Holst and India

Holst and India

Nalini Ghuman discusses the influence of Indian culture on Gustav Holst's music

Why not learn Sanskrit?

Sometime in 1899, a young trombonist and aspiring composer walked into the British Museums Reading Room, requested several books, and waited in anticipation. He had come to peruse the ancient Rigveda, works by the fifth-century classical poet and dramatist Kālidāsa  – particularly Meghadūta (The Cloud Messenger), and the great Hindu epics, Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata. These works had appealed to him so strongly that he wanted to set them to music, but he found the available translations stilted and unnatural and looked forward to getting a better – truer – sense of these texts by going directly to the sources. As he glanced around the room, he saw venerable scholars deep in studies of ‘Oriental’ languages. The attendant staggered in with a huge pile of volumes but, to his dismay, they were all in the original Devanāgarī script. He crept out of the room, feeling, as he later recounted to his daughter, more of a fool than he had ever felt in his life.

This was 25-year-old Gustav von Holst who, by this time, according to his friend Edwin Evans, was ‘so fired by enthusiasm that difficulties only spurred him on’, and, in spite of a gruelling touring schedule with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, he embarked on Sanskrit language and literature studies at the School of Oriental Languages with Dr Mabel Bode. His bookshelves filled up with epic Indian stories, poems, and hymns, all of which – judging from the copious annotations and page-wear visible on his books now held at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith (where he was Head of Music) – he read and studied closely. Pencilled marginalia, along with an annotated copy of the Meghadūta in Sanskrit, evince a working knowledge of the language. ‘As a rule’, he recalled later, ‘I only study things that suggest music to me. That’s why I worried at Sanskrit.’

But a passing phase?

All this Indic study did indeed suggest a great deal of music to him. In 1899, he became preoccupied with the idea of writing an epic opera based on a subject from Indian mythology. The result was the three-act Sita, for which he enlisted the advice of the historian Romesh Chunder Dutt and wrote a libretto largely based on translations by the renowned Sanskrit scholar, Ralph T. H. Griffith.  Sita was finally completed in 1906, but he was not happy with the musical language and later referred to it as a bout of ‘good old Wagnerian bawling’. 

Gustav Holst's Sita

Gustav Holst, Sita, Add MS 47821-47823

Sita is a three-act opera based on an episode in the Rāmāyana. The text was adapted for the libretto by Holst himself.

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Over the next six years, Holst composed a series of Indian-influenced works in which he developed a distinctive compositional style familiar to many from The Planets. Among them is The Cloud Messenger (1909–10), based on Meghadūta, the much-admired lyric poem by Kālidāsa. This extensive choral and orchestral work programmatically depicts the wondrous sights which a monsoon cloud would encounter if he would agree to take a message to an exile’s beloved. In the temple scene at Kailasa, musicians and dancers gather, their pace becoming more frenetic, until the great God Siva himself descends for the Cosmic Dance, depicted by an ostinato of repeated driving rhythms and shifting accents (several years before Stravinsky) heard later in Hymn of Jesus and The Planets. ‘Including translation,’ Holst recalled, The Cloud Messenger ‘took me seven years – 7 happy years of course.’

Gustav Holst: The Planets

Gustav Holst, 'The Planets', Add MS 57881

This manuscript shows the arrangement for two pianos of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus from The Planets, Holst's most famous work.

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Holst’s language and literature studies were progressing apace. In 1908, he had acquired A Sanskrit Primer from Luzac & Company (the ‘Oriental’ booksellers and publishers located opposite the British Museum) and, judging from his pencil markings, worked through some 80 pages of it, up to the end of Lesson 19.  It was at this time that he selected an episode from the Mahābhārata, ‘Sāvitri’, a feminist Orpheus story (which predates the Greek myth by several centuries), which the composer adapted in his own translation to create his one-act chamber opera, Sāvitri, scored for three solo singers, a hidden women’s chorus representing Maya (the Hindu concept of illusion which Holst added to the story), and twelve instruments, and lasting just 35 minutes in performance, with neither curtain nor overture. Sāvitri's directness of expression and economy of gesture and means prefigures Britten’s church parables of the 1960s, and would wait 13 years for a public premiere. Taken out of the context of Holst’s Indian studies and compositions, Sāvitri has been seen as ‘eccentric’, or ‘unexpectedly . . . oriental’. Yet the music’s organizing principles – melodic linearity, sparse scoring, unembellished simplicity – will be recognisable from his Rig Veda hymn settings, the emblematic works of Holst’s Sanskrit period.

