A visit to Holst’s Birthplace Museum…

 Holst Birthplace MuseumThe Music Room in Holst’s Birthplace Museum (photo: www.cheltenhamtownhouse.com)

Cheltenham is one of Britain’s most beautiful towns. Situated on the edge of the Cotswolds, it is architecturally stunning; elegant buildings and manicured gardens abound. So it provides the perfect setting for the birthplace museum of one of Britain’s most important composers; Gustav Holst. Holst was born in the Spa town in 1874 in a property which is resides in Clarence Road (then known as Pittville Terrace). Holst was born into a family of artists and musicians; his father was a musician, teacher and organist of nearby All Saints Church.

Strolling up to the delightful house, there was a sense  of serenity and tranquillity; a feeling which the Holst Birthplace Trust works hard to maintain. The house is immaculately presented and has many fascinating artefacts and manuscripts. In fact, not only is it a slice of a musical history but also Victorian history too.

Originally built in 1832, the Regency-style terraced house was home to Holst and his family for just 7 years. The family vacated after the death of Gustav’s mother. The Museum was opened in 1975 and is one of only two composer’s birthplace museums in the country (the other being Elgar’s Museum in Worcester).

The most ‘musically’ interesting room, is undoubtedly the living room or ‘Music Room’, which by any standards, is large and full of Holst memorabilia. Resplendent with William Morris-designed wall paper, many of Holst’s belongings were bequeathed by the composer’s daughter, Imogen (who was also a composer). The grand piano is the main ‘focal’ point and the instrument on which the composer wrote and ‘tried out’ much of his magnum opus, The Planets. The Collard & Collard piano was clearly a prized possession and is featured alongside his armchair, music stand, piano stool and a painted chest. The many display cabinets were of particular interest to me; they contained personal family items including a picture of Mozart that Holst apparently kept nearby when composing! Scores, press cutting and reference books are all displayed prominently. The contents are taken from the Museum’s archives and change regularly.

A fine bust of the composer (by Maurice Juggins was donated in 2005) and a very eye-catching portrait by Bernard Munns (which was given to Holst by the people of Cheltenham in 1927) are both interesting additions to the Music Room. I loved the concert programmes and poster’s which adorn the walls, mentioning all the great composers, performers and conductors of the time. Holst studied at the Royal College of Music in London where he met his life-long friend and colleague, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Always a prolific composer (he wrote over 400 works), Holst was also an inspirational teacher, and taught at St. Paul’s Girls School, Reading University, Morley College and Dulwich Girl’s School. I definitely feel empathy here having been a student at the RCM myself and piano professor at Reading University too.

The ‘Regency Room’ on the first floor was thought to be a ‘music lesson’ room; beautifully decorated and furnished, it contains a harp and square piano. Holst’s great-uncle, Theodore von Holst, was an illustrator and painter (he was the first illustrator of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831/2)) and two of his paintings are displayed in this room. Other rooms of interest include the nursery (complete with wonderful wooden toys and Doll’s House), the basement, and the kitchen which left us with no illusions regarding just how labour intensive household chores were in the Victorian era. The whole house is most certainly a wonderful historical ‘snapshot’ of life in the Nineteenth Century.

Holst was transfixed by astrology, folk song and Indian religions, and whilst his crowning glory is undoubtedly The Planets, he also wrote in many other genres including opera, ballet, concertos, chamber music, and songs, many of which reflect these interests. He died in 1934 and was buried at Chichester Cathedral.

As always when visiting museums and galleries, I couldn’t drag myself away without purchasing something, and the little shop contains an excellent mix of recordings, books and biographical details. So I bought Gustav Holst; A Biography by Imogen Holst and will look forward to reading more about this revered composer. If you find yourself in the vicinity of Cheltenham then don’t miss this lovely homage to Holst’s life and work.

www.holstmuseum.org.uk

Holst’s Birthplace Museum (photo from www.flickr.com)

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