09 Marilyn Billingham: Bishop Bell and Gustav Holst

The Whitsuntide Festivals 1916 – 1934

This presentation, part of a wider study, foregrounds the respectful and deep friendship that developed between the Gustav Holst and George Bell which stemmed from their professional collaboration in Holst’s Whitsuntide Festivals. The first festival took place in 1916 when Holst brought together his very different choirs from St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith and the choir from the Morley College for Working Men and Women in Waterloo Road. With just the two exceptions of Whitsun 1919 and 1929 such events were held annually until 1934 the year Holst died. In 1928 the festivities took place at Canterbury Cathedral when George Bell was the Dean and from 1930 – 34 in Chichester. The final weekends were based in Bosham.

Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934), and his daughter Imogen were committed to bringing music to ALL people. They were nothing if not inclusive. In this commitment Gustav was heavily influenced by connections with his near contemporaries William Morris and George Bernard Shaw and of course his very close friend and colleague (Rafe) Ralph Vaughan Williams. Holst had known financial hardship in his own family. His father had to borrow in order for Gustav to study at the RCM and in order to save money he walked from Cheltenham to London to take up his place.

Soon after moving to London, in 1893 when he enrolled as a student at the Royal College of Music Holst became an active member of the Hammersmith Socialist Club which met at Kelmscott house, the London home of the Morris’s and where George Bernard Shaw and other socialist luminaries would regularly meet, socialise and lecture. Very quickly he became an active member of the society and in 1897 became conductor of the pre-existing Hammersmith Socialist Choir. Fiona McCarthy in her excellent biography of Morris briefly refers to Holst as often seen in Hammersmith ‘’on the official socialist cart playing a harmonium.” There was a tradition of choral singing in the socialist movement of the time, socialist choirs were not unusual, and for the retiring and rather self – effacing Holst this seemed to be his way of making a contribution to the socialist cause.

In his personal and professional life however, a living had to made and following the resignation of Vaughan Williams from the Passmore Edwards Settlement in 1904 Holst accepted the post of Musical Director. The Passmore Edwards was founded in 1880. It was modelled on the probably more famous Whitechapel settlement Toynbee Hall and largely run, like Toynbee Hall, by young people from the ancient universities and public schools to provide education and support for the local working class families.

In 1907, the year Imogen was born, he was appointed Musical Director at the Morley College for Working Men and Women, which still thrives at their college on Westminster Bridge Road, but was then based in rooms at the Old Vic under the auspices of Lillian Baylis, its founder, who also had an overwhelming and in her case rather eccentric commitment to a practical Christian socialism. Imogen describes the time at Morley as bringing ‘incalculable joy’ to her father, though most of the evening class students were quite untrained. She goes on to say that when new members of the choir were asked ‘Do you know your notes?’ the most usual reply was ‘well some of them’. But Holst taught them the basic rudiments of music, skills for composition and the opportunity to perform to the highest standards. Their programmes included what is claimed to be the first public performance of Purcell’s Fairy Queen since the time of Purcell himself. They sang Bach cantatas, the polyphonic music of Byrd, Vittoria and Wheelkes and Tallis and music written specifically for them by his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams and of course the rounds and folk song arrangements for which Holst is so well known.

In the mean time Holst had been appointed Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith. A post he held from 1906 until his death in 1934. With our twenty and twenty first century sensitivities there might seem to be a contradiction between his commitment to open access to education and the arts and his role at St Paul’s but of course at the time opportunities to teach as a music specialist in schools were restricted to provision in the independent and privileged sector. The elementary ‘all through’ schools had no specialists at all. Further an academic education for girls was itself still very new. The Girls’ Public Day School Trust was in its earliest years, established in 1887 and St Paul’s itself opened in 1902 only 4 years before his appointment in 1906. Perhaps this was sufficient for Holst to feel that he was contributing to progressive social change. Furthermore of course he had a family to keep. All that aside his new full time post did not stop him continuing at Morley and taking his ‘Can’t Sing Choir’ to the slums in the East End of London. (The Can’t Sing Choir still exists at Morley – and very quickly its members discover that in fact they can!)

Probably the next most significant decision of the Holsts, as it relates to this project is the decision to establish their family home in Thaxted Essex which led to his close collaboration with its Anglo-Catholic Socialist Vicar Conrad Noel known as the ‘Red Vicar of Thaxted’. He is famous in particular for displaying in Church along side the St George’s flag, the red flag and from time to time the flag of Sinn Fein.

