Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is, of course, best known for The Planets, but I continue to discover other compositions by Holst which are truly remarkable and unjustifiably neglected.

I listened to an out-of-print compact disc this evening that features some Holst rarities: Hymn to Dionysus, Choral Hymns of the Rig Veda, and Two Eastern Pictures. Fortunately, there are still used copies available of this 1985 UK release, so I was able to purchase the disc: Unicorn Digital DKP(CD) 9046. These performances are by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir, conducted by Sir David Willcocks (1919-2015), and the legendary harpist Osian Ellis (1928-). What a gem of a recording this is! Seek it out!

The standout work on this disc is a (nearly) complete recording of the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, written in four groups between 1908 and 1912. The Rig Veda is the oldest scripture of the Hindu religion. Not satisfied with existing English translations, Holst learned Sanskrit so that he could provide his own translation.

Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, op. 26

First Group, for chorus and orchestra (H. 96)
   I.   Battle Hymn
   II.  To the Unknown God
   III. The Funeral Hymn [not included in this recording]

Second Group, for women's chorus and orchestra (H. 98)
   I.   To Varuna (God of the Waters)
   II.  To Agni (God of Fire)
   III. Funeral Chant

Third Group, for women's chorus and harp (H. 99)
   I.   Hymn to the Dawn
   II.  Hymn to the Waters
   III. Hymn to Vena (Sun rising through the mist)
   IV.  Hymn of the Travellers

Fourth Group, for men's chorus and orchestra (H. 100)
   I.   Hymn to Agni [not included in this recording]
   II.  Hymn to Soma (the juice of a herb)
   III. Hymn to Manas (the spirit of a dying man)
   IV.  Hymn to Indra [not included in this recording]

I also very much enjoyed the final work on this recording, Two Eastern Pictures, written in 1911.

Two Eastern Pictures, for women’s voices and harp (H. 112)

I.  Spring
II. Summer

I certainly hope that this fine recording will be reissued soon, and that live performances of these works are in the offing.

Neptune, the Mystic

Many years ago I wrote a short poem while listening to the final and most otherworldly section of The Planets by Gustav Holst: Neptune, the Mystic.

Here it is:

Neptune, the Mystic from The Planets by Gustav Holst
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley
Ambrosian Chorus, John McCarthy
Alto ALC 1013
The endless poetry of space
Sends shivers across my spine,
And there upon the threshold sounds
The now distant drone of time.
Music fills the spacecraft
Starlight fills the night,
And there upon the threshold think
I wonder, was I right?
David Oesper

 

The Planets was written by Holst between 1914 and 1916, and the premiere performance was at The Queen’s Hall, London, on September 29, 1918.  Adrian Boult conducted the orchestra in a private performance for about 250 invited guests.  The Queen’s Hall was destroyed by an incendiary bomb during the London Blitz in 1941, seven years after Holst’s death in 1934.

Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, and was considered to be the ninth planet until its controversial demotion by the IAU in 2006.  A number of composers have added a Pluto movement to The Planets (“Pluto, the Renewer” by Colin Matthews, for example), and even an improvised performance (“Pluto, the Unpredictable”) by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.  I remember enjoying “Pluto, the Unknown” by American composer Peter Hamlin performed by the Des Moines Symphony in 1992, but unfortunately no recording of this work exists.