On the trail of . . . Chopin in Mallorca

June 20, 2020

For decades I’d read about an abandoned 13th. century Carthusian monastery to which Fryderyk Chopin and his lover George Sand retreated, far away from the prying eyes of Parisian society.  The atmosphere it evokes, both from Sand’s pen and from a number of biographers, sounded so quintessentially romantic.

Legend has it that while staying in one of its monk’s cells, Chopin heard the unceasing dripping of rain water throughout the day and night while completing his collection of Preludes.  This inspired the so-called Raindrop Prelude, Op. 28 No. 15, the longest piece in the collection and an anchor and focal point, with its evocative, timeless, nocturnal dreaming.

“His composition of that evening,” Sand wrote, poetically if not accurately, in The Story of My Life (1856), “certainly echoed the drops of water which were drumming on the resonant tiles of the charter-house, but they had been rendered in his imagination, and in his song, by tears falling from heaven on his heart.”

Now here in front of me, exactly 180 years later, early one December morning, is that monastery and former royal residence, looming large and rather forbidding, with its austere facade.  What, I wondered, lies beyond those walls?

Our journey has taken us from Barcelona on the Spanish mainland to the island of Mallorca (Majorca) – certainly with more comfort than that of Chopin, Sand, her two children Maurice (then 15) and Solange (10), plus a maid, Amelia.

They sailed from Barcelona on  the El Mallorquin, a steamer primarily designed to transport a cargo of 200 black Mallorcan pigs every week to the markets of Barcelona.

That dubious pleasure lay ahead for the party on what would become a hastily arranged retreat from the keenly anticipated comforts of the Mediterranean island.

On arriving on the island, in Palma November 8, 1838 at 11:30am, there were no inns to be found (none on the island at all, if Sand’s colourful, though malicious travel memoir Winter in Mallorca (1842) can be believed – which it can’t!).

A week in lodgings over a cooper’s workshop, unsurprisingly, proved too noisy for the couple to settle down to work.
More accommodation was found 4 km outside the Mallorcan capital, at Establiments, in a rented villa, ominously called Son Vent (House of the Wind).


Son Vent today – sorry and seemingly abandoned.
“So far we had had wonderful weather, the lemon trees and the myrtles were still blooming. . . In the first days of December I stayed on the terrace in the comfort of delicious warmth until five in the morning.”
(George Sand – Un hiver à Majorque)



Son Vent – sketch of the villa, in Sand’s memoir













Plaque at Son Vent, dated 1988, marking the 150th anniversary of the Chopin-Sand visit


Chopin’s initial reaction to the island was also favourable.

On November 15, he wrote from Son Vent to fellow pianist Julian (Jules) Fontana in Paris.

“Here I am in the midst of palms and cedars and cacti and olives and lemons and aloes and figs and pomegranates,” he enthused.

“The sky is turquoise blue, the sea is azure, the mountains are emerald green … all day long the sun shines and it is warm, and everybody wears summer clothes.”





This was too good to be true.

Chopin by Luigi Calamatta, 1838

The idyllic weather soon broke, Sand
recounts, and the rains started.

“The damp settled like a cloak of ice over our shoulders and reduced me to paralysis.”





On December 3rd, 1838, Chopin again wrote to Fontana:

“I have not been able to send you the manuscripts (His 24 Preludes) since they are not ready. For the past three weeks I have been as sick as a dog, despite a heat of 18 degrees, despite the roses, orange trees, palms, and flowering fig-trees. I caught a bad cold.

“The three most celebrated doctors of the island met for a consultation.
“One peered at what I had expectorated, the second sounded the organs of expectoration, the third listened while I expectorated again.
“The first said that I would die.
“The second that I was dying.

“The third that I was already dead.”

Chopin’s consumption (tuberculosis) was already being whispered about among the fearful Mallorcans.  It was viewed as contagious, much like a coronovirus.

The lease on the villa was quickly broken and the property vacated by the end of the month.  Sand was billed extra for a deep cleaning.

Chopin consulted his doctors while the Chopin-Sand party stayed with the French Consul in Palma.

On December 18, 1838, the party travelled to Valldemossa, having rented a three-room monk’s cell in the monastery from a Spanish political exile who sensed the need to beat a hasty retreat.

Valldemossa today, with monastery in distance in centre, December 21, 2018,                                                           CLICK ANY IMAGE TO ENLARGE


Today, the journey from the Calle de la marina in central Palma to Valldemossa can comfortably be driven in a half hour.

