz and the blues. In a sense, he had the alternative worldview of someone of a much later generation.

It was actually the breakout success of The Planets that has imprinted the image of a fuddy-looking, formal Holst in the history books. In truth, he simply struggled with celebrity success brought and hated having his picture taken (his daughter Imogen once referred to 'the sullen droop of his expression' when someone would appear with a camera).

But the museum displays some personal photographs that dispel the picture of a 'grumpy' Holst. The pictures show him wearing a hat at a funny angle, or laughing mirthfully with his wife: here the man looks surprisingly relaxed and humorous.

At the Holst Birthplace Museum, you can also learn about other noteworthy Holsts. As you’d expect, many were musical (his father Adolph, also a music teacher, made the young Holst play the trombone, believing it would relieve the child’s asthma) but there is also a painter in the mix: Great Uncle Theodore, currently enjoying a renaissance as an influence on Rossetti. His gothic, mythical and darkly sensual paintings hang from the house’s walls.

There is even an interesting story behind the family name. When Gustav’s grandfather Gustavus arrived in Cheltenham in the mid-nineteenth century, he added ‘von’ to his surname to appear more aristocratic, and thus attract wealthier families to his tuition services by capitalising on the fashion for European musicians. The whole family copied the affectation. Years later, moved by anti-German sentiment, grandson Gustav attempted to remove the ‘von’ – only to discover he had never been entitled to it anyway.

But the museum does more than simply share the anecdotes and artefacts of the Holst family. With rooms decorated in both regency and Victorian styles, all complete with period furnishings, it offers a peek at long-lost interior fashions. There is even a maid’s bedroom, playroom and a teeny-tiny outside toilet to marvel at.

Holst lived away from the Cotswolds for much of his lifetime, but he returned to Cheltenham for what was perhaps his most significant moment: An honorary Holst Festival held in the town hall in 1927, where his many compositions were specially brought to life by the City of Birmingham Orchestra.

It was, Holst declared: ‘The most overwhelming event of my life.’

The museum’s website www.holstmuseum.org.uk is an excellent source of information on the composer and his relatives. You can visit from February through to mid December. Closed on Mondays other than on bank holidays. Admission is £5 for adults, £2 for children and £4.50 concesssions.