Was Gustav Holst German or English? Frank McNally on ethnic confusion

Sabina Higgins’s letter reminds me that ethnicity can be a complex business in these islands

It wasn’t the most controversial part of her much-debated letter, but as another correspondent to this page has since pointed out, Sabina Higgins erred — plausibly — when describing the composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) as “German”.

That Holst was, in fact, English will be well known to many music lovers and to at least some horse-racing fans.

For not only was he born in Cheltenham, he grew up within furlongs of the famous racecourse, where his former home is now a museum, partly to him and partly to the very Englishness of his childhood, hence its official name: “Holst Victorian House.”

Mind you, on the one occasion when I took time out from covering the raucous racing festival to enjoy the museum’s quieter charms, I was the only race goer there. And the polite lady at the ticket desk conceded that there was not a big overlap between the two clienteles.

I was reminded of a previous Cheltenham, on a bus where the driver pointed across the hills to the place where “Elgar was born”. This news was greeted with puzzled silence by the hardened horsey men on board. You could almost hear them wondering if Elgar was a half-brother of Shergar and if so, had he run on the flat or over hurdles.

Anyway, for the record, even Holst’s paternal line was only part German. There were Swedish and Latvian elements as well, although after emigrating to England in 1802, his grandfather — also a musician — added a “Von” to the surname, hoping that the hint of Teutonic nobility would be good for business.

Ethnicity can be a complex business in these islands, as another detail in Ms Higgins’s letter reminds me

A century later, during the first World War, Gustav would have the “Von” removed for broadly similar reasons. He had already tried to failed to enlist in the British army, rejected as unfit. But conditional on losing his nominative appendix, considered too German, he was eventually recruited by the YMCA to provide musical services to troops in Salonica.

By the rules of horse-racing, Ireland could perhaps claim a share in Holst too. He was trained for a time by the Dublin-born composer and music professor Charles Villiers Stanford, who gelded the young Holst’s Wagnerian tendencies with the warning: “It won’t do, me boy; it won’t do.”

Then again, Stanford was attached to an English stable at the time — the Royal College of Music — so in horse-racing terms, as with the Cork-born but Cheltenham-exiled Jonjo O’Neill, his festival winners would have counted as British.

Ethnicity can be a complex business in these islands, as another detail in Ms Higgins’s letter reminds me. In referencing Holst, she also quoted his collaborator, the English poet Clifford Bax (1883-1953), who wrote the words for their anti-war anthem: “Turn Back O Man, and quit thy foolish ways.”

Clifford Bax was indeed English, but his brother and fellow poet Arnold was a more complicated case. He too was born in London, to considerable wealth. But from an early age he became enchanted by the work of WB Yeats, inhaling the Celtic twilight deeply enough that he soon moved to Ireland and started writing under the pseudonym Dermot O’Byrne.

He even learned Irish in Donegal, and was declared an honorary Irishman by no less an authority than Padraig Pearse. After their first meeting, an admiring Bax wrote that Pearse was a “strange, death-aspiring dreamer”. Pearse meanwhile said of him, more pithily, that he was “one of us”.

Bax later wrote a concerto for the dead Pearse, In Memoriam (1917). It was little performed at the time but in one of the odder quirks of musical history, 30 years later, he recycled it as part of his score for David Lean’s movie version of Oliver Twist.

The composer had recovered somewhat from his love affair with Ireland by then, but remained deeply enamoured of Donegal’s Glencolmcille valley and hoped to spend his dying days there.

“I like to fancy that on my deathbed my last vision in this life will be the scene from my window on the upper floor at Glencolmcille,” Bax wrote; “of the still, brooding, dove-grey mystery of the Atlantic at twilight; the last glow of sunset behind Glen Head in the north […] and east of it the calm slope of Scraig Beefan, its glittering many-coloured surface of rock, bracken, and heather now one uniform purple glow.”

In the event, his wish was unfulfilled. Instead, he spent his last days in exile, from Donegal and England alike, in the remote foreign outpost of Cork. Visiting friends there in 1953, he died suddenly after a trip to the Old Head of Kinsale, and was buried in the city, at St Finbarr’s Cemetery.