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What was Imogen Holst like? Remembering Imogen Holst by Composer and Writer Sam Richards

Imogen Holst Conducting
Imogen Holst a first class conductor - courtesy Bruno Lima

I am delighted to bring you another superb blog from my Guest Blogger Sam Richards. Sam is based in Totnes in South Devon; amongst other things, he is a composer and a writer. Our paths crossed via a wonderful radio station called Soundart Radio, also based in South Devon. We worked on some radio programmes together, and we became friends immediately and have stayed in touch ever since.

For some years, before I relocated to Austria, I was the Curator of the Holst Birthplace Museum (now the Holst Victorian House), and I have never lost my love and affection for the eccentric English composer Gustav Holst who is most famous for his The Planets Suite. This composition is now over a hundred years old, yet it remains one of the most seminal and vital pieces composed in the twentieth century. Gustav Holst's daughter, Imogen, was also a composer, a conductor and the primary holder of the flame that kept her father's name burning bright. She was one of the main instigators in establishing the museum in Cheltenham; I have heard so many fascinating stories about her ebullience and her gaiety.

When Sam told me that he not only met Imogen Holst but was conducted by her, I asked him to write a blog for me. Not that many of us love Holst and admire Imogen too, so I was delighted when he agreed.

I also want to mention my good friend Bruno Lima who is Brazilian. We connected on social media last year because of our mutual interest in both Gustav and Imogen Holst. Bruno is a wonderful force – he is a young and passionate student of all things Holstian.

Bruno kindly provided all the images for this blog. He edited a film about Holst last year, which I urge you to take a look at on YouTube – I will put the link at the end of Sam's blog under the useful links section.

I am sure that you will enjoy Sam's piece:

What was Imogen Holst like? Remembering Imogen Holst by Composer and Writer Sam Richards

Sam Richards - Composer and Writer
Sam Richards - Composer and Writer

"I met Imogen Holst when I was a music student at Dartington College of Arts. Back in the 1940s, she had run the first music courses at Dartington, leading eventually to the formation of the college in 1961.

Imogen Holst conducting - image courtesy Bruno Lima
Imogen Holst conducting - image courtesy Bruno Lima

She had chosen to move on in 1950 but made a few visits back to the place over the years - which is how I came to meet her. Some of our teachers at Dartington had been taught by her and still held her in very high esteem. I didn't know it at the time, but when they taught us they, to all intents and purposes, they used the Holst method - although I suspect that Imogen might have recoiled from such an idea.

Imogen Holst at the Piano - courtesy Bruno Lima
Imogen Holst at the Piano - courtesy Bruno Lima

When I say I met her what I mean is that she gave a short talk and conducted us students and staff in some choral music - I forget what. She was a great champion of folk music, having worked for the English Folk Dance and Song Society at one time and always stayed in touch with their work. As a student, I was getting deeply into folksong, something that had always been in my family, and was introduced to Imogen as the college's burgeoning folkie. She was terribly impressed and, in her very precise and well-spoken English, encouraged me in my endeavours. I forget what else we talked about, but a profound generosity of spirit shone from her. We chatted enthusiastically and when we parted I had the feeling that this meeting was a privilege - for me. Once met never forgotten - a small, bouncy woman in loose-fitting clothes who could get even the most reluctant student to sing like an angel. Well, nearly...

A Radiant Imogen Holst - courtesy Bruno Lima
A Radiant Imogen Holst - courtesy Bruno Lima

Her connection with Dartington was a strong one. The Dartington Estate had been formed as a kind of wealthy alternative - perhaps Utopian - community back in the 1920s. Not that everyone associated with the place was wealthy, but it was the financial resources of Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst that lay behind it. From the start there had been an aspiration to run courses and contribute to arts education. Imogen was a good match for Dartington's ethos - firmly rooted in the established arts (classical music in her case) but within that framework an innovator and nonconformist. When she headed up those first music courses in the 1940s she was given her head, and on her own terms she created a pedagogic culture of "learning by doing" which permeated Dartington's eventual college throughout its 49 years. It was closed in 2010. Shamefully.

Imogen Holst's name should appear in the roll call of important 20th century music educators in the company of Leonard Bernstein, Nadia Boulanger, Carl Orff, Zoltan Kodaly, Bela Bartok, Arnold Schoenberg, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze and Edwin Gordon. Each of these luminaries contributed something distinctive to the field of music learning. What was Imogen Holst's contribution?

Dartington's mantra of "learning by doing" was at the heart of her educational practice. Lectures were rare - although not entirely absent and always without notes. They came at the end of a long day of sheer musical activity, especially singing. Imogen had little time for abstract theory. Although she had an orthodox musical upbringing and training herself (conventional piano lessons, private schools, Royal College of Music and so on) her life's path brought her into contact with a cross-section of society. At Dartington, for example, she started an orchestra for locals who, for the most part, had very little experience on musical instruments. They made an utter row but loved every minute. 

Her musical preferences and antipathies were clear: early music, the Baroque and classical, folk music and English 20th century music were IN (especially Benjamin Britten). Romanticism, especially high Romanticism, was definitely OUT. Bach - yes; Wagner - no.

Imogen with Benjamin Britten - courtesy Bruno Lima

She believed that understanding counterpoint was an important skill but rather than the music school method of learning harmony and counterpoint at the keyboard she taught rounds. People could learn them by ear. They were short and distinctive and could easily be retained aurally - therefore there was no need for music notation, yet students could be taught to write them. Every point in the day at Dartington was marked by round singing - meeting in the morning, signing off for breaks, washing up...Her hands-on approach filtered down to future Dartington students (like me). Divide the class into manageable sized groups. Each group go away and arrange a song for whatever instruments, voices and skills you have. Come back in half an hour and perform it. Or even ten minutes! Complex rhythms - such as you often get in Eastern European folk music - were taught by stamping our feet and dancing round the room. Don't think - do! Some of Imogen's methods are now fairly standard practice and many don't even know where they came from. That is a mark of success. 

Imogen & Gustav Holst courtesy Bruno Lima

I like to leave mention of her famous father to the end. Gustav Holst was one of England's foremost composers of the last century. Imogen devoted much time to her father's work - which was no doubt as it should be. As a composer he did, however, overshadow her - which her generous spirit didn't seem to mind. But her compositions deserve to be seen as on a par with his although she never wrote a Planets or a Hymn of Jesus. (But who did...?) More relevant to her work as a music educator is the fact that some of her methods and much of her approach represented a flowering of seeds he planted as a music teacher especially in his role as Director of Music (from 1907-1924) at Morley College, London, which started in Victorian times as a philanthropic effort to involve the working class. Imogen, we might say, began where he left off."

Ernest Cossart Uncle of Imogen with Imogen and Gustav courtesy Bruno Lima

Imogen Holst at home in Suffolk
Imogen Holst enjoying a cuppa at her home in Suffolk - courtesy Bruno Lima

Useful Links:

Bruno Lima's Wonderful film about Gustav Holst -

Bruno Lima - Holst expert and cat lover!

Imogen wrote several books about her famous father – this is the most accessible one:

The Red House, Aldeburgh - Wikipedia - Benjamin Britten's Home in Suffolk

The Best Range of Music by Holst – both Imogen and Gustav – can be found here

Amelia Marriette is donating money to the Holst Victorian House
Raising money for Holst!

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