A few weeks ago, while cataloguing Gustav’s music manuscripts and wealth of published music, the title of one of his works repeatedly struck a dominant chord of interest with me; ‘Egdon Heath’. Memories were stirred of studying for my English Literature A-level a few years ago, the subject of which, perhaps one of Thomas Hardy’s lesser known novels; The Return of the Native. The novel is almost entirely set within the seemingly unbreakable boundaries of the untameable and primitive landscape of the semi-fictional Egdon Heath, a habitat that controls and determines the lives and fates of all of the characters. In the years since Hardy’s novel was published as a serial in the sensationalist magazine Belgravia (1878), this environment has long been considered as the main character of the novel given its overriding grip on its inhabitants and the direction of events.
My own familiarity with, and interest in, the novel made me wonder at the connection between Gustav Holst’s orchestral composition and Thomas Hardy’s semi-fictional setting, and, as ever, the archives have continued to shed light on my wondering.An integral piece of the story behind ‘Egdon Heath’ is revealed in Gustav’s correspondence, particularly letters to Vally Lasker and Imogen. In 1927, Holst was commissioned to write a symphony for the New York Symphony Orchestra, but instead, ‘Egdon Heath’, more accurately a tone poem, was born.
However, Gustav did not compose from nothing, and his letters speak of a holiday spent with Mr and Mrs Hardy (one that he reportedly walked over 100 miles from Bristol to attend!) and a motor tour of what he describes as Egdon Heath itself (actually an area in the vicinity of Dorchester between Wool and Bere Regis). Reflecting on this encounter, we are really enlightened as to the vitality and importance of connections and personal experience within the arts world of the early twentieth century. Friendships were clearly an integral part of Gustav’s life and work; his personal papers really demonstrate this, particularly with young and upcoming musicians/composers such as Jane Joseph and Vally Lasker, as well as established and respected composers, notably Ralph Vaughan Williams- known as ‘Uncle Ralph’ to Imogen. In fact, Holst’s admiration of Hardy clearly continued long after the death of the latter, when in a lecture in 1932, Gustav compared his friend and author, in skill and character, to Joseph Haydn.But it is not only the important personal connections that the archives highlight, but also the more general interplay and affinity between the worlds of music and literature.
In August 1927, Holst wrote to Vally:
“Having a lovely time all day every day with EH [Egdon Heath] who grows hourly in stature and gloom” (RefNo: HOL/1/5/1/14/39)
Such an image rich description of composing undeniably strikes a chord with Hardy’s introduction to Egdon Heath at the very beginning of The Return of the Native as a ‘vast tract of unenclosed wild’ (Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native, Book First (1878)).
The relationship between music and literature is perhaps not surprisingly prevalent throughout history, and to this day. But what strikes me about this particular circumstance is the acquaintanceship and personal connection between two prominent figures of the arts world, both of whom personally encountered something, in this case a landscape, and were inspired in their own different disciplines to create artistic works to portray it.
Although dedicated to him, sadly Hardy never heard Gustav’s work as he died shortly before its premier performance in February 1928. ‘Egdon Heath’ is by no means one of Holst’s most popular or well known pieces, in fact, it was met with mixed receptions at nearly every performance, including, as reported by Imogen Holst, an hissing audience when played in Paris. Nonetheless, the harmonious relationship between music and literature is unassailably evident upon listening. Hardy’s intricate descriptions of Egdon Heath and Holst’s musical interpretation of the same, sit hand in hand and reflect one another in a way only music and literature can.
You can listen to a recording of Gustav Holst’s ‘Egdon Heath’ here: Gustav Holst: Egdon Heath, London Symphony Orchestra