The Rig Veda is a collection of over 1000 sacred hymns of praise composed in Vedic Sanskrit. It is one of the four great canonical texts of Hinduism, known as the Vedas. The Vedas are some of the oldest texts in the Indo-European language.

In 1907 Gustav Holst purchased a copy of the second edition of Ralph Thomas Hotchkin Griffith’s translation of the Hymns. These copies bear witness to heavy use, with most pages creased and with some pencil markings. They are still held by St Paul’s Girls school where the composer was the head of music. These texts inspired Gustav Holst, through his genuine interest in ancient Indian culture, to compose four sets of songs based on the Rig Veda.

Furthermore he decided that the best course of action was to learn Sanskrit in order to be able to translate the texts into English himself. In this way he could gain a personal understanding of the texts, thereby helping him to develop an individual musical style in setting the words which had dogged him thus far. Musically the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda break away from the sentimentality that had permeated the works he had composed under the influence of Wagner’s music. There is a marked increase in the use of dissonant chords, as well as irregular meters like 5/4 and 7/4.

The Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda are divided into four groups:
– First Group (H.97): ‘Battle Hymn’; ‘To the unknown God’ and ‘Funeral Hymn’
– Second Group (H.98): ‘To Varuna ’; ‘To Agni’; Funeral Chant
– Third Group (H.99): ‘Hymn to the Dawn’; ‘Hymn to the Waters’; ‘Hymn to Vena (the rising sun through the mist’ and ‘Hymn to the Travellers’
– Fourth Group (H.100): ‘Hymn to Agni’; ‘Hymn to Soma’; ‘Hymn to Manas’ and ‘Hymn to Indra’

The four groups had been intended as separate works rather than one single cycle and were accordingly premiered separately.

The images here are from the first and fourth groups, and are part of the Gustav Holst collection held by the British Library.