Music on Active Service

Full of entertaining anecdotes, startling impressions of foreign countries and their people, and honest musical critique (especially regarding his own compositions), Gustav Holst’s witty series of correspondence paints a picture not only of his own attitudes and experiences, but of those of 20th century English society as a whole.

Writing during the disruptive period of the First World War, Holst’s letters home, particularly to his wife, Isobel Holst, tell a story of a man passionate about serving his country, not through fighting, due to his poor health, but through his musical talents and knowledge.

Gustav Holst was deployed as Musical Organizer on active service with the Young Men’s Christian Association to boost morale and introduce music to the British camps in the Near East, Salonica and Constantinople, during demobilisation at the end of the war. Originally, he was cited for deployment in the European camps, but his surname, then ‘von Holst’ was deemed too ‘German’ for such a sensitive period (despite actually hailing from Swedish descent).

During his long drawn out journey, Holst witnessed the announcement of the Armistice while being held in Gallipoli, Italy. In one reflective letter home, he describes the reaction of the ‘natives’:


HOL/1/5/1/8/9 Letter from Gustav Holst to Isobel Holst, Nov 1918 [Copyright: Holst Foundation]

“this place went mad on the spot… the natives got a lot of flags and a thing they call a band… and paraded the town and nearly embraced every Englishman they met.” (HOL/1/5/1/8/9)

However, despite the declaration of peace, Holst’s journey continued, and on the 24th November, 1918, he reached Summerhill Camp, Salonica, a former war residency of his good friend Ralph Vaughan Williams.

In the following weeks and months, at one point or another, Holst endured bad weather, poor conditions (a large pothole in Constantinople leading to a sprained ankle and a hospital admission!) and an almost complete lack of resources (including people) with which to work. Nonetheless, he maintained his good sense of humour and his passion for inspiring interest in music, and discovering musical talent amongst the soldiers, who became his pupils. In December 1916, he wrote home explaining his only two rules for his new students:


“1) any pupil finding me having tea with an officer is to disturb me without fail!

2) Every man entering my room will half turn to the right and help himself to the cigarette tin.” (HOL/1/5/1/8/16)


HOL/1/5/1/8/16 Letter from Gustav Holst to Isobel Holst, 23 Dec 1918 [Copyright: Holst Foundation]


A far cry from his days as Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London!

Organising orchestras and choirs, providing music lessons to those who were interested, delivering lectures on music and giving advice on composition; all became the day to day concerns of Gustav Holst, and proved challenging with the continuing uncertainty and effect of demobilisation on the camps. The musical ‘organisation’ was more accurately impromptu and haphazard! February 1919 saw a spontaneous rehearsal where in order to read the music

“we had to take out panels in the wall to let in light but it also let in a violent snow storm right onto their backs.” (HOL/1/5/1/8/23)

Nonetheless, his passion for music and education prevailed and in March 1919, he wrote a letter home to Isobel reflecting on his role as educator, and his time with the army:

“the real truth is that an army is and must be a fighting machine and not a school… But from a wider point of view I might do really good work by staying on. I might create a tradition for good music.” (HOL/1/5/1/8/33)

The combination of humour, courage, dedication to music, and, not least, wit, that flows throughout Holst’s correspondence made for a thoroughly interesting and entertaining couple of weeks of cataloguing. As a snapshot into his life, and the lives of soldiers and civilians across the world during the Great War, Gustav’s letters are an invaluable resource and research tool, with the bonus of an added few laughs along the way as well!

Hannah, Project Archivist

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