The beginning of a lifetime’s work?

Mrs Gustav Holst: An Equal Partner? - cover image

A guest post by Philippa Tudor

I first encountered Holst’s music through singing his beautiful 8-part Ave Maria as a teenager, and knew that he had taught at James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich – where I live – but I never got round to discovering more until 2012, when I ordered a secondhand copy of a short biography by his daughter Imogen, and settled down to spend the dark winter evenings reading about Gustav Holst (1874-1934).

His life story is fascinating. He overcame a succession of difficulties from his childhood onwards to become one of Britain’s most popular composers, particularly famed for his Planets Suite. But Imogen’s short biography left me with more questions than it had answered. It referred to his wife (Imogen’s mother) Isobel only 6 times – fewer than it referred to Imogen herself. I wondered whether his wife had died young, or if they had divorced. Intrigued, I ordered Imogen’s longer biography, and when that shed little more light, the main scholarly biography of Gustav Holst, written by Michael Short, and since re-published by Circaidy Gregory Press. Michael Short’s biography is brilliant, and has the great benefit of his having worked closely with Imogen Holst. I have two, now very well-read, copies of it. Its sub title is “the man and his music”. I now wanted to know about his wife.

Isobel and Gustav Holst

I am not a musicologist, but do have a doctorate in history – in my case 15th and 16th century English devotional literature. 20th century history had never held much interest to me. In April 2012 I noted down the various archives I had already visited – now a very long list. I became a student at Morley College, where Gustav Holst taught for eight years, singing in three of its choirs. Working full time, I needed to research in concentrated bursts, and was embarrassed when staff in at least two archives inquired whether I might want to take a break (realizing that they needed to themselves). The archives I had visited have been many and varied – from Holst Victorian House Cheltenham, where Gustav Holst was born, to the Royal College of Music where he studied and the schools and other institutions where he taught.

In contrast to my 15th and 16th century studies, there were still a small number of people, particularly in Thaxted in Essex, where Isobel lived for over half her life, who remembered her and other members of her family. Hearing their memories was both a privilege and a responsibility. I wanted to incorporate their reflections whilst avoiding tittle tattle. These reflections helped bring their personalities to life, and I soon realized that the adjective most used to describe the Holst family by those who knew them was “kind”. That kindness seems to have been inherited by Holst scholars around the world, who were and are generous in sharing their deep knowledge.

The Holsts rarely had much money, but Isobel Holst was beautiful and several friends were artists who captured her beauty in portraits. Several people shared these images with me, the owner of one portrait even taking it out of its frame for photographing, another scholar sending me pencil sketches from the US, and a previously unknown portrait by Millicent Lisle Woodforde (the cover image of my own book) coming to light during my researches and now displayed at Holst Victorian House Cheltenham.

Isobel in the Holsts’ music room

Ten years later, and having published several articles on various aspects of the life and works of Gustav and Isobel Holst, it is time to answer the question which faces any historian: So what? Of course I have had a great deal of fun researching the Holsts, – I recall a Dulwich resident whose mother was taught by Gustav Holst describing his singing lessons as “fun”. But I hope my biography of Isobel Holst raises, as well as answers, questions. Why is so little written about the role of women as wives? Without Isobel Holst, and the wives of other composers, how much would they have composed at all? Gustav Holst wrote to Isobel in 1929 – 40 years before her death but only five years before his own – “I don’t see why you shouldn’t have some of the honour and glory”. My book is an attempt to stop Isobel Holst being one of history’s “forgotten wives”. In writing it, I have realized that there are many others, so the month-long project I started in January 2012 looks set to last me a lifetime.

Mrs Gustav Holst: An Equal Partner?

“I am amazed at all the new work – truly wonderful!” – Holst Scholar Raymond Head Circaidy Gregory Press is proud to announce the release of Philippa Tudor’s unique biography of Isobel Holst. Publication date 26th March 2022. Buy direct from the publisher here. Post free to UK addresses.


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