A hero's life overshadowed

The premiere of Benjamin Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw at the Teatro la Fenice, Venice in 1954 was one of the events that changed the direction of twentieth century music. The photograph above was taken in Venice at the time of the premiere and shows Britten with some of those who helped reshape post-war music. Directly across from the composer is Peter Diamand, who was a co-founder and general manager of the Holland Festival, director of the Edinburgh Festival, director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and artistic adviser to the Orchestre de Paris. On Diamand's right is an exceptional musician whose reputation, like their face in this photo, has been overshadowed by the brilliant circle in which they moved. For the moment let's just call that person our incognito hero, or IH for short.

Our incognito hero came from a musical family and studied at a leading music conservatory. In 1930 a scholarship allowed the adventurous IH to travel and study music in the, then, political tinder-boxes of Austria, Germany, Holland and Hungary, as well as investigating stone circles in Sweden and Greek temples in Sicily by way of relaxation. Folk and early music were life-long passions, but a residency in Switzerland in 1939 to study the music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was cut short by the outbreak of war.

As the fascist blight spread our incognito hero made a truly valuable contribution by serving on the Bloomsbury House Committee refugee committee, which helped many exiled musicians from Germany and Austria start new lives and careers. IH then went on to play an important role in supporting amateur music in wartime Britain. After the war our hero continued to travel in Europe and in 1951 ventured further afield, spending two months studying the folk music of India and teaching at Rabindrath Tagore's Santiniketan University in West Bengal. This was a decade before an Indian connection became an essential entry on the CV of ambitious contemporary composers.

It was in the role of musical animateur that our hero really made an impact. From 1942 to 1951 IH lived and worked in the pioneering creative community at Dartington Hall in Devon that later played host to Pierre Boulez, Bruno Maderna and Karlheinz Stockhausen. From 1943 IH held the influential position of director of music at Dartington. Music critic and broadcaster John Amis described our hero's contribution there as follows:

Some of the best lectures in the early years came from IH who could talk about the basic elements, 'Rhythm' or 'Melody', in such a way as not only to instruct but to touch you by (their) exposition of the simple facts of musical life. I have seen Paul Hindemith and Artur Schnabel in IH's audience jingling pennies in their handkerchiefs to imitate percussion instruments, and loving it.
In 1952 Benjamin Britten invited our incognito hero to Aldeburgh to work as his music assistant, and IH's work included orchestrating Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb for the 1952 Aldeburgh Festival. IH held the influential position of the artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival for the 1956 and 1957 seasons and, while in Suffolk, wrote books on Purcell, Byrd, Bach and Britten. In 1964 our hero left Aldeburgh to concentrate on editing and promoting the music of a famous father who had died thirty years earlier. He was Gustav Holst, and our incognito hero is, of course, Imogen Holst, who is seen, out of the shadows, below.

Imogen Host is remembered today mainly for her contribution at Aldeburgh, and for her work championing her father's music. But she was also a very talented composer. Her compositions included a 1928 Phantasy Quartet which dates from her time as a student the Royal Academy of Music in London. This lyrical quartet shows the influence of one of her teachers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and is a noteworthy example of English Pastoralism. But the quartet is untypical of her output and it would be a pity if it branded Imogen Holst as a Classic FM composer. The 1930 Sonata for Violin and Cello was written in Vienna and its confident use of dissonance marks her emergence as a contemporary voice. The sinewy String Trio No. 1 was written in 1944 for the Dartington Trio and uses a bitonal effect with the two violins ganging up on the usual victim, the viola.

After a fallow period while at Aldeburgh, Imogen Holst returned to composing in the 1960s. Her output included the three short studies for solo cello on tunes from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book titled The Fall of the Leaf which have gained some acceptance as repertory pieces, and her 1968 Duo for Viola and Piano. The latter reflects the turbulence of its year of composition and experiments with twelve-tone techniques. In 1982, two years before her death, Imogen Holst composed her valedictory String Quintet, a magnificent work that, sadly, has yet to take its rightful place in the chamber repertoire.

Below are two striking photo portraits of Imogen Holst. She never married, but the early portrait shows her as a striking beauty. If I have achieved anything in this article, it is, I hope, to make you want to hear more of this little-known composer's music. Now here is the very good news. All the works I have described are recorded for the first time on a new CD of Imogen Holst's String Chamber Music played with outstanding commitment and technical fluency by Court Lane Music and issued on the ensembles own record label.

