- Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter
Lovers of “space music” will have to wait for more than an hour into this new documentary by Tony Palmer before Gustav Holst’s “Mars” (from The Planets) is unleashed. Against a dazzling montage of incendiary images the relentless battering ram of Holst’s music flattens you against your seat. But don’t catch your breath; not yet. Because a shock-cut flings you into a whirling chorus line of girls in the film The Great Ziegfeld. A voice-over informs us that the venerable Holst (1874–1934) went on to write some (now forgotten) film music; moreover, that his younger brother Ernest Cossart appeared in many films, as we watch him with Ronald Reagan in a clip from King’s Row. Who knew?
No question, this is a Tony Palmer film, filled with sublimities brusquely counterposed with wildly unexpected moments and bizarre trifles of information. Up to this point, the film has offered a relatively moderate (by Palmer standards) chronicle of this most modest, mild, and retiring of English composers. Against the imposing gallery of Palmer’s other films about better-known 20th-century English composers, including Benjamin Britten (A Time There Was, 1980), William Walton (At the Haunted End of the Day, 1980), Malcolm Arnold (Toward the Unknown Region, 2004), and Ralph Vaughn Williams (O Thou Transcendent, 2008), this new production from Palmer’s Isolde Films, produced by Melvyn Bragg, might be presumed to be as unassuming and self-effacing as Holst himself.
True enough, but only to a point. Hovering over everything is the shock that this mighty “Mars” music could come from a man like Holst, who was a frail, small, bespectacled man chronically afflicted with neuritis, asthma, and poor eyesight. Yet we learn that there burned within him the persistent flame of a progressive socialist conscience under the thrall of William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, and the left-wing priest, the “Red Vicar” (Conrad Noel); and who tirelessly brought the music of English folk traditions to the unlettered and the working classes in the London slums and elsewhere. Not for Holst, however, the Edenic idyll of the rural scene; rather, his [End Page 84] true métier was the rough-hewn Dorset and Egdon Heath of Thomas Hardy—the “bleak midwinter” of the film’s title and of his 1904 tone poem. Moreover, as several notable commentators, including conductor John Eliot Gardiner, historians Stephen Johnson and Michael Short, and Holst’s daughter Imogen, reveal, Holst’s was a music that cloaked a highly idiosyncratic “voice” of unexpected dissonances, rhythmic eccentricities, and orchestral effects. Indeed, when he first burst upon the music scene in the late 1890s, modern music in England was still defined by Edward Elgar and the German hegemony led by Richard Strauss. Audiences hardly knew what to make of the harsh angularity of the Cotsworld Symphony (1899) and the astrological mysticism of The Planets (1914–1915). Like Elgar, who detested the patriotic puffery of “Land of Hope and Glory” that was attached to his music, Holst came to abhor the jingoistic lyrics of “England, I Vow to Thee” that later clung to the “Jupiter” music from The Planets.
Palmer’s touch is everywhere, from the aforementioned penchant for shock cuts, lovely aerial shots of England’s fields and church interiors, and a linear development that proceeds erratically like a broken-field runner. And of course there are his trademark generous samplings of music shot with the players arranged diagonally before the camera, their faces edged with a strong side light, throwing the remainder of the frame into dramatic darkness.
After listening to the film’s St. Paul’s Suite and The Planets, many viewers will be eager to obtain the relatively obscure works it contains. Among these are the “Toccata” for solo piano performed by Antoine Francoise, and the lovely “Lyric Movement for Viola,” performed here by Ruth Gibson, which was not published until many years after Holst’s death. Above all, there is the remarkable Beni Mora, written...