Thursday November 15 2018

The Holst Birthplace Museum in Cheltenham is currently holding an exhibition commemorating 100 years since Gustav Holst was director of music for the troops in Salonika and Constantinople. Imogen Holst’s papers, held at the Britten-Pears Foundation, include letters, diaries and notebooks of her father, some of which are on loan to the Museum as part of their exhibition.

Ref HOL/1/5/1/11/1 Postcard sent by Holst to Amy Kemp, Feb 1919.

This exhibition tells how Holst, rejected for active service, was able to contribute to the war effort when he was offered a post by the Young Men’s Christian Association to teach music to soldiers in Greece and Turkey. In preparation for his role he officially changed his name by deed poll from ‘von Holst’ to ‘Holst’ in reaction to anti-German sentiment, underwent military training at Welbeck Camp, Nottinghamshire, and had lessons in piano tuning and repair.

Ref no. HOL/2/8/2/104/1 Letter from Holst to his daughter Imogen, 25 Dec 1918.

As a parting gift Holst’s friend Henry Balfour Gardiner organised, on 29 September 1918, a private performance of The Planets, the work he had been writing for the first 2 years of the war, and then Holst set out from Southampton at the end of October.

Armistice was declared during Holst’s long journey to Salonika but his job as musical organiser was still needed to sustain the troops’ morale during the long process of demobilisation. Holst worked in Salonika and then Constantinople until June 1919: the exhibition tells of his work with the troops which was, as curator Laura Kinnear relates, ‘equally rewarding and frustrating’.

Ref no. HOL/1/7/19 Holst’s pocket notebook, 1918.

Holst’s story is colourfully told in this exhibition through letters, diaries, photographs and archive film, as well as a reconstruction of Holst’s own room in the Salonika YMCA. Also included are ephemeral items, such as the local trench newspaper The Balkan News, postcards sent home, concert programmes and YMCA badges: it is amazing that these have survived.

Ref no. HOL/1/6/8 Holst’s 1919 diary.

Holst frequently wrote home to his wife, Isobel and daughter, Imogen and 11 of these letters and postcards are on loan to the exhibition from the Britten-Pears Foundation. Gustav wrote colourfully, and with his typical sense of humour, about the ups and downs of his experiences. These letters, together with his personal diaries also on display, bring to life his teaching, musical activities, sightseeing trips and daily duties in Salonika and Constantinople.

The Foundation has digitised Holst’s letters sent home from the Salonica Front, as well as other letters sent by him to family, friends and colleagues. These can be viewed from our online archive catalogue where Gustav’s personal diaries and notebooks from his time with the YMCA are also available to read.

The exhibition is on at the Holst Birthplace Museum until 15 December 2018.