The Holsts moved to Thaxted in 1913 and stayed until 1925. Holst and Conrad Noel quickly became firm friends. The vicar and his wife were closely identified with the arts and crafts movement and committed to the promotion of folk traditions in dance and music for their own sake and as a way to counter what they saw as the negative and alienating impact of industrialisation and mass production. The Noels had close links with Cecil Sharpe and incorporated dancing and procession into the life of the village and the liturgy of the parish church drawing in large numbers of Thaxted people. It is easy to see how Holst and actually his daughter Imogen who became a very active member of the English Folk Song and Dance Society felt they could contribute to the cultural life of the village.

Holst soon began assisting with music at the church training the choir and acting as assistant organist. He supported Noel in the transformation of liturgy extending the musical repertoire, including folk song based ceremony and procession into Thaxted worship. Holst very soon began to include Morelyites (as they were affectionately known) into the Thaxted musical scene and before long was discussing with Noel the possibility of developing this collaboration further and to institute an annual music festival in the village. This was realised in 1916 when Holst brought together his very different choirs from St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith and from the Morley College for Working People south of the river to join the Thaxted musicians for a 4 day festival of music over the Whitsun bank holiday weekend. Writing to his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams he reported
“There were about 15 Morleyites and lO St. Paul’s girls (Paulinas), 10 outsiders and 10 Thaxted singers. The latter did grandly. Most of them work in a factory here and I have been asked to give them quicker music next year. It seems that they sang all day every day at their work for several months and the slow notes of the Bach chorales seriously affected their output. ”
The repertoire included
Bach Short Mass No. 2 in A
Two Bach cantatas Sleepers Awake and Soul, Array Thyself
Numbers of 16th and 17th century motets
S Wesley’s Sing aloud
Extracts from Purcell’s Fairy Queen and King Arthur
And that was just some of the formally prepared music. There were rounds and part songs accompanied by violins, piano and penny whistles, folk songs and Morris dancing, a melo-drama in the barn and so it went on…..making merry 14 hours a day.

It is worth noting that among the many pieces Holst wrote for the Whitsuntide Singers was his famous setting of the Cornish carol Tomorrow shall be my Dancing Day under the title This have I done for my true love. He dedicated this to Conrad Noel and it is commemorated on one of the Thaxted bells with the inscription ‘I ring for the general dance’

Holst had been turned down for military service on health grounds. He was seriously short sighted, he had developed neuritis in his left hand and was asthmatic. He never had a strong constitution and died of heart failure following surgery when just 59. There were only two more Whitsun Festivals in Thaxted in 1917 and 1918 It is not quite clear what caused the difficulties. Certainly Conrad Noel was a charismatic figure, single minded and politically uncompromising. It is suggested that the High Mistress at St Paul’s didn’t think this was quite the thing for her girls. It seems too that Noel publically admonished the musicians for not taking the political aspects of the festivals sufficiently to heart. There was no similar festival in 1919 whilst Gustav was working for the YMCA in Constantinople and in 1920 the Festival was held at Dulwich College. Following this there was a festival each year in various parish churches and schools in London until 1927. This is when George Bell, then Dean of Canterbury became involved. He became host and patron to the 1928 festival which took place in Canterbury Cathedral

In October 1927 Gustav received an invitation from the then Dean of Canterbury, one George Kennedy Allen Bell to write incidental music for a play to be written by John Masefield and to be directed by Charles Rickets. This was a radical proposal at the time, for although church dramas had been common place in the middle ages, probably most famously those we know now as the mystery plays, the practice had fallen out of favour. Plans for this production to be called The Coming of Christ, were submitted for the approval of the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, his consent was given on the condition that the figure of Christ should not be portrayed to the audience. A challenge, given the title of the play, and as far as I can see a request barely honoured. There were significant problems raised by the organist and choir master at Canterbury which threatened the whole project and many more from fundamentalist Christians which actually didn’t seem to threaten anything. Holst brought his musicians from St Paul’s and Morley who formed the chorus and the collective role of Heavenly Host and the five performances, presented as an act of worship, were attended by some 6,000 people. A retiring collection raised approximately £800, a considerable sum in 1928, of which a substantial proportion was set aside to commission new plays. The first of which according to Michael Short, Holst’s biographer was T.S Elliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

It is probably fair to say that The Coming of Christ played to mixed reviews but was an exhilarating experience for the performers. Not to mention a historic event which fundamentally transformed the place of drama in the church. This was the most elaborate Whitsun Festival that Holst’s singers had ever attempted and breathed new life into the future festival plans.