This is quite outstanding music which mirrors contemporary trends while retaining a unique voice. If the composer had been a male emigrée from Central Europe who spent their sunset years on the campus of a liberal arts college, I am sure this story would read very differently. But, even in 2008, the importance of geography, gender and celebrity culture mean this important new release has attracted only minimal attention. But you can rectify that by buying Imogen Holst's String Chamber Music as an MP3 download or CD here. ImHo this is music that really must be listened to with innocent ears.

Sources and suggested further reading:
- Imogen Holst - A Life in Music edited by Christopher Grogan (Boydell & Brewer ISBN 9781843832966)
- The Pandora Guide to Women Composers by Sophie Fuller (Pandora ISBN 0044409362)
- Benjamin Britten, Pictures from a Life 1913-1976 compiled by Donald Mitchell & John Evans (Faber ISBN 0571115705 OP)
- Gustav Holst, A Biography by Imogen Holst (Faber ISBN 9780571241996)
- Amiscellany - My Life, My Music by John Amis (Faber ISBN 0571139698 OP)
- Gustav Holst, links to Hindu Mysticism from International Vegetarian Union

- For a fresh view on Gustav Holst's most familiar work try York 2 playing the four hand piano reduction of The Planets.
- Gustav Holst's Eastern influenced works include his one-act opera Savitri and Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda; the latter predated the Manhattan Project by thirty years.

Other Overgrown Path portraits of women in music include:
- Elisabeth Lutyens
- Elizabeth Maconchy
- Antonia Brico
- Ray Lev
- Wanda Landowska

Header photos credit Erich Auerbach, footer is from CD sleeve. Full listing of personalities in the header image from left to right are Marion Harewood, Peter Diamand, Imogen Holst, Lord Harewood, Anthony Gishford, Mrs Stein, Mrs Diamand (back to camera) and Britten. The two men behind Britten are unidentified but are probably Basil Douglas and Erwin Stein. Imogen Holst's String Chamber Music supplied by Court Lane Music in response to request from On An Overgrown Path. All books purchased at retail with exception of Imogen Holst - A Life in Music and Gustv Holst, A Biography, which were borrowed from Norfolk Library Services. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Philip Amos said…
I'm happy to say I rumbled the IH pretty early on in this splendid piece. The link you give to Dartington Trio takes us to the group formed in 1980, and I am wondering about the membership of that for which Holst wrote her trio in 1944. The only other reference I have is to the 'Dartington Summer School Trio' in 1956: William Glock, Raymond Cohen, and Joy Hall.
Pliable said…
Philip, thanks for your kind comments. John Amis' book, which I give as a reference may contain the answer to your question.

Chapter 11 on Sir William Glock says the following:

'Various violinists and cellists came and went in the various piano trios, in favour for a year or two.'

It appears that the early Dartington Trio was a vehicle for Glock as pianist plus string players of the moment.

The Amis book (now, alas, out of print) is an invaluable source on may aspects of post-war music in Britain.
Pliable said…
Email received:

Dear Bob, thank your attention to Imogen Holst's work.

We have a little minisite which will be at http://www.imogenholst.com/

I hope that as CD sales continue to decline and become less relevant over the years ahead, that mini project websites such as this will keep the music alive and thriving, in this instance by providing Imogen Holst with a platform that reflects her legacy and makes the digital recordings, online resources (eg Christopher Tinker's research) etc. available long after people stop buying CDs!

Thanks again, and with best wishes
Simon Hewitt Jones
Court Lane Music
JMW said…
Great! Do more female composers when you have an opportunity. I played some music of Ethel Barns that was quite well done. Perhaps you could feature her, as it would open a new path; she was the dedicatee of Cyril Scott's 1st Violin Sonata, a work that caused quite a stir at the time.
Civic Center said…
How wonderful. I've always wondered about Imogen Holst. In accounts of the Britten circle, she always comes across as the sanest and also most interesting which usually doesn't go hand in hand. A friend gave me a first edition of her slim bio of Britten years ago and it's one of my prized possessions. I'll be buying the CD.
Gubernatrix said…
I found this site from googling Imogen Holst - what a lovely article. Just the sort of thing I was looking for. I'd never heard of IH until a few weeks ago when I caught a piece on Radio 3 breakfast (pretty sure it was Phantasy Quartet) and thought it was great.

Thanks for the links to Court Lane Music; I've just downloaded Phantasy Quartet (not sure I 'got' the classic FM gag but it's quite an accessible piece and a nice entry point) - when I've got more money I might download the rest of the album.

Also heard of York Bowen for the first time, I think in the same week on R3. More good stuff....!

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