In 1838, however, George Sand recalls a very different experience, travelling in a cartana – a kind of springless post-chaise pulled by a horse or mule:

“Ravines, torrents, swamps, quickset hedges, ditches, all bar the path in vain.  One does not stop for such trifles, because, of course they are part of the road.
“And yet you often reach your destination safe and sound, thanks to the steadiness of the carriage and the strength of the horse’s legs, though one wheel may run on a mountain and the other in a ravine . . .”

Now, it would seem, in this mountain-top village in the Tramuntana range, Chopin the composer and Sand the writer would have the solitude and peace they were seeking, both for work and for health.

But what attracted the Polish composer-pianist and French novelist, memoirist and social activist  to one another in the first place?

George Sand by Eugène Delacroix, 1838

Born Amandine Aurore Lucille Dupin in 1804 (six years before Chopin), Sand acquired her pen name via one of  many lovers, Jules Sandeau, with whom she co-authored her earliest publications.

A string of racy, somewhat autobiographical novels under the name George Sand propelled her fame, together with a predilection for cross-dressing.

“I dashed back and forth across Paris and felt I was going around the world . . . Nobody heeded me. Or suspected my disguise . . .”

Victor Hugo concluded: “George Sand cannot determine whether she is male or female .  . . but it is not my place to decide whether she is my sister or my brother.”

Pencil drawing of Chopin by George Sand, 1841



Chopin, on the other hand, recoiled from public life.

He preferred the salon to the concert hall and composition to the gladiatorial competitiveness among the lions of the keyboard he encountered in Paris.

Fellow pianist-composer Ignaz Moscheles observed in 1839: “His appearance is exactly like his music; both are tender  and schwärmerisch” (fanciful, dreamy, enthusiastic).

“Chopin was feminine in looks, gestures, and taste,” according to his pupil Adolf Gutmann.



Opposites attract and never more so than with Chopin and Sand.

They were opposites in politics, he a traditionalist, favouring the company of the aristocracy, she a full-throated child of the French Revolution, egalitarian in her views, provocatively unorthodox in her attitudes.

His ancestry was middle-class and devoutly Catholic; hers aristocratic, advantaged and liberal-minded.

Chopin was reserved in his thoughts, refined, even aloof. Sand, meanwhile, lived life like a book – and, frequently, included life’s characters, thinly disguised, in her own writings.
Today, she would have posted prolifically on social media; in 1838, her followers had to buy her books!

“Together they were to become one of the oddest couples in Europe,” says Chopin biographer Jeremy Siepmann.

The monastery’s charter-house corridors, deconsecrated in 1835, still maintain a stark simplicity today

“This is the devil’s own country as far as mail, the population and comforts are concerned,” Chopin writes days after arriving in Valldemossa.
“The sky is as lovely as your soul; the earth is as black as my heart.”
















“This Charter-house has no architectural beauties, but is a series of sturdy, amply-designed buildings,” Sand writes in A Winter in Mallorca.

“Its massive walls of dressed stone enclose an area which would have sufficed to house an army corps.

Yet the whole edifice had been built for only 12 monks and their prior.

The ‘new cloisters’ alone – at various periods, three Carthusian monasteries have here been built on to one another – give access to 12 cells, each consisting of three spacious rooms.

At right angles to these cloisters run two lines of chapels, 12 in all; because each monk had his own chapel, where he used to retire for solitary devotion.”

A glimpse of the central courtyard

Cell No. 4, where Chopin and Sand stayed, is now a Chopin Museum owned by the Quetglas banking family . . . the only Chopin museum in Valldemossa.

For three generations, the Ferrá-Capllonch family claimed No. 2 as the only authentic Chopin museum in Mallorca.

A court case in 2004 – with Chopin’s piano as evidence – put an end to the feud, which endured over three generations.

In other words, for three generations, visitors to Valldemossa were tricked into paying an admission fee to be misled into believing they were in the Chopin-Sand cell. The piano they saw there was proven to have been built a decade after Chopin’s visit.

References to this museum are still, confusingly, all over the web.


This small Pleyel upright, sent via Barcelona from Paris, was the instrument on which Chopin completed the Op. 28 Preludes and worked on other compositions.

Its arrival was delayed and then the high import duties required much negotation.

The piano remained in Mallorca because high export duties would have been demanded and – more importantly – Chopin’s consumption made it an object which no-one wished to handle.

