Beyond 'The Planets,' a Host of Musical Identities in Holst

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A comedy about hypocrisy and pretense paired with a drama about fidelity sounds like an election-year parable.

Better still, it’s Travelers: a double-bill of operas, both written by Gustav Holst, set to open at 59E59 Theaters Thursday night courtesy of the Little Opera Theatre of New York. Despite being best-known for his orchestral suite The Planets (which even to non-classical fans resonates thanks to John Williams’s score for Star Wars), Holst has a host of operas to his name (eight, all told) written over the course of his life. Perhaps one of the most potent pairings, however, involves 1908’s Savitri and 1929-30’s The Wandering Scholar.

"They’re written at different periods of his life and in a totally different musical language,” said Philip Shneidman, who formed LOTNY in 2004 and directs the double bill. “I think it’s kind of fascinating.”

Composed near the beginning of his musical life, Savitri represents Holst at a time when the composer was intellectually engrossed by all things Indian, going so far as to teaching himself Sanskrit. "He was trying to discover another form of religion, a rational form of religion which I think he found in Hinduism,” Shneidman said. At the same time, Holst was forging what one could call a more rational form of musical identity, beholden as he was at the onset of his career.

Through fellow student Ralph Vaughan Williams, Holst gradually began to shed his Wagnerian obligations and turned to the influences of Ravel and the leaner alternatives to Grieg, Strauss and the like. All of their fingerprints, however, can still be seen. “It’s sort of a mix between Wagnerian grandness and Indian mysticism,” said conductor Richard Cordova. Music writer and Britten biographer Donald Mitchell wrote that he hears a Wagner connection in Holst’s vocal lines, for better or for worse (the work also features a wordless women’s chorus, which pops up later in the “Neptune” section of The Planets).

Yet at the same time, Savitri has—in more ways than one—premonitions of minimalist maestro Philip Glass’s own Sanskrit-influences work, Satyagraha, as Shneidman noted. The plot concerns an eponymous woman who cheats death in order to uphold her devotion to her husband. To be sure, the music takes a roundabout course from East to West, much in line with Holst’s own polymath tendencies.

If Savitri showcases Holst at his most musically multicultural, however, the composer's later opera, The Wandering Scholar, is unapologetically Anglophilic. Holst apparently had thoughts of updating the work but left it unrevised upon his death in 1934. His daughter, conductor Imogen Holst, and Benjamin Britten later prepared performance versions of the opera. It stands as a forebear to similar works by Britten himself with incorporations of traditional English tunes and a reliance on four-square tempo. "At the time, he was rediscovering folk music and working out how to incorporate that in to the classical tradition,” said Shneidman. “It all pulled together into The Wandering Scholar.

Far less virtuous than Savitri, Scholar is almost Purcellian in its musical language with a Decameron-esque twist (Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was even once paired with Savitri by Cordova). Whereas the character Savitri remains steadfast in her devotion to her husband even in death, Scholar’s spouse, Alison, is easily divorced from her resolute fidelity. In the 20 years between the two operas, whatever shreds of devotion Holst still had musically to Wagner were replaced by those of his peer Vaughan Williams.

Moving from the corrupt to the pure, LOTNY is to reverse the chronological order of Holst’s operas. The company will also present Holst's choral number Hymn of the Travellers, a work with links to both operas (Holst suggests that it be used when needed as a prelude to Savitri). Shneidman hopes that it will provide the context of corruption moving into a certain sense of purity. "I think he captures with the music, the idea that, in this world where it’s easy to be kind of jaded, it’s wonderful to discover a person who's that real,” he explained.

Lord knows we’ll take all the “real” people we can get.