On Gustav Holst’s ‘Egdon Heath’…

November 3rd, 2016

I recently gave a lecture trying to reclaim Gustav Holst as a leading English modernist composer of the early twentieth century, one of the most radical that the country has ever produced and one of the most misunderstood and badly represented in current musical opinion. The group of boys who were fortunate enough to hear this not only didn’t agree with me, but I suspect they thought less of me for suggesting it – for them, as with many, Holst is the composer of The Planets, St Paul’s Suite and other colourful fancies that clog the airwaves of Classic FM – the idea that he was a subversive and modernist composer just didn’t rub. But at least one good thing came from the lecture – I managed to introduce some people to a piece of music I consider one of the greatest ever composed by a British composer, Holst’s Egdon Heath.

Now I should qualify by saying that I don’t think Holst is the greatest British composer, he did write The Planets which is a masterpiece, The Moorside Suite is perfect and the Choral Fantasia is both fantastic and ridiculous but his output is just too patchy, too many exploratory drives down fruitless cul-de-sacs, too many wilfully odd pieces – he doesn’t have the coherent body of work that Vaughan Williams or Britten have. But that might be why I really enjoy his music so much – every piece sounds a little different to the next, but always unmistakably Holst. He is quoted as saying to Vaughan Williams that “the artist is born again and starts afresh with every new work”, never has a quote summed up a composer’s body of work better, or summed up a composer’s driving aesthetic more succinctly.

Egdon Heath was written in 1927 to a commission from the New York Symphony Orchestra for a symphony – he delivered an orchestral work, but something as far removed from a conventional symphony as possible. It is scored for an average sized orchestra, but with a larger body of strings – something that Holst utilises to its full potential in the work. Egdon Heath is subtitled ‘A Homage to Thomas Hardy’ and it takes its title from Hardy’s fictional Dorset heath that is featured in The Return of the Native and other works. For Hardy, Egdon Heath was a place of great importance and symbolic meaning – a representation of man’s relationship with nature and his place in the greater scheme of cosmic understanding. Holst was greatly influenced by Hardy’s writings, and stories (that may be apocryphal) exist of the composer putting on a backpack and walking from Cheltenham to Dorchester (no mean feat, it is roughly 100 miles) to visit the author. He prefaces the score with a quote from The Return of the Native which illustrates Holst’s inspiration for the work, and describes the sound-world created by him perfectly:

‘A place perfectly accordant with man’s nature – neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly; neither common-place, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony!’

What a great quote! Man – ‘slighted and enduring’; heath – ‘mysterious in its swarthy monotony’! Holst begins the piece with a creeping, questioning chromatic line that is divided between the strings alternating with slow, legato woodwind chords. He splits each of the strings into with and without mute, a small gesture, but one that helps to enforce that mysterious and swarthy monotony. This material is interrupted after a couple of minutes by more urgent material in the violins accompanying a chromatic oboe line – more woodwind join in this polyphony, followed by the rest of the orchestra, building to a climax. The next section is perhaps the most recognisably Holstian bit of the piece (certainly the Holst of The Planets) – a brass lament, redolent of both the Moorside Suite and ‘Jupiter’ from The Planets. This is expanded upon by the rest of the orchestra before giving way to the most unusual part of the piece – parallel fourths in the flutes over a held D note in the violins, which then becomes more surreal in a 6/8 version with added bassoons. This material seems somewhat incongruous with the rest of the piece and reminds me of Vaughan Williams’ Flos Campi (there must have been something in the water in the 1920s…) with its forced joviality, but in typical Holst fashion instead of trying to bring this material to a head it is just forcibly interrupted by a return of the opening chromatic lines which creep their way to a final, unresolved cadence.

What I love about Egdon Heath is how evocative it is, how much a personal statement of intent it is – Holst could have spent the majority of his mature composing career rehashing The Planets, certainly when a big commission from America came along one might have expected him to do so. But he didn’t, he wrote a creepy tone poem about a fictional heath and I admire him for that. It is music about the landscape, as well as being music of the landscape – it is as ingrained in Holst as it was in Hardy, as in a similar way it is in Birtwistle. It is restless, austere, brooding and questioning. I urge you to acquaint yourself with it if you haven’t done so already.


(To listen to a recording, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, David Lloyd-Jones, click here.)

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