Music from Heaven
Before my parents bought their first component stereo system in 1964, I don’t recall my family having many classical LP’s. I do remember many 78 albums, though. While there may have been a handful of others, one LP set I remember – and still have – is a six-record collection The World’s Most Beautiful Music.
Once we had the stereo we started getting many stereo classical albums such as Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and the soundtrack of Fantasia. My mother also bought many operas. She would threaten to play Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov if we misbehaved.
Of all the records my mother bought, probably the family favorite was Gustav Holst’s The Planets.
From the anger of Mars, Bringer of War,
to gentleness of Venus, Bringer of Peace,
to Jupiter, Jollity,
…and everything in between, The Planets touched the human soul in many ways.
Cecil Spring-Rice was a member of the British diplomatic service. While sailing to take a post in Washington, D.C. he met a member of the U.S. civil service commission named Theodore Roosevelt. They became good friends and Spring-Rice was best man at Roosevelt’s 1886 wedding. Spring-Rice was also a poet and in 1908 wrote Urbs Dein while stationed in Stockholm. He reworked that poem in January, 1918 to reflect the British experience of World War I. The poem was now called I Vow To Thee, My Country. Rice died the next month in Canada at the age of 59.
Gustav Holst was born in 1874 to a musical family. While most of his family played piano, a nerve problem in his arm made it difficult to play the piano so Gustav took up the trombone instead. He became the music director at a girls’ school. In 1914 he began writing his most famous work, The Planets, completed in 1916 and premiering at Queen’s Hall, London in 1918.
In 1921, Holst adapted one of the themes from Jupiter and called it Thaxted. Some changes were made to accommodate the lines of the Spring-Rice poem. The musical creation, I Vow To Thee, My Country, is now a greatly loved English patriotic hymn. Instrumental versions were played at Winston Churchill’s funeral and the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Vocal versions by the choir and the congregation sang it at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. It was the favorite hymn of Princess Diana and it was sung at her funeral. The hymn is one of the traditional closing pieces of the the Proms, a yearly music festival begun in 1895 and now broadcast by the BBC.
With a name like Gustav Holst, I assumed that the composer must have been from a country such as Germany. In 2009 I visited Chichester Cathedral in England. In the cathedral was a memorial for Holst.
Surprisingly, Gustav Holst was born in Cheltenham and lived his entire life in England, passing away in 1934. Like Cecil Spring-Rice, Holst was 59. He was cremated and his ashes are interred at Chichester Cathedral.
Several years ago I had the pleasure of seeing the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra play The Planets in concert. The Holst composition is very popular — with good reason.