When I was appointed as the Curator of the Holst Birthplace Museum in Cheltenham in 2004, I began what will probably be a lifelong quest to understand and appreciate Gustav Holst, composer of The Planets Suite (1914-16). My time at the museum opened up a whole new world to me. I began to understand the links between creativity and movement: Gustav Holst liked to walk as walking helped him to compose – I can imagine him walking in the Cotswolds and on the Malvern Hills with his own unique soundtrack running in his head.
In the summer of 2005, I extended my research – wanting to get to know more about Gustav Holst’s daughter Imogen Holst, who like her father was also a composer, conductor and teacher. Imogen relocated to Suffolk in the early 1950s to take up her role as Benjamin Britten’s amanuensis. My trip to Aldeburgh was a revelation – I had never ventured so far to the east of the UK before, and I was astounded by the beauty of the coastline and the vast open skies. I expected it to be a holiday filled with books, libraries and listening - more cerebral than physical. But as soon as I arrived, I was drawn to the beach, to the call of the sea and the sound of the waves crashing and rushing across the stony shoreline. Luckily my desire for more in-depth knowledge chimed with my walking because I soon discovered that Imogen Holst took bracing walks every day, especially when she was working with Britten on his score Gloriana. His commission for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Sometimes Imogen would transcribe as many as 28 pages a day. Taking down Britten’s musical notation – no mere administrative task – Imogen was offering advice and giving ideas as well as making suggestions for the dance sequences, for she was an accomplished dancer. After these mammoth sessions, no matter the weather she would walk from the Red House, Britten’s residence, to the beach to clear her head.
Britten too was a walker; after a morning of writing, he would take his daily ‘composing walks’ on the marshes or near the estuary in Aldeburgh with his dogs, no matter the weather. Unlike Holst, Britten’s work very much meshed with the natural environment of the Suffolk landscape that he breathed in every day. Accepting the inaugural Aspen award in 1964, Britten said: “I belong at home – there – in Aldeburgh … and all the music I write comes from it.” The sounds of the sea, and the birds - the redshanks and reed warblers - are embroidered into Britten’s musical tapestries and are especially evident in his magnificent Four Sea Interludes (1944). Gustav Holst drew inspiration from walks in his native Gloucestershire, the tune for his wonderfully lyrical Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter is known as Cranham (1904-5) – named after the small Cotswold village where Holst lived for a short time. But he was able to complete his Cotswold Symphony (1900) in Skegness – it seems that as long as he was out in the world, he was drawing inspiration. For most of his life, Holst lived in London, and he took inspiration from walking in the city too. His Hammersmith and Brook Green Suites (1930 & 1933) are celebrations of the pastoral that he found within the urban – although the areas were not as built up as they are today. One of his most mesmerising and beautiful pieces was inspired by a trip to Algiers. Walking through the hot and dusty streets, he stopped to hear the strains of street music rising up and later in homage to that seminal moment he composed his Beni Mora Suite (1909-10) – one of his best and most original pieces.
In 2015, ten years after my trip to Suffolk, I left the UK and relocated to Austria. In the weeks before I left, I quite naturally began to feel afraid. I thought about Holst and how, when he was suffering from one of his bouts of depression, he still found solace in walking. I took myself off into the woods and looked around me – hearing the song of a blackbird and touching the trees I knew that Austria would in a very real sense be exactly the same – Nature is beyond language and knows no boundaries or borders. When, after the excitement of my first Summer in my new land, I still felt uncertain I began to walk, and it was then that I realised that creativity comes out of movement comes out of walking and being out in the world. Some things stay the same and even during this terrible pandemic nature and walking are still providing solace and inspiration.
To find out more about Walking into Alchemy: The Transformative Power of Nature. Please visit www.ameliamarriette.com/my-book. Choose from a full-colour, signed edition with over 50 photographs of the beautiful Austrian Countryside for £23.00 including postage and packing, or an e-book for £3.99. Amelia is raising money for the Holst Birthplace Museum and will donate £5.00 for every paperback sold and £1.00 for every e-book sold. (Offer only applies to books sold from her website UK and EU only).
My interview with Peter Lewis on his Cooler Classics Show for North Cotswold Radio will be broadcast on Sunday 06.12.20 at 9.00 pm - https://nccr.co.uk/
My article about Gustav Holst in Cotswold Life Magazine