Letter from Gustav Holst to Ralph Vaughan Williams

Letter No.: 
VWL135
[March 1903]

... oils.  What was the stuff they used before then?  In the evening we went to some friends of Gertrude Peppercorn.  There was an artist there who told my wife that he learnt English first from some sailors and some gold diggers from Australia and was slightly surprised when on his first speaking English at a dinner party all the ladies promptly got up and left the room!!!  Yesterday (Sunday) I went ticket buying in the biggest gale (with snow) I ever remember.  “Was ihr wollt” in the afternoon was “Twelfth Night” and was a failure somehow or other.  Rosa Halle spent the evening with us and we had a good time.  Today we had lunch with Matthias1 and his family. Alas!  I am learning to swill beer and wine like a native.  Afterwards we had an hour in the National Gallery.  Do you know the Arnold Böcklin room?  Gorgeous.  Nearly all the pictures were added since your Baedeker came out.
Jesus2 sent a post card this morning - I am going to see Him at 9.30 tomorrow.
Great news - I have written three post cards and two letters in German!  The recipients talk of having them framed!!  Rather a doubtful compliment I fear.
I have been trying to think where we (you and I) are and where we come in and what we ought to do.
(Being together so much I think we work along in much the same way but I may be wrong).
To begin with I think we crawl along too slowly - of course it is something to get along at all and I do think our progress is very genuine - but there ought to be more.
The “getting on” theory is damned rot. Howard3 and Harford4 both spoil themselves by it .  It seems to give them a sort of hardness and I feel so sorry for them both. . . . Don”t tell this to anyone else because it sounds so beastly.  Of course you understand that I am really deeply sorry especially for Howard.
I now think the MCC5 a magnificent idea and I hope it will grow but as regards our two selves I feel we ought to do a lot more but cannot think what!
Seeing foreigners is a mistake as a rule.  Don’t you think we ought to victimise Elgar?  Write to him first and then bicycle to Worcester and see him a lot?  I wish we could do that together.  Or else make a list of musicians in London  whom we think worthy of the honour of being bothered by us and who have time and inclination to be bothered and then bother them.  For instance those two fellows that Robin Legge6 raves about.  They ought to listen to all our stuff and we to all theirs.  It would be dreadful while it lasted but I think the effect would be good.
Somehow we seem too comfortable - we don’t seem to strain every nerve.  Anyhow I know I don’t.  And composing is a fairly impossible affair as things go even at the best of times.  While I think of it, is Henry J7 open to victimizing?  We ought never to send anything to him by post if it can be avoided but always see him.
I don’t know whether you are in the same box but I feel I want to know a lot of poets and painters and other fearful wild fowl.
As for opera I am bewildered.  “Das Feuersnot”8  is in reality quite simple and unoriginal as opera. Charpentier’s “Louise” is idiotic as opera.  And I do feel sometimes inclined to chuck Sita in case it is only bad Richard I.9  Unless one ought to follow the latter until he leads you to fresh things.  What I feel is that there is nothing else but Wagner excepting Italian one act horrors.
As for conducting (which we ought to learn) it is impossible to attain in England and I fear we must give up all hopes of it.  As an orchestral player I really do feel sorry, as England is crying out (unconsciously) for real conductors.  Henry J. is the nearest approach but excepting in hysterical music I don’t think he is quite there.
And it is not all a question of unlimited rehearsals.
Your last letter was the result of thinking matters over - this is a poor return as it is the result of waking up too early in the morning and trying to go to sleep unsuccessfully!  So you must excuse if I write more than my usual allowance of rot.
Of course the matter is made rather worse for me owing to lack of cash and I feel more and more that my mode of living is very unsatisfactory.  It is not so bad in London say during the `French Milliner”10  when I did a fair amount of writing every day but the Worm11  is a wicked and loathsome waste of time.  Yet the only alternative I know of is stick wagging for one of George Edwardes’ touring companies.  People who are victims of the “getting on” theory always advise this but if one does it at all one must do it properly and then good bye to music!
There is also the theory that one should get rich first and then compose.
When I was a child my father told me that Sterndale Bennett worked out that theory during his life very satisfactorily.  When I was older I heard Sterndale Bennett’s music
Nuff Sed
No - not quite. Getting rich requires a “teshneek” of its own that some people learn slowly and others never.  I don’t know which class I belong to and don’t care.  There is no time to learn that and composition.  Not that I believe one should cram theory from childhood.  But that once having started (after school etc is over) an Englishman may think himself lucky if, after hard work, he writes anything decent before he is fifty.  For now I have been abroad I see what a terrible lot we have to contend against in England.
And I also feel that there is no time for pot-boiling.  As tromboning is so damnably uncertain I must do it but it is really bad for one I am sure.  I almost feel I can now trace its evil effect in Tchaikowsky but it is a very insiduous disease.
Still I think it would be a great thing for me if I could always live in London and say goodbye to the Worm (by the bye I must try and get a summer engagement from him for my return in July or August!) and all sea side bands.  I should be sorry to leave the Scottish12  for some things but it really would be better on the whole.  But this is all off the main point.
If money matters were quite satisfactory with me I still should be just as puzzled as to what you and I ought to do - money matters only make things worse.
I think we are “all right” in a mild sort of way.  But then mildness is the very devil.  So something must happen and we must make it happen.
While I remember - the voice parts of your opera are impossible.  You must not do this sort of thing.  Don’t show them to a singer but get singers to sing them.  Then recollect that singing in an opera house means twice as much exertion.  I think you will be convinced.
I hope our letters will not cross any more - send me one soon.  Our time is up next Monday but my wife wants to stop on while this jolly blizzard lasts as we are more or less at home in Berlin.  I will let you know when we have decided and everything will be forwarded from here.
Yours Ever

G v H


1. Matthias von Holst, Gustav Holst's second cousin.
2. Unidentified German musician, perhaps one who took the part of Jesus in one of the Passion performances.
3. Probably Howard-Jones the pianist.
4. Probably Charles Harford Lloyd.
5. ?Musical Concerts Club?
6. Robin Legge, 1862-1933, assistant music critic at The Times.
7. Henry J. Wood, founder of the Promenade Concerts.
8. Singgedicht by Richard Strauss, first given at Dresden in 1901.
9. i.e. Richard Wagner as opposed to Richard Strauss.
10. Possibly a musical show.
11. Stanislas Wurm, conductor of The White Viennese Band. See Michael Short, Gustav Holst: The Man and his Music (Oxford, 1990), p.28.
12. i.e. The Scottish Orchestra where Holst was 2nd trombone

General notes: 

Printed in Heirs and Rebels with some omissions. The first four pages are missing. The letter was written from Berlin where Holst and his wife were having his first holiday abroad.

Format: 
Letter
Citation: 
Heirs and Rebels Letter IX
Original database number: 
0303xa