The Pleyel now has pride of place in one of the three rooms of the Chopin museum in Cell No. 4

George Sand’s relations with local Mallorcans were not comfortable.  Sand felt their wrath since she and Chopin were not married and they did not attend the Sunday service.  She felt she was being overcharged for fish, eggs and vegetables.

The ever-resourceful author persuaded the French Consul’s chef to send provisions from Palma.

She even purchased a goat and a sheep for milk.

“Since it rained off and on for two months [December and January are the rainy season in the Balearic Islands] we frequently nibbled bread as hard as ship’s biscuit and dined like true Carthusians,” Sand wrote.

In an act of revenge, she even referred to Mallorcans as “barbarians, thieves, monkeys and Polynesian savages” in A Winter in Mallorca.

Something of the family’s attitude comes through in 15-year-old Maurice Sand’s sketch.

The caption, in French, reads: “Visit of the priest who explains to us what snow is (as if we didn’t already know).

“Sand was a beautiful woman, endowed with a face full of intelligence, animated by her beautiful black eyes . . .”
“Chopin was very ill. He came looking for southern weather to restore his health . . .”



The compact, three-room museum contains original lithographs by Chopin and Sand, letters and manuscripts (or facsimiles) related to Mallorca, medallions, sculptures and other memorabilia.

It also contains this fascinating first-hand memoir [to right] about the Chopin-Sand visit by banker’s wife Helene Choussat and how and why she eventually ended up purchasing the Pleyel piano.


Chopin, with his small, fine-boned hand, was heard to advantage in the salon, rather than the larger concert hall.  His touch was sensitive and nuanced, never forceful.

Chopin was an innovator, integrating carefully shaded dynamics, subtle use of the pedals, fresh developments in keyboard fingering and refined use of rubato that all blossomed when heard in the intimate salon.

My hand (on top of a display case (about 18 inches above the exhibits) is substantially larger than the cast made of Chopin’s left hand by Auguste Clésinger, French sculptor, painter and husband of Sand’s daughter Solange [but the tale of this marriage is a sorry tale for another day . . .]



Even in late December, the view from Cell #4 balcony is stunning.
“It is a sublime picture: the foreground framed by dark, fir-covered rocks, the middle distance by bold mountains fringed with stately trees,
the near background by rounded hillocks which the setting sun gilds warmly, and on whose crests the eye can make out, though a league away, the outlines of microscopic trees, delicate as a butterfly antennae, but as sharply black as the stroke of a pen in Indian ink on a field of sparkling gold.
Yet the sea lies still farther in the background and, when the sun returns in the morning and the plain resembles a blue lake, the Mediterranean sets a limit to this dazzling vista with a strip of brilliant silver.”
– from A Winter in Mallorca

Cell #4’s substantial balcony is now artfully planted for year-round enjoyment

180 years earlier, however, on December 27, 1838, Sand reported to her Paris friends Count and Countess Marliani: “The rains here are such as one cannot imagine, frightening deluges, with the air so wet and heavy, one cannot drag one’s self about . . . I am all rheumatism . . .And our poor Chopin is quite feeble, and suffering.”

Sand, by now, was performing heroic service to her family.  She was providing the necessities of life, overseeing her maid and a hired local cook.  She was teaching her children during the day, nursing the declining Chopin, and still finding energy to write by night, revising her provocative 1833 novel Lélia and completing Spiridion, a gothic novel, examining and critiquing monastic life.

Chopin then began coughing blood.

Sand made all the travel arrangements, with many odds stacked against her.

“And the reason for this unfriendliness?” Sand wrote to her friends.  “It was because Chopin coughs, and whosoever coughs in Spain is declared consumptive; and he who is consumptive is held to be a plague-carrier, a leper.  They haven’t sticks, stones and police enough to drive him out, for, according to their ideas, consumption is catching and the sufferer should therefore be slaughtered if possible, just as the insane were strangled two hundred years ago. We were treated like outcasts in Mallorca – because of Chopin’s cough and also because we didn’t go to church.”

Chopin always professed bronchitis, despite his sister having already died from tuberculosis and having the disease diagnosed in Palma.

They set sail for Barcelona February 14, 1839, together with 200 pigs, Chopin coughing and haemorrhaging badly.

They arrived in Mallorca as lovers; they left with a different relationship.

“She nursed me by herself,” Chopin wrote to his longtime Polish friend Albert Grzymala. “I have seen her . . . deprive herself of everything for my benefit . . . Besides everything else, she manages to write.”

“I care for him like a child and he loves me like a mother,” Sand confided to Charlotte Marliani.

