The Many Ghosts Of Holst’s Psalm 86

On Medievalism, William Morris, and a short but powerful choral work by Gustav Holst.

Dorchester Abbey, by Howard Stanbury. Original here, above cropped. Shared under the Creative Commons License.
Dorchester Abbey, by Howard Stanbury. Original here, cropped. Shared under the Creative Commons License.
holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

It was in 2006 that, fresh out of university and unsure of where to look for paid employment, I became a volunteer at the first annual English Music Festival, a venture dedicated to performing neglected British classical works. Held in rural Oxfordshire, the primary venue is the beautiful medieval abbey in Dorchester on Thames, and it was here that I heard a performance of Gustav Holst’s Two Psalms for choir, organ and strings, composed in 1912.

Most people with any awareness of Holst will know his orchestral blockbuster The Planets. Many will also know his Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter, though its sparse style couldn’t be further from the cinematic splendour of Mars or Jupiter. But that sense of frugality – ‘what can I give Him, poor as I am?’- is partly what makes it so affecting.

Such economy of means was in fact something of a fetish for Holst. Edmund Rubbra, one of his composition pupils, reminisced about his teacher’s influence: ‘with what enthusiasm did we pare down our music to the very bone’. It was an approach that would prove well-suited to the first of the Two Psalms: number 86.

For the 1906 edition of The English Hymnal, alongside In The Bleak Midwinter, Holst had contributed an arrangement of a melody from the Genevan Psalter, a 16th-century collection of Calvinist Psalm tunes. For the text, he used a metrical version of Psalm 86 from around 1620, with its desperate cry of ‘send, O send relieving gladness / to my soul opprest with sadness’.

The Psalm 86 tune in an 1632 English translation of the Genevan Psalter, and in Holst’s 1906 arrangement. Image sources are respectively here and here.

Holst must have seen that this melody and text had potential to be something more than a hymn, as he returned to them for the Two Psalms. With its simple and repetitive rhythmic pattern, the tune certainly has a haunting quality, and a particularly monastic one. Its slowly winding contour suggests Plainchant, and the minor-key Dorian mode adds a dark archaic flavour. The actual Reformation origin of the melody is not so important as this character, enhanced by way Holst presents it, of a general bleak ancientness.

The English Hymnal was edited by Holst’s close friend and fellow composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who contributed his own arrangement of an obscure 16th-century melody; one that in 1910 was expanded into his famous Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis. There are many differences between Holst’s Psalm 86 setting and Vaughan Williams’ fantasia, but both create a sense of Gothic mystery as they resurrect church music from ages past.

One common factor is that the two works introduce their melodies in fragments. Fragments evoke age, decay, intrigue; all key parts of the Gothic aesthetic. Their symbolism has echoes of the long tradition of using medieval ruins as a backdrop in Gothic literature – see Dracula’s castle, or the ruined abbey of Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest. For both composers, the fragments return at later points in the music, as if hallucinations or dreamy recollections.

Yet intriguingly, Holst’s own past provides a link to a different strand of Medievalism. The young composer had discovered the writings of William Morris, the great Victorian polymath and socialist. In 1895, Holst joined the Hammersmith Socialist Society, which met in Morris’ London home of Kelmscott House. Here he heard speeches from figures such as George Bernard Shaw, and conducted the society’s choir.

Morris saw Medieval arts and crafts as representing a more organic, community-oriented way of living than that provided by Victorian capitalism. His Kelmscott Press, established in 1891, produced limited-edition books inspired by illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and its magnum opus was a sumptuously illustrated edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, published in 1896 – at the same time that Holst was frequenting Kelmscott House. This fascination with medieval life was undoubtedly romantic and highly selective, but the enduring popularity of Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood attests to its powerful allure.

Detail from the Kelmscott Chaucer. Engravings were designed by Morris' friend and collaborator Edward Burne-Jones. Shared under the Wikimedia Commons, original here.
Detail from the Kelmscott Chaucer. The wood-cut illustrations were designed by Morris’ friend and collaborator Edward Burne-Jones. Shared under the Wikimedia Commons, original here.

Holst being Holst however, his Psalm setting begins in a much more minimal style. The fragments of the Psalm tune provide two elements to set the scene – monastic austerity, and tender lamentation. The latter is a gently tumbling figure, which melts into a beautiful sequence that spirals down, a distillation of sorrow. It is this that becomes a recurring motif of the work, a nagging sense of hopelessness that can never be shifted.

The Gothic atmosphere deepens when the tune is introduced in full. It is a quietly sinister incantation from the altos and basses, with the eerie stasis of a low drone below – we could be a overhearing some secret, candlelit ritual.

What happens next is unexpected, and magical. A walking bass line emerges, the Psalm tune is taken by the strings, and a delicate web of parts weave gracefully around it. It could be a Kelmscott Press tracery in sound. The melody that was previously so ominous now becomes poignantly beautiful.

The whole work, even by Holst’s standards, is stunningly simple in its material. What is so miraculous is that he was nonetheless able to create a terse, compelling drama with remarkable expressive power and atmosphere. That it is much shorter than Vaughan Williams’ expansive Tallis Fantasia is a testament to Holst’s more austere sensibilities. His evocation of history is more fractured and elusive, but it is also harsher. The world he creates is one of meagreness, and pitiless brevity.

The setting concludes with a blistering rendition of the Genevan tune, all voices thundering in unison, the strings churning in a crude, brutally expressive counterpoint. But, at the death, it all dwindles away.  We are left hanging on a quiet C major chord in the violas – a dim shaft of light after the storm. Two notes plucked in the basses mysteriously trail off to silence. Holst gave us a fragmented beginning, and he leaves us with a broken ending.

It was by coincidence that, on a recent visit to Chichester Cathedral, I discovered a lovely memorial to Holst. This took me by surprise, being unaware he had any link to the area. A volunteer explained that the composer was a friend of the Bishop George Bell, who had invited him and his Whitsuntide Singers to perform in the city. Clearly the relationship was a close one, as after Holst’s death his family requested that his ashes be interred here. Touchingly, they now reside under a memorial to Thomas Weelkes, former Chichester organist and Holst’s favourite Tudor composer.

I found myself fascinated by some of the wonderful medieval features still visible in the cathedral, including fragments of colourful paintwork that would once have adorned the interior. Another, protected by a glass screen, was a carving of the miracle of Lazarus of Bethany, thought to originate from the 12th century.

The Holst memorial, and a detail from a carving of Lazarus of Bethany, in Chichester Cathedral
The Holst memorial, and a detail from a carving of the raising of Lazarus, in Chichester Cathedral

Looking at the wide-eyed, mournful stone expressions of the carved figures gives you a powerful connection to a time both familiar and alien; a crueller time, when death and suffering were close acquaintances of everyone, and for many the mercy of God was a desperate hope. It is a relic that resonates with the austere beauty of Holst’s Psalm, music which, in its own Lazarus-like way, brings the distant past back from the dead.

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