Orientalism and Indian Music: Intuition or Influence?

Between 1907 and 1912, the composer immersed himself in the study, translation, and setting of some 28 of the Vedic Hymns: 14 hymns for solo voice and piano (1907‒08) and 14 choral settings, published in four sets (1908 and 1912).

Holst’s attraction to Sanskrit language and literature relates to the larger European phenomenon of Orientalism, as examined by the late Edward Said. Indian cultural traditions were considered especially attractive because of their ancient pedigree: the Hymns from the Rig Veda comprises over a thousand hymns of the first known inhabitants of the Indus Valley in the North-West of India invoking the pantheon of Hindu gods.  Scholars have generally understood Holst’s Indophilia to be exclusively related to the Golden Age of its ancient literature, and have claimed that he never heard or knew any Indian music.  However, recent research reveals that Holst was also intensely interested in living (contemporary) Indian music in both theory and practice. As a student at the Royal College of Music in London, he heard concerts by Indian musicians, lecture-recitals by performer-scholars, and live music at colonial exhibitions. According to the Indian music expert Maud MacCarthy, who met Holst in London upon her return from India in the 1900s, Holst was ‘studying all he could of Oriental musical theory’ and recalled: ‘I remember that fine composer, the late Gustav Holst, coming to me years ago for ‘Indian scales’.

Rig Veda

Rigveda, Or. 4481

The Rig Veda, consisting of 1028 hymns organized into 10 books, is one of the oldest and most important scriptures of Hinduism.

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Gustav Holst's Choral hymns from the Rig Veda

Gustav Holst, Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Add MS 57873

Through his genuine interest in ancient Indian culture, Holst was inspired to compose four sets of songs based on the sacred hymns of the Rig Veda.

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Ostinato and Rāga-ālāp

Almost all of the traits of Holst’s mature compositional style were developed in his Vedic hymns and several of these were influenced by Indian music: asymmetrical metres (beats cast in cycles of 5 and 7), unusual modes, clear melodic textures, sensitivity to textural rhythm.

Holst’s novel approach to harmony, texture, and mode is first heard in the solo Vedic Hymn, ‘Vāruna’ (1907). The opening phrase, to be sung ‘as if improvising’, has roots in the unmetred ālāp of classical Indian music in which the singer unfolds modal phrases of the rāga over a drone, a quiet reinforcement of the tonal centre. This is one of the composer’s first essays in a linear, stripped-down style, without ornamentation or counterpoint of any kind. The music has a new modal and cyclical quality unhindered by the goal-directed harmonic and motivic development of his earlier music.

In the Battle Hymn (a hymn to Indra, King of the Gods), for male voices and orchestra, we hear for the first time the 5-beat ostinato made famous in his later Planet, ‘Mars’ – a pattern more closely related to a 5-beat rhythmic cycle in the Indian tradition than any English or European tradition. 

A complicated rhythmical figure

In 1910 Holst was busy with the third group of Choral Hymns for women’s voices. Unlike the earlier solo and choral hymns which had been scored for piano and orchestra respectively, these feature the harp, an instrument whose plucked strings can recreate the range and resonance of the tambūrā (or tānpurā), the long-necked lute, whose continuous drone is the most fundamental element in all Indian music. Maud MacCarthy had recently given an acclaimed lecture-recital at the India Society in South Kensington, and her playing of the tānpurā’s ‘complicated rhythmical figures’ as she sang had drawn particular interest.  In the two outer hymns, Holst created harp parts which signal the Indian drone lute with striking verisimilitude: ‘To the Dawn’, and ‘Hymn of the Travellers’ for women’s voices, and, in doing so, he transformed the West’s most pervasive musical signifier of an imagined ‘Orient’ (inert, primitive, mystic) – the drone – into dynamic tānpurā patterns.

