Archive Treasures: Young composers and ancient carolsStories
In August 1918 Gustav Holst gave his 11 year old daughter a volume of Christmas carols which Imogen treasured all her life and now forms part of her collection of papers and manuscripts held in our archive. The volume is entitled Ancient English Christmas Carols 1400-1700, collected and arranged by Edith Rickert and published by Chatto and Windus in 1914. The present was to congratulate Holst on her first composition, her Opus 1, and to encourage her to continue writing music by providing source material for her next work.
In 1918 the Holst family were, as usual, spending summer in their country cottage at Thaxted, Essex. It was during this summer holiday that Holst started to write her own music with a Sonata in D minor for strings and piano – her Opus 1. Before the end of the year she had used her father’s gift to compose her next work – Four English Christmas Carols.
Holst was guided and nurtured in her early compositions by Jane Joseph who taught at Eothen School for Girls in Caterham where Holst boarded. Joseph was also a composer and had been a pupil of Gustav Holst’s at St Paul’s Girls’ School but she died tragically young in 1929 and so did not see Holst fulfil her full potential. Incidentally, Holst named her next two works, composed whilst still at Eothen School, Opus 3 and 4, but she abandoned the use of opus numbers whilst still a teenager.
Holst continued her own compositions with great success at the Royal College of Music where she studied piano and conducting as well as composition. She won the Cobbett Prize for her Phantasy Quartet and in her final year, in 1930, was awarded an Octavia Travelling Scholarship for Composition for Study Abroad. One of the other recipients was composer Grace Williams.
Whilst Holst was using her £100 prize money to travel around Europe, Britten began studying at the Royal College himself and whilst there also won, amongst other prizes, the Cobbett Prize in May 1932 with his Phantasy in F minor. On 12th November that year, whilst still a student, Britten bought the same volume of carols that Holst had been given 14 years previously and also met up with her fellow college alumna Williams on the same day! He wrote in his diary: ‘Go to Whiteley’s in morning to have hair cut, & then on to St. Martin’s Lane to Chatto & Windus to get a copy of Ancient English Carols. I am setting some in a work for Chorus soon, I expect. Read and practise Pft in aft. … Go to see Grace Williams after tea.’
Britten was researching texts for his choral variations A Boy was Born, Op. 3. He set a number of the poems from the volume in this choral work starting its composition on 25th November and finishing the following May. It is interesting that Britten sought out Rickert’s publication rather than using a volume of carols compiled by DL Kelleher which he already owned given to him by his sister Barbara for his birthday in 1930.
In 1935 Holst used her volume again for source material for her carol My Bairn, Sleep Softly Now – for unaccompanied female voices or for soprano voice and pipes. The carol was first performed on the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Society of Women Musicians. However, as Holst began work as a freeelance musician, she increasingly left her own compositions aside to work on arrangements suitable for her students and amateur musicians to perform and then to concentrate on her work for Britten and promoting her father’s legacy. She did however return to writing original compositions later in life visiting her volume once more in 1968 to compose Out of your Sleep Arise and Wake for unaccompanied mixed chorus.
It is a strange coincidence that we find the same book of carols in both Holst’s and Britten’s libraries and that they both used it as source material when writing as young composers.
- Judith Ratcliffe, Archivist