It is worth noting here that the colourful costumes were made under the direction of Henrietta Bell. In gratitude for this and for the hospitality of the Bells at Canterbury Holst wrote two rounds which the choir sang in the Deanery garden. The rounds were entitled To Bother Missus Bell and more seriously and with heartfelt thankfulness Within this Place All Beauty Dwells.

Despite the head of steam generated by the first performances and enthusiastic plans to revive the play in 1929 there was no festival that year. A combination of factors contributed to this. George Bell was abroad; Holst during that year was for a considerable time in the USA; his successor as director of Music at Morley, Arnold Goldsburgh was about to resign and Jane Joseph his trusty former pupil and (aman-u-en-ses) amanuenses died. Further there was to be General election.

By 1930 George Bell was Bishop of Chichester and he and the then Dean, Arthur Duncan Jones wasted no time in inviting Holst to bring his next Whitsun Festival here.
Bishop Bell wrote
‘The Dean of Chichester and I are very anxious to persuade you to bring yourself and the Heavenly Host to Chichester Cathedral and Palace for Whitsuntide, 1930’.
Holst swiftly replied
‘Of course the Heavenly Host are longing to come.…though I do not see what a scratchload of amateurs as we are, could do that Dr Conway’s singers could not do infinitely better’.
(Marmaduke Conway was the organist and master of the choristers at this time.)

Duly the weekend festival was held in our cathedral. As usual the music included pieces by Holst’s favourite composers, Purcell, Bach, Byrd, Weelkes and Vittoria. The Whit Sunday evening performance was given by some 120 singers and players from St Paul’s and Morley and a similar number of local musicians including students from Bishop Otter College, now the University of Chichester, approx. 250 in all. On Whit Monday, Holst’s singers performed again for the morning service and in the afternoon sang madrigals in the Bishop’s garden. This was followed by country dancing with the West Sussex Folk Dancers.

At this 1930 Festival Bosham had obviously been discussed as a possible venue for a future festival and became the venue in 1931. Holst in the end, due to poor health, and very pressing composing commitments sadly was unable to direct the singing, Vally Lasker deputised. She had been a Morleyite and eventually became a teacher at St. Paul’s and Holst’s assistant. Later in that year, 1931 Holst brought his choirs to the Cathedral for the August Bank Holiday weekend to sing Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor which had been dedicated to ‘Holst and his Whitsuntide singers’.
(Interestingly Arthur Robson’s choir The Chichester Chorale sang this setting at their Easter Concert in St George’s Whyke last year).

Holst was in America over the Whitsun weekend in 1932 where he was diagnosed with a duodenal ulcer. The Festival that year returned to Bosham and Chichester. He was able to attend but Vally Lasker conducted ‘Mr Holst’s Singers’. The following Whitsun in 1933 the Festival was again in Bosham and Chichester but Holst was too ill even to attend. In 1934 he was awaiting major surgery but notwithstanding he sent greetings to the Rev. Street, then vicar of Bosham and his Whitsuntide musicians
‘I wish you all Good Luck, Good weather, much playing and almost too much singing and many happy returns of the day (I mean days). And I wish myself the joy of your fellowship at Whitsun 1935’
– a wish to remain unfulfilled. He died on the 25th May 1934 and, as is well known to us all, his memorial service was held in the cathedral one month later – appropriately on 24th June, St. John the Baptist’s Day which is the patronal day of Thaxted Church where it had all begun. Vaughan Williams conducted the Whitsuntide Singers.

The Whitsun weekends continued after Holst’s death in the first instance at Bosham. Following the death of the Rev. Street in 1938 the festivities moved to Boxgrove Priory. The war inevitably interrupted the pattern but after the war the Chichester/Boxgrove weekends were resumed with a red letter day of Sunday 25th May 1947 when the Boxgrove Whit Sunday festival service was chosen to be the first ever broadcast of a Parish Church Communion on the wireless. The final Whitsuntide Festival was in 1958 by then many of the key figures had died and Vally Lasker was in her mid seventies and unable to continue. The Whitsun Festivals had been sustained with few interruptions for some 40 years.

I am interested in documenting the significance of the Whitsun Weekends particular focusing on
(i) the socio-historical context in which the two unlikely groups of students were brought together – Morley College and SPGS and
(ii) the repertoire used at these weekends
As important however is the contribution that this and other such projects of the early twentieth century made to extending access to the arts in education and elsewhere. A corner of our music history where the archival resources have not yet been fully documented or systematically explored.