Indian modes and Vedic recitation

1910 also saw the composition of ‘क’ (Ka), as he referred to his choral hymn ‘To the Unknown God’, which is influenced by what some believed was the earliest record of Indian music: the chanting of the Vedas, an analysis of which Holst studied in the first volume of Griffith’s Hymns from the Rig Veda (one his most thoroughly-thumbed and annotated books). Holst’s vocal line emulates important features of Vedic chanting: the voices move freely across bar lines in an unaccompanied, unison recitation, rather than being smoothed out into foursquare bars and harmonized; the range is narrow, involving only the ‘Vedic intervals’ of seconds and thirds above and below the main pitch; and varied rhythmic motifs, unconstrained by the common time signature, outline characteristic Vedic gestures (such as jaunty syllabic phrases with syncopations and broad triplet melismas).

Holst chose a South Indian mode, namanarayani (the 50th of the Karnātic mēlakartas), made up of a distinctive series of intervals (lowered second; raised third and fourth; lowered sixth and seventh scale degrees), to generate all of the hymn’s vocal and orchestral parts. He drew on Indian modes (mēlakartas) learned from MacCarthy in other compositions too, such as the Hymn to Soma, in which the principal vocal melody of the male voices is shaped from vakulabharanam, distinct from any Western scale, with its lowered second, sixth, and seventh degrees. In Hymn to the Unknown God, whose repeating refrain invokes the ritual of sacrifice central to Vedic orthodoxy (‘Who is He? How shall we name Him when we offer sacrifice?’), Holst’s use of the namanarayani mode along with elements of Vedic chanting are combined to create a modern sound world which circumvents 19th-century conventions of harmony and form.


In contrast to the vague musical orientalism in vogue during the height of the British Empire, Holst’s hymns, with their bona fide Indian texts, subjects, and musical elements, have often seemed decidedly ‘un-Indian’ to the uninformed ear: ‘Sound firm impressions of the East from a sane Western perspective’ declared The Musical Times; ‘They do not suggest a point further East than Leicester-square’ (Daily Telegraph); after all, explained the Manchester Guardian ‘many real Eastern musical ideas are frankly ugly and uninteresting’. Their Indian musical roots have long been denied by the composer’s biographers. 

Holst’s engagement with Indian musical culture was unprecedented at that time in British music. His Sanskrit works – at once the most modern and the most firmly based on Indian sources – provide compelling evidence of English music’s ‘acculturation’ during the height of the Raj.[1]

[1] In writing this article, I have adapted parts of the chapter, ‘From India to the Planet Mars: Gustav Holst’, in my book Resonances of the Raj (Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 105-167. All references are located in the chapter, and music examples can also be seen and heard on the companion website.

  • Nalini Ghuman
  • Nalini Ghuman is Professor of Music at Mills College in the San Francisco Bay Area. She read music at The Queen’s College, Oxford; King’s College London; and University of California at Berkeley, and is a scholar of 20th-century British music, as well as a pianist, singer, and violinist. Her book, Resonances of the Raj: India in the English Musical Imagination, published by Oxford University Press in 2014 http://global.oup.com/us/companion.websites/9780199314898/, was selected as BBC Music Magazine’s ‘Book of the Month’ (Nov 2014). She presented the programme, Elgar and Englishness, for BBC Radio 4’s Series, The Essay, and has given invited lectures at the British Academy in London, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the University of York, and at Yale University where she gave the inaugural lecture of the British Music Seminar Series. She recently authored the first article entry on Irish musician and Indian music expert Maud MacCarthy for Grove Music Online.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.