Archive for Gustav Holst

Painting the Annunciation

Posted in Musings with tags , , , , on December 23, 2014 by timtrue


A couple of days ago I included this painting in my post “Infinitely Intimate,” a homily on the Annunciation.  I chose it for a couple of reasons.

First, it captures Mary’s mixture of feelings quite well, don’t you think?  Gabriel appears to her and announces that she will bear a child.  She responds, “How can this be?”  The angel also tells her not to be afraid.  Finally, she resolves that, yes, she will do this wonderful task (bear the very Incarnation) as faithfully as she can.  Point is, what a mixture of emotions must have been flooding through her being all at once!–doubt, skepticism, and fear at least, perhaps a lot more.  Don’t you think the painter has done a pretty good job at capturing this in Mary’s face?

The second reason I chose it was because of the artist himself: Dante Gabriel Rosetti.  I know very little about this artist; but he is the brother of Christina Rosetti, a fairly well-known nineteenth-century English poet.  She penned words I hope you’re familiar with, a poem entitled “In the Bleak Midwinter, ” famously set to music by Gustav Holst among others.  (Holst’s setting is in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, #112.)  I like to think his sister Christina was his model for this one, though I haven’t been able to verify it.

Anyway, these two reasons compelled me to include this particular painting (of the many many available).  Call me sentimental, idealistic, whatever.  But there’s just something beautiful about sibling artists collaborating in the great conversation.

First-rate English Music

Posted in Music with tags , , , on June 25, 2013 by timtrue

tallis and byrd

Print by Gerhard van der Gucht, 18th c.

Gustav Holst’s The Planets is first-rate music.

Here is a curious thing: the piece is characteristically Holst, yet it is at the same time characteristically English.  That is, suppose you had some musicologist who knew a lot about early twentieth century music yet who had (impossible, I know, but for the sake of argument) never heard this piece of music.  Not only would the musicologist say “English” after hearing only a few bars, he or she would also almost certainly say “Holst!”

Now take the musicologist out of the picture.  What about The Planets makes it distinctly English?  And what makes it Holst’s?

I think the questions are really one and the same; don’t let the layers persuade you otherwise.  One deals with England on a societal level, as a culture.  The other perceives the effects of that culture upon an individual Englishman.  But it’s really the same issue: English music of the early twentieth century—and the English people who composed it—is distinct from contemporaneous music from the Continent, or from America, or from South America, Africa, or Asia.  Holst shares a bond with Vaughan Williams that he does not share with Mahler, Copland, Ginastera, or any other first-rate, non-British composer of his time.

So English music is somehow its own beast, different from the musics of the Old World and the New.  Why?  An answer is difficult to articulate, no doubt because the question is so large.  Still, I think we can begin to scratch the surface.

If we go back a few centuries, to the sixteenth, we run into a remarkable English court musician by the name of Thomas Tallis.  He began his sixty-year career during the reign of Henry VIII and completed it during Elizabeth’s, working until his death in 1585.  Now if you don’t find that significant then you need to brush up on your history.  For Henry initiated a religious split from the Roman Church, declaring himself and not the Pope as the English Church’s supreme Head.  Following his death, Edward VI came to the throne, as thoroughly Protestant as any English monarch ever was.  Next, Jane Grey jumped (or was she pushed?) in as monarch for nine days before Mary, a. k. a. Bloody Mary, came to the throne in 1553.  Mary was as Roman Catholic in word as Edward VI was Protestant; in deed she is remembered for the public executions of nearly 400 Protestants in five years.  Finally, Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 and settled the religious drama by solidifying the Anglican Church, an institution not Catholic enough for the Romans and certainly not Protestant enough for the Lutherans and Calvinists.  As for Tallis, he navigated these rough religious waters admirably, the only court employee to endure these four (or five, if you count Grey) monarchies.

When Tallis began serving as a Court Musician, polyphony was all the rage on the Continent.  Think Palestrina, if you know the name.  But then Luther got people thinking.  And that John Calvin character!  One voice would leap over another, three beats behind it, only to be overrun by another, and yet another, and all of it sung on a single syllable of that dead language Latin—how could anyone even grasp what the message is!  Protestants called for musical simplicity, one syllable per note.  Polyphony was too complex, like the devil.  But for Tallis—whether because he found the melodies and simple harmonies too bland for his musical sensibilities or because he was a Catholic at heart, I don’t know—something a bit more complex, but not so complex as polyphony, resulted, and apparently Henry and Edward were okay with it.  Under Mary, Tallis produced some complex polyphony (listen to Puer natus est nobis if you ever get the chance), persuading me at any rate that he remained Catholic through all the hubbub.  And under Elizabeth, while leaving behind polyphony for the most part, we still see awe-inspiring complexity.  His famous forty-voice motet Spem in alium comes from this period.