Chopin was nursed back to health in Barcelona, then Marseilles and, finally, at Sand’s chateau at Nohant in France.

Life in Nohant and Paris resumed, with Sand continuing to provide the secure environment Chopin needed to compose.

During their long and complex ten-year relationship, Chopin composed some of his finest works – the 24 Preludes, the B-flat and B minor Sonatas, the C-sharp minor Scherzo, F minor Ballade, the Polonaise-fantasie, and many waltzes, mazurkas, Polonaises,nocturnes and other works.

George Sand, Fryderyk Chopin, portrait after Delacroix, 1838/2008, currently in the Louvre museum.
The two lovers posed for their friend Eugène Delacroix before leaving for Mallorca.  The painting was considered unfinished and remained in the artist’s possession until his death.
It was then sold several times and eventually cut into two parts,with some features removed.
The George Sand part is at the Ordrupgaard museum in Copenhagen, the Chopin part now at the Louvre.
This is a 2008 hypothetical reconstruction of the painting, based on Delacroix’s sketch and completed sections.


Stephen Hough plays music by Chopin in his January 19, 2021 concert for MusicTORONTO.

Janina Fialkowska has another Chopin set, April 27, 2021.

Blog post copyright © 2020 Keith Horner

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On the trail of . . . Haydn’s Op. 1 No. 1

February 20, 2020

The Schumann Quartet are bringing Haydn’s Op. 1 No. 1 to their Music TORONTO concert, Feb 27, 2020.
Is this Op. 1 No. 1 Haydn’s very first published work?
The first string quartet from the man known as the ‘Father’ of the string quartet?
. . . . . . Would that it was so simple!


Rohrau, Austria – Haydn’s birthplace, drawing c1870-80

Rohrau birthplace today, flying the EU flag







Haydn’s birthplace today. The building suffered flooding and fire. Now rebuilt, it houses a museum and concert room


Rohrau, Haydn’s birthplace , oil painting, 1800 Obere Hauptstrasse 25, likely where Haydn, but not his Op. 1, was conceived 











By the time this oil painting was made at the beginning of the 19th century, Haydn was reaching the end of his string quartet-writing days.

The two movements of No. 68 were on his writing desk.

His former pupil and long-time friend, Ignaz Joseph Pleyel, now rivalled his teacher as the most popular composer in Europe.

Pleyel, however, was already phasing out composing in favour of publishing.

One of the earliest of some 4,000 works to come from the Paris-based Maison Pleyel was the first complete edition of Haydn’s string quartets.

That was in 1802.

Pleyel followed the lead of many earlier publishers throughout Europe by referring to the early B-flat quartet as Op. 1 No. 1.

Pleyel’s first edition of his complete Haydn string quartets was published 1802.
This is a variant, published c1803-6,
dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte, now known as the ‘Bonaparte Edition.’
The St Lawrence SQ keep an eye on it in the library at Stanford University.

Publishing was, of course, a free-for-all in the 18th century.

La Chevadière in Paris had been the first to assemble an Op. 1 collection of six of Haydn’s quartets.

He put it together from manuscript copies circulating in Paris in the mid-1760s.

Haydn didn’t know about it or he might have pointed out that one of the quartets was really one of his symphonies and not a quartet at all.

Two more are sextets for string quartet with two horns.

Score 3 out of 6 for La Chevadière.


Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, Johann Julius Hummel was assembling his own Op. 1 collection, plus a further six-pack of Haydn quartets, which he titled Op. 2.

Like all early publishers, he arranged them in the way he thought would deliver the most sales.

Score 7 out of 6 for Hummel.

That’s because he included an E-flat quartet (Hob.II:6) which became lost, until re-discovered in the 1930s.

Some linear-thinker then catalogued the poor thing as Op. ‘O’, under which handicap it has languished ever since.

So, all in all, Haydn wrote a total of ten early quartets, known for the past 270+ years as Opp. 1 and 2.

He called them cassations, nocturnes, or the term that gets the most nods in academic circles these days, divertimenti a quattro.

However, consider this.

We might not have Haydn’s ten early quartets had the young Haydn undergone a surgical procedure recommended by an unknown official at the Stephansdom, St Stephen’s Cathedral, in Vienna.

Ahem.  We need to backtrack.

This is the ground floor bedroom at the Haydn family home, in Rohrau, Lower Austria, which I recently visited.

The reed-thatched building was built by Haydn’s father, Mathias, a wheelwright.  He had his workshop at the back, across a small garden.

