Gustav Holst – Ode to Death, Op. 38 for chorus and orchestra
(b. 21 September 1874, Cheltenham – d. 25 May 1934, London)
Gustav Holst did not serve in the First World War, but that was not because he did not want to. He applied several times but each time failed the medical examination. He was profoundly short-sighted and also suffered from neuritis in his left arm, which only got worse as the years passed. Nevertheless, he travelled to the Salonika front with the YMCA, arriving shortly after an armistice had been signed.
He had known several casualties of the war, particularly the young Scottish composer Cecil Coles (1888-1918). Early in the war Holst and Vaughan Williams had befriended and supported Coles, who was married, by giving him work which could be described an ‘of artistic importance’ in any claim to keep him from being transferred overseas. For instance, Vaughan Williams paid Coles to reconstruct the ‘lost’ score of A London Symphony from the orchestral parts – in the end others did most of the work, but the excuse was a legitimate one. Cecil Coles was eventually killed in July 1918, but he had written music at the front, sending it back to Gustav Holst, stained with mud and blood.
It is not surprising that Holst would want to respond to the tragedy of war in some way, and when he was commissioned to write a choral work for the Leeds Festival of 1922 – the first festival since 1913 – he sent this setting of Walt Whitman, which actually dates from 1919. It is part of When Lilacs Last on the Dooryard Bloom’d from Leaves of Grass, and was written originally in memory of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
The autograph score bears no dedication, but according to Holst’s daughter Imogen, her father added in pencil “For C. C. and the others” – C. C. was, of course, Cecil Coles.
The Ode to Death was first performed on 6 October 1922 at Leeds Town Hall. The Festival Chorus was accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra under Albert Coates. It was repeated in London the following year, conducted by Vaughan Williams.
Phillip Brookes, 2023
For performance material please contact Novello, London. Reprint of a copy from the Collection Phillip Brookes, Roxas City.
German preface / Deutsches Vorwort lesen> HERE