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13 November 2014

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You are in: Gloucestershire > People > Profiles > Gustav Holst: The Lost Films

Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst: The Lost Films

Unseen footage from an unfinished film on the life of Cheltenham-born composer Gustav Holst has been uncovered in Gloucestershire...

Rare Gustav Holst films discovered by BBC Gloucestershire

Did you know that the composer of The Planets, Gustav Holst, used to walk from London to Cheltenham with a trombone slung over his back and was once reprimanded by a Cotswold farmer for frightening his sheep?

Or that when he was a singing teacher he was known affectionately by his students as "Gussy", and he wanted to donate his body to science?

Imogen Holst

Imogen Holst speaks about her father

These are just some of the fascinating facts to have surfaced after the discovery of an unfinished film about the life of the famous composer. The footage, originally filmed in the late 1970s, has remained hidden in the archives at the Holst Birthplace Museum until now.

Captured on film are never before seen interviews with Holst's daughter Imogen, composers Herbert Howells and Edmund Rubbra - all of whom died in the 1980s - and composer Sir Michael Tippett who died in 1998. Also taking part were several elderly ladies who had been taught by the composer when at school many years before.

Fact File

Gustav Holst was born in Cheltenham in 1874.

His most celebrated work is The Planets.

Holst studied at the Royal College of Music.

He taught at St Paul's Girls' School and at Morley College.

He was originally named "von Holst" but he dropped the "von" around the time of the First World War.

In 1927 a Holst Festival was held in Cheltenham to celebrate his life.

Holst died in 1934.

In the films daughter Imogen talks to interviewer Tony Richards about her father's early years in Cheltenham and his "double life" as a composer and teacher. She goes on to discuss his later life and reveals that he had wanted to donate his body to science after his death, but his wish wasn't granted.


The Forest of Dean composer Dr Herbert Howells remembers the first time he met him and recalls the time he taught alongside Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams at St Paul's Girl's School.

Sir Michael Tippett remembers meeting Holst at the Royal College of Music and discusses the importance of his masterpiece The Planets. Dr Edmund Rubbra remembers being a student of Holst and recalls what he knew about his compositions at the time.

Several of Holst's former students share their memories of the composer. Mrs Branwen Melville-Smith knew him as Mr "von Holst" - he dropped the "von" around the time of the First World War. She describes him as being "rather gnome-like with a nice smile".

Herbert Howells

Herbert Howells taught alongside Holst

Dr Hermia Mills tells us that he "wasn't strict enough" with some of his pupils at St Paul's Girls' School, and Mrs Irene Swan remembers him as being a kind teacher who was full of encouragement.

Mrs Rosamund Gurney performed in the choral section of The Planets in the famous 1927 performance at Cheltenham Town Hall. She recalls Holst as being "full of nervous energy" and wondered how "this little man" could ever have created Mars - "one of the noisiest pieces of music ever written".


Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral, Adrian Partington, thinks the films are fascinating. He said: "They are completely irreplaceable. They have so enriched my perception of what Holst was like as a man, and that in itself will enrich my perception of Holst as a composer because you can't separate the two.

"Anybody who knew Holst well has long since died - close friends, students - they've all gone now so it's fantastic. Its value is inestimable."

Picture quality

The picture quality on some of the films isn't perfect due to the age of the original film reels - colours on the Eastman Colour II negative have faded after 30 years in storage - but the footage is still perfectly watchable. The original audio tapes have survived the test of time much better.

Steenbeck film editing machine

Transfer of the original films to DVD

Before the films were digitised for use on this website the footage had to be transferred to DVD. This involved the use of one of the few remaining Steenbeck film editing machines at BBC Bristol.

Each reel of film had to be matched up with the appropriate sound tape and the two synchronised together. The films could then be imported into modern digital video editing software.

Use the link below to view the unique archive film footage:

last updated: 23/07/2009 at 14:18
created: 20/07/2009

Have Your Say

Are you fan of Gustav Holst's music? What do you like about these films?

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Neil Arthur Williams
Just watched the lost Gustav Holst films and found them fascinating.Two little problems with some of the views represented on film:1. Sir Michael Tippett makes an issue of Holst’s ‘visionary’ status. This is a widely held, but likely romantically erroneous view. As a Holst scholar, I believe that it largely comes from the mass regurgitation of Imogen Holst’s various writings in respect of 'Mars, The Bringer of War' that attempt to paint Holst as having had some kind of premonition of mechanised warfare prior to the First World War’s advent of tanks. However, the true visionary behind this foresight was actually H.G. Wells who Holst is known to have read, particularly in respect of the highly mechanised attacking Martians of his bestselling sci-fi novel 'The War of the Worlds', which was written some 16 or 17 years earlier than when Holst first started gestating and composing ideas for Mars around 1913/14.2. Dr Hermia Mills remarks that Holst was not a particularly humorous man is not necessarily a reliable account, and should therefore not be taken at face value (at it appears Adrian Partington has done, judging by the online interview). There are many examples of Holst’s great sense of humour in his friendships, as a teacher, and even in his music. This is evidenced in personal letters, articles about Holst written by contemporaries, and even in his own cartoon drawings. We must remember our academic disciplines when analysing such so-called ‘primary source’ interviews; Dr Mills’ view is only one person’s view of the man, and a flawed one at that: this is an old lady recalling a childhood view of her adult teacher. I am quite sure that we have all had so-called ‘humourless’ teachers in our youth that, in reality, had great senses of humour among their colleagues and friends. We all have different facets of personality and are capable of showing different facets to different individuals or groups of people, not least a person as complex as Holst. Had Dr Mills known Holst as an adult rather than when she was a child then she would likely have had a very different view of him. Certainly, I would hate for Dr Mills’s recounted childhood opinion become common currency for how we should regard Holst as a serious or humorous man, because he was undoubtedly both.

Alyson Breuer, Chicago, IL
This is a fascinating project and I would dearly love to see the footage (Dr Howells taught while I was at SPGS - BTW, the apostophe comes behind the "s" as in " girls' ") -- is it because I am in the US that I am prevented from viewing this? Can someone please explain to me why not -- surely no copyright issues are involved?

Phill Phelps
I'm doing some research into the noise characteristics of optical soundtracks. Is it possible to contact the transfer technician to ask:If these prints were all raw footage with sync sound on tape, or did any of these reels have optical soundtracks? [Phill - please email and we'll be happy to reply with an answer to your query]

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