Gussie and Imogen: The legacy of a father-daughter relationship

I am currently in the midst of listing, cataloguing, and repackaging Gustav Holst’s series of published music- and what a task it is proving to be! The series consists of at least one copy of every published edition of Gustav Holst’s works (where present), including arrangements by others, and several annotated copies, full to the brim with corrections, performance comments, and editing notes. I think what has struck me most while making my way through the material, is the pure amount of work and time, on behalf of Imogen Holst and many others, needed to revise, edit, and arrange Gustav Holst’s music; all part of an effort, spearheaded by Imogen, to rekindle and keep alive, the interest in her father’s many compositions, especially the later works she felt were neglected.

The detail and commitment with which Imogen approached her mission is consistently apparent throughout the many copies of scores and parts that make up this series. Just as she remained devoted to Britten and his work for many years of her life, her devotion to Gustav’s work also prevailed, often to the neglect of her own. Such devotion perhaps reflects the importance and strength of her relationship with her father, but really does make me wonder, given their individual situations, how it grew to be so strong.

For several, and significant, periods of Gustav’s life, the family lived and worked apart from one another. Trips to Africa, Europe, America and Canada, to name just a few, as well as his deployment with the YMCA in Turkey and Greece at the end of the First World War, took Gustav far and wide. Indeed, Imogen herself also travelled extensively in her student years and early career, prior to her father’s death, including a three month trip around Europe to study composition abroad, after being awarded an Octavia Travelling Scholarship from the Royal College of Music. Spending so much time apart, one would think, would put strain on any familial relationship, but this particular father-daughter relationship was clearly held together by something beyond being the subjects of one another’s company.

Correspondence between Imogen and ‘Gussie’, as he affectionately signed many of his letters, even in the early years of Imogen’s schooling, reflects their shared passion for music (and passionate dislike of poor music!). One particular letter to Gustav explicitly depicts Imogen’s disgust of badly played and conducted music, when in attendance at a performance of Bruckner’s 7th symphony in Germany she commented, with much despair:

One of the first violins… lost his place in the scherzo and had to stop playing… the 2nd horn lost his breath and faded out of existence…and the timpani player lost one of his sticks in the middle of a fortissimo roll!

(Letter from Imogen Holst to Gustav Holst, October 1930, RefNo. HOL/1/5/2/23/11)


While chatting to one of our project volunteers a couple of weeks ago, we both arrived at the conclusion that, to understand, analyse, and indeed create such wonderful music, takes a special kind of person indeed.


HOL/2/8/2/104/2 Letter from Gustav Holst to Imogen Holst, April 1924 [Copyright: Holst Foundation] 

I can’t help but think that both Imo and Gustav were such people, and that this was what fuelled their relationship, and sparked Imogen’s passion to promote, and often criticise (as we have seen she had no qualms in doing!), the music of her father, to create a legacy that lives on today.

Of course, the archives can only indicate as much, and this is simply an interpretation being offered, but Gustav’s musical legacy plainly owes much to the devotion, perseverance, hard work, and, not least, musical talent, of his only child; in her own right a composer, critic, and undeniably intriguing character. There is no doubt as to why the relationship between Gussie and Imo is considered as one of the most significant father-daughter relationships of the 20th century.

Now nearing the end of cataloguing Gustav’s papers, in the next few weeks, I will be returning to Imogen’s materials, where I am sure to find many new and interesting discoveries with which I will be sure to keep you up to date!

Hannah, Project Archivist.

Featured image: HOL/2/8/2/104/26 Letter from Gustav Holst to Imogen Holst, October 1930 [Copyright: Holst Foundation]

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