It is the room where both Joseph and his younger brother Michael were born. [Michael, also a gifted composer, followed in his brother’s footsteps, serving most of his working life at the archiepiscopal court in Salzburg].

Baptismal registration for both Joseph and Michael Haydn, Parish of Rohrau



Schloss Rohrau today, for over 400 years the property of the Harrach family, a few minutes’ walk from the Haydn Birthplace










A rather sorry-looking Haydn monument in the Rohrau town centre. Count Harrach originally  installed it in his palace grounds.


Haydn, however, only lived at Rohrau until he was six.

He was then taken in by a distant cousin named Johann Mathias Franck in Hainburg, his father’s birthplace, some 10 km to the North.

Franck was a schoolteacher and also in charge of the music at a local church.

His teaching and Haydn’s rapid progress drew the young Haydn sometime around 1740 to the attention of Georg Reutter, Kapellmeister at St Stephen’s, the metropolitan cathedral church of Vienna.

Haydn was auditioned and chosen as one of six choristers that year to receive training and boarding at the Stefansdom.

Stephansdom, Vienna





The adjacent Kapellhaus where Haydn boarded (to RHS) was torn down in 1804


Haydn spent the next decade at the gothic St Stephen’s in a city then at the height of its Baroque splendour.

The young Haydn sang the daily services, learning harpsichord, violin and possibly organ.

He did not receive composition lessons while serving the church.
But he did recall having all of two theory lessons from Reutter!

He also had the dubious privilege of singing many of Reutter’s 500
compositions written for the
church calendar and the needs
of the Habsburg court.


Interior of today’s St. Stephen’s, where Haydn sang the daily services for ten years.

Haydn excelled at what he did and became the leading treble
soloist by his mid-teens.

That’s when the question of surgery was raised, with a view to offering the boy a future as a soloist in a society where a castrato singer would be in high demand.

Mathias Haydn, by now also village Marktrichter, or mayor, heard of it, rushed into Vienna and put a stop to that idea.


At 17, Haydn’s voice broke.

His brother Michael became the main treble soloist.

Haydn was now on his own: a freelance musician in Vienna at the age of 17.

But the musical and personal skills he had acquired were useful and his contacts were developing.

He was both keyboard and string musician, he sang, he taught and, of course, he composed.


Barmherzige Bruder church, Vienna

Here’s how he would spend a typical Sunday morning:

08:00 Leading the orchestra on violin at the Barmherzige Brüder church on Taborstrasse.
10:00 Playing organ in the private chapel of Count Haugwitz, Wipplingerstrasse.
11:00 Singing with his former choir in the choral service at the Stephansdom.

[We have this information and many more details about Haydn’s early life from the German diplomat George August Griesinger, who interviewed the then famous composer many times towards the end of his life. Griesinger’s seven-part biography appeared in a journal shortly after the composer’s death, in 1809.
The following year, it was edited and expanded into a book].


Two or three years into Haydn’s new life, he had virtually all his possessions stolen while living in a garret behind the Hofburg Imperial palace.

Schloss Weinzierl, where Haydn’s
Op. 1 No. 1 was first performed

A wealthy government official named Carl Joseph Weber von Fürnberg (1720-67) came to Haydn’s rescue, offering him free accomodation and meals for two months.

No less helpfully, Fürnberg later commissioned the young composer to provide music for an informal gathering of musicians that he liked to host at his country residence, the Schloss Weinzierl, to the west of Vienna.

The group included his estate steward and chaplain, Albrechtsberger (either composer Johann or his cellist brother Anton) and Haydn, playing violin.


Symphonies were sometimes adapted by the quartet – as may well have been the case with the symphony (Hob. I:107), erroneously included in the Op. 1 collection of Haydn’s early quartets published in Paris by La Chevadière.

It was for this informal gathering that Haydn’s early divertimenti a quattro came to be created.

The new medium of two violins, viola and cello provided Haydn with a springboard for music that is immediately entertaining and pleasing.

Schloss Weinzierl


A Spring music festival has been held at the Schloss Weinzierl since 2009 to mark the location where Haydn’s first string quartets were performed.  Read about it HERE



By the time Haydn returned to the medium (c1768-70) with a consciously planned set of six string quartets, published (without his approval) as his Op. 9, he had already served his apprenticeship at the Esterházy court and was well into his duties as Kapellmeister to a family he would serve for the greater part of his future career.  [And there’s much more about this chapter of Haydn’s life on the MusicTORONTO blog HERE].

From its modest beginnings at Schloss Weinzierl, