Selections from The Perfect Fool, op. 39, H. 150

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            Gustav Holst is one of England’s most revered composers, creator of musical works in great variety: choral music, songs, band music, orchestral works, ballet, and more.  His musical purview was remarkably diverse, and his compositions are frequently performed and appreciated in Great Britain.  His popularity there bears comparison with his good friend and follow composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams.  In this country the matter is somewhat different.  His reputation rests largely, and solidly, upon The Planets, and his two immortal works for band, Suites No. 1 and No. 2 for Military Band.   It is hard, indeed, to participate in American public school music band programs without having performed one or both of the latter classics.  They simply stand at the top of the repertoire for band, and almost every American band student knows them well.  On the other hand, however, those who frequent professional orchestra concerts in this country largely know Holst through his acclaimed orchestral work, The Planets.

            Born of German and Latvian descent in rural England to a musical, middle-class family, Holst received a musical education early, playing the violin and piano, and later taking up the trombone, the mastery of which his father thought would help his asthma.  Holst worked for a while as village organist and choirmaster before attending the Royal College of Music, where he met his life-long friend Vaughan Williams.   He eventually focused on the trombone, and earned a modest living early on as a member of various orchestras.   He soon gave that life up, however, and spent the rest of his life teaching music in a private girls’ school.

            His musical style is more personally idiomatic than perhaps most significant composers.  It is a reflection of his life-long devotion to Hindu philosophy and Sanskrit texts, a deep interest in traditional English folksong, and a selective employment of various contemporary “modern” musical elements.  One will hear modality, bi-tonality, poly-tonality, marvelous cross rhythms, masterful counterpoint, and other progressive techniques, but withal, his works have a curious accessibility to them.  And they all seem to be unique.  He resisted being pigeon-holed, and perhaps his works are reflective of the man’s somewhat enigmatic personal qualities.

            Holst wrote some eleven operas, but one would have to say that most of them enjoyed minor or no significant success.  However, after the great acclaim of The Planets in 1914, his reputation as a major composer was secure.  At the end of the war, while working with army veterans (he was always comfortable with and devoted to teaching amateurs, youth, and other non-professionals), he conceived the idea of a rather unusual opera.  The Perfect Fool was the result, and first performed at Covent Garden in 1923. The work of parody was vaguely a send up of the major nineteenth-century operatic composers and their works:  Wagner, Verdi, and their ilk.  Unfortunately, the libretto bordered on incomprehensibility and the work was in general, a resounding flop.

            What we have left is the attractive, dynamic ballet music that opens the opera, and it has enjoyed widespread performance and popularity as an orchestral suite since.   Those familiar with The Planets will easily identity many of the affinities between these two works.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©William E. Runyan