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You are in: Essex > History > Local History > Holst's village of song

Blue plaque for Gustav Holst

Holst made Thaxted his second home

Holst's village of song

As well as creating some of the 20th century's most rousing classical compositions, Gustav Holst was also a influential figure in creating an 'orgy of song' in the Essex village of Thaxted.

Gustav Holst is one of Britain's most celebrated composers, responsible for amongst many works, The Planet Suites.

The Manse

Holst wrote his Choral Symhony at The Steps

Of Latvian descent, Gustav von Holst (he dropped the 'von' around the time of World War One) was born in Cheltenham in 1874 and trained at the Royal College of Music, alongside the likes of Ralph Vaughan Williams and went on to compose many symphonies and choral arrangements that are revered to this day.

But one of his most celebrated works, The Planet Suite, has its roots planted firmly in picturesque, rural Essex.

"Holst came here on a walking holiday in 1913 and stayed one night," explains Thaxted resident Sybil King.

"He was so enchanted by the beauty of the church in the sunny and frosty day, that he decided to stay here and later on he decided to bring his wife back. They rented a cottage just outside of the village and that's where he started his writing in Thaxted.

"In order to help with the existing church choir, he brought some of the Morley College singers and they became very much part of the life in Thaxted"

Sybil King

"He started writing the Planets in the cottage where in those days it was very very quiet - the noisiest thing that went past was probably horse and carts."

Between 1917 and 1925, Holst spent a lot of his time away from London in the house known then as 'The Steps', but now as 'The Manse'. A Blue Plaque to commemorate his time there now adorns the building in the centre of the village.

Music for the people

During his time in the village, Holst developed a strong connection with the church which dominates the Thaxted skyline.

Not only did he use its organ to compose his scores, he also became involved with the choir and with the vicar, Conrad Noel, helped to make the church and its music a focal point for the people of Thaxted, no matter of their class or background.

Thaxted church

Thaxted's church dominates the skyline

"Conrad Noel apparently met Holst in the church, they fell into conversation and discovered they had similar a similar outlook and were both socialists," reveals local resident Bruce Munro.

"Noel had brought militant socialism to Thaxted, which divided the town between those who supported him and embraced his teaching and those who opposed him.

"Holst spent time training the choir, playing the organ and until relatively recently there were people who knew Holst and were trained by him," Bruce explains.

"People were taught to play who would not otherwise had the good fortune to play music."

Organ in Thaxted Church

The organ where he composed his scores

One of the upshots of Holst and Noel's vision was the creation in 1916 of the Whitsun Festival, a four-day musical festival, which Holst once referred to as an 'orgy of music'.

"Holst was part of it all. It was he who trained the choir, which led to the festival and it was all about embracing anybody who was there to embraced - but particularly young people," says Bruce.

Sybil adds: "In order to help with the existing church choir, he brought some of the Morley College singers and they became very much part of the life in Thaxted as well.

"They played all sorts of music, and even when I came here in 1960 the people who used to sing in the choir or play in the orchestra who would quote him.

Interior of Thaxted church

The church's acoustics lent titself to music

"They'd say 'Gussy said this was the way we should do it' and they were very, very proud of the connection."

I Vow to Thee My Country

Perhaps Holst's most well-known connection to the village is the hymn, 'I Vow to Thee My Country'.

When a poem by Cecil Spring-Rice was put to a passage from his Jupiter Suite, one of the country's most evocative hymns was created. When played in this form, the piece of music is known as 'Thaxted'.

"The fact that it is called 'Thaxted' in the hymn books is a source of huge pride," explains Sybil.

Thaxted church

The church became a focal point for the village

"Over the years people have had the hymn sung during either their weddings or indeed their funerals and I should imagine everybody in Thaxted knows the words off by heart!

"People visit to see the organ that he played and to see the church where this beautiful music was made.

"The acoustics in the church are absolutely wonderful, so performing in the church is a huge pleasure to professional musicians as well as amateur ones.

Bruce adds: "If you're related to Thaxted, or you live here then you know about it. If you're in Timbuktu and you hear 'I Vow to Thee My Country' you'd certainly be transported back here."

last updated: 04/03/2009 at 16:14
created: 04/03/2009

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