I suppose that I’m like many a classical music lover when it comes to Gustav Holst: aside from The Planets, I really don’t know much about him at all. I’m a bit better off than most, by virtue of having been in the concert band in high school and college, so I’m familiar with Holst’s two Suites for Military Band (which I should feature at some point anyway, because they’re terrific), but really, that’s about it. Holst was fairly prolific, and his work had many influences: Wagnerian opera, English folksong, Indian mythology, and more. His music, in my experience, rarely fits into a simple box, and his melodic gift is a subtle one that doesn’t always leave the listener with tunes stuck in the ear. For many reasons Holst’s output has been almost completely outshone by The Planets, which is the case with the sacred work I feature today.
Holst wrote The Hymn of Jesus in 1917, not long after the completion of The Planets, and listeners familiar with the more famous work may hear its echoes in the present one. It opens with a solo trombone playing a plainchant melody, and then the work grows until Holst’s plan becomes clear. For a relatively short work–only about 22 minutes in length–he deploys a large group of forces, with the orchestra supplemented by two choirs and a female choir all by itself. He also seems to have specified that the two “main” choirs be separated spatially, I assume for sonic reasons that could really only be appreciated in live performance.
The Hymn of Jesus is solemn and meditative and at times almost ecstatic. Its musical language constantly suggests the music of the ancient church, music that predates our system of Western tuning. All the vocal work is by choir; there are no soloists here, and repeated use of ostinato passages combines with the generally “angelic” sound of the choir to give the work a largely liturgical and at the same time otherworldly feeling. This is music that suggests a cathedral, with its great stone vaults, rising all about you.
For a very deep dive into this piece, check out this article; for now, here is The Hymn of Jesus by Gustav Holst.