The point in all this is that by the time Elizabeth acceded to the throne, Tallis had come into his own musically; and his own was nothing like the Protestant or Catholic music on the Continent.  Like the Anglican Church, Tallis’s music was unique.  For that matter, Tallis the man was unique.

Tallis forged a new road musically then.  Is it difficult to see that Holst still travels that same, unique British road in the early twentieth century?  Could we say the same for the Beatles? Led Zeppelin? Pink Floyd? Sting? Adele?

Planet of the Apes, the Gospel, and Gustav Holst

Posted in Movies with tags , , on June 23, 2013 by timtrue

Last night I watched the 2001 film Planet of the Apes.  One of my kids, Hannah, gave the DVD to me for Father’s Day, a generous gesture considering her meager income of a weekly allowance and the occasional odd job, when the mood strikes–her, that is, not me.  I had no idea what to expect other than what I could recall from reruns viewed as a child, usually on days when I stayed home from school sick and my mother had no idea what else to do with me.  “Why don’t you watch some TV?” she would say.  The episodes were, in a word, cheesey.  But, hey, that was the seventies and everything had to be done with makeup, trick photography, and wires.  And what more did a boy’s imagination need anyway?  Now, however, I had a DVD in my hand made in 2001, starring Mark Wahlberg and and Helena Bonham-Carter and directed by Tim Burton.  Surely, with names like this, here would be the real deal, filled with awesome computer-animated visual effects and surround sound to tantalize the auriculars.  Surely, at least, this imagination-triggering full-length motion picture wouldn’t be cheesey, right?

Wrong!  Apparently Tim Burton wanted to keep the seventies cheese feel.  The apes were computer-unenhanced people with basic masks and makeup, to include a lot of hair, just like in the seventies.  When Wahlberg’s character’s spacecraft crash-landed on the planet of the apes in a pond (an event that bore striking resemblance to Luke Skywalker’s crash-landing once upon a time when he was seeking Yoda), the special effects consisted of an underwater air-hose, underwater lights, a smoke machine, and a fan.  Ooh, eerie!

Now I’m sure that Mr. Burton spent long hours and hard work to make the masks, apply the makeup and hair just right, and construct the elaborate sets needed for his re-telling of the Christ story (a hero, Wahlberg, fell out of the sky and reconciled enemies–whether people (and apes) would choose to believe it or not), and deliberately avoided the animating enhancement capabilities of computers.  Maybe Mr. Burton was trying to make some kind of statement; I don’t know, I haven’t watched, nor have I made any plans to watch, the thirteen hours of special features included on my special edition 2-disc DVD set.  But even the most elaborate set and the most detailed artistry, sadly, Mr. Burton, cannot compete with the technologically advanced visual effects that can be done on a few computers in rude cubicles in some office on Sunset Blvd.  Your attempt at old-school then, Mr. B, felt, well, old.  And in the film industry that translates as second-rate, B-film cheese.

Near the end of the film, Wahlberg’s character returns to earth.  But don’t worry, I’m not about to spoil the ending.  For that you’ll have to go out and rent it and watch it yourself.  Or buy it.  Heck, you can borrow my DVD if you like.  Just make sure to get it back to me by, um, this time, er, next, uh, millennium or so.  Anyway, you, the viewer, can tell Wahlberg’s character, shooting through space at warp speed in another spacecraft, is nearing earth because he passes near a planet with telltale rings, Saturn.  But if that weren’t enough of a clue there is loud, spacey music, strikingly similar to, but not quite–oh, what the devil is that piece?  Why of course!  It’s Gustav Holst’s The Planets.  Oh, wait, it’s not really.  Just similar.  And you realize that, like everything else in the movie, the music too is just a second-rate rip off of something first-rate.  Even the cheesey show of my boyhood sick days might be first-rate, arguably anyway, in the sense of its originality.  But this!  Its makeup, its storyline, even its music–they’re all rip-offs!

I think I’ll take Hannah out for a first-rate matinee soon.  Any suggestions?