Imogen Holst – a study in commitment

Imogen Hoist

This is an article Chris first wrote for the Norfolk and Suffolk life magazine in February 2019. 

Suggest Suffolk’s most famous musicians, and I guess the answer will usually be “Benjamin Britten” if, for no other reason that he was born in the county. But what of Michael Tippett and Imogen Holst? I still have the original recording of an interview I conducted with Imogen Holst for radio sometime in the mid 1970s. In it, I ask a question about her standing amongst contemporary British composers –  the reply I got was tart and to the point: something along the lines that if I continued asking questions like this one, then the interview would come to a premature end.  I did not, and so the interview continued!

It was not as if I was a stranger to Imogen Holst, we had become acquainted in the early 1950s when my mother worked as a Nursing Auxiliary at Ipswich’s Anglesea Road Hospital where Imogen was a patient. For some reason they got into conversation about my musical activities and, generously, she invited me to contact her on her discharge from hospital. This I did, and, as a result, I invited her to become the first president of my newly-formed Trianon Music Group. This she accepted in a similarly generous fashion, with a telegram sent from her Aldeburgh dwelling.

So, began an association that continued until her death in 1984 during which time she wrote music for my orchestral players, although at the time I do not think we realised how much she had written for other types of ensemble (as a good starting point, listen to the music for brass ensemble including her Leiston Suite recorded by Onyx Brass for Chandos Records CHAN  CHSA 5221). Much of the music was not available in print and she had variously focused on the work she was undertaking for Benjamin Britten, and then in preparation for the centenary anniversary of her father’s birth:  which is the best place to start.

Gustav Holst was born in Cheltenham whilst Imogen Clare Holst was born into a musical family with a father who was to become one of the major figures in British music, especially between the two World Wars. Born in 1907, she was the only child of Gustav Von Holst and his wife, Isobel.  The small family now lived in Richmond, on the outskirts of London and it seems that these early years were characterised by a close link between father and daughter.

Gustav Holst (the “von” was dropped because of its connotation with Germany) was of Swedish descent and earned a living by teaching in various establishments including James Allen’s Girls’ School, Dulwich and at St Paul’s Girls’ School, Brook Green.  Her father predeceased his wife by many years, and I only ever heard Imogen or “Imo” (as she was known to her friends) refer infrequently to her mother who continued to live in Essex.

During her childhood and adolescence (although no such stage was recognised really during her early life), the family moved frequently with Imogen getting  an education at the Froebel Demonstration School, near to St Paul’s School where her father taught. Music clearly was a passion at this early stage and her school report for 1912 (she was five years old) describes her as “rather timid” having “a good sense of rhythm and in her singing, her voice though small is tuneful and she easily learns a new melody”.

She entered the Royal College of Music where she studied composition, piano and horn with teachers including Herbert Howells, George Dyson and W.H. Reed.  She had already made her musical mark as a student at St Paul’s School for Girls where she won plaudits and prizes, and that continued at the RCM where she was awarded the Morley Scholarship for being “the best all-round student”, and the Octavia Travelling Scholarship which enabled her to study abroad. This she did but her verdict on returning was “if it is music one is wanting, there is no place like London.”  That view was not surprising since as a teenager she had embraced folk music as her father had done as demonstrated through the many arrangements of folksong from different parts of the British Isles.

Whilst at school Imogen had formed a folk dance society, and not surprisingly she was to join the English Folk Song and Dance Society whose staff she joined in 1932 on a part-time basis. Two years later and her father died. He had never experienced good health. Imogen took part in the memorial  concert, conducting her own arrangement of one of Gustav Holst’s pieces for brass band and following that up with a biography of her father which won critical praise. By the late 1930s it seems she came to a career crossroads and decided to give up much of her teaching and concentrate on her own professional development, but war was to take her in a different direction, for she began work with the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (would that we had something like this now?) and with the remit of supporting such activities across a swathe of the West of England. Conducting and lecturing activities brought her into contact with local amateurs- including one of my cousins who recalled Imogen turning up breathless and very wet to a meeting place to give a talk, and laying out her wet outer garments near the boiler.

It seems that she was a very effective organiser and those skills were to come into great use when she worked at Dartington Hall. There in 1943 she met Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears who gave a recital and so another door was about to open. She attended the very first Festivals at Aldeburgh and then, in 1952, Britten suggested that she should come to the Festival to work. The financial arrangement was vague and necessitated a frugal regime on her part. From now on she assisted Britten and Pears in their work and undertook much editing and preparation of works to be performed including working out to get certain effects that Britten required for the premiere of Noye’s Fludde.

This is more or less where I come into the story – albeit at a considerable distance. I had attended one or two workshops that Imogen had given in Ipswich including a memorable pre-Christmas event where the non-professional timpanist had acquired a black eye by striking the timp head too strongly because of enthusiasm and the stick rapidly rebounded into her eye in rehearsal. Imogen – encouraging as ever – reminded her to take care but exhorted her to continue playing for the evening concert.

In 1956 she became one of the artistic directors of the Aldeburgh Festival and so continued her long sojourn in Aldeburgh, first in a series of rented flats and then in a bungalow in Church Walk, originally intended to be on the edge of a site for a Festival Theatre. That plan was abandoned in favour of Snape Maltings in 1967 when she shared the podium with Britten. By now she was President of Trianon Music Group and, in 1965, she wrote The Trianon Suite, and came to conduct it. That experience, in itself, was a revelation for she handled the young musicians in a firm but thoroughly encouraging way, dancing (as she habitually did) on the rostrum. Make no mistake, despite the “soft” approach she took to musicians, she was steely underneath as I believe the male musicians of the Central Band of the RAF discovered when she recorded some of her father’s music for military band. The bandsmen, I was told, thought that they knew better but she soon taught them not to underestimate her.

Britten died in 1976, and Imogen decided that she could not continue working as Artistic Director of the Festival. In any case, the work on her father’s legacy was considerable. The centenary of his death had been marked in 1974 and although she was to continue working, her health became a challenge. By now she had been honoured with honorary degrees over many years by many universities and had been awarded a CBE for her services to music. She died in 1984 and was buried in Aldeburgh churchyard, not far from the graves of Britten and Pears.

Imogen was one of a handful of musicians who engaged with both professionals and amateurs with care and encouragement, never seeking to talk down to the latter. The debt many of us owe her has increased with time, especially as more of her compositions have become recorded and republished. Her musical voice is the Legacy for many. For me, it is the original scores that she gave me and which sit in my library especially in this year when I celebrate 60 years of conducting.

As a postscript, the best to start reading about Imogen Holst, is the collection of essays edited by Christopher Grogan: Imogen Holst: A Life in Music  (Boydell, 2007 and, of course, one of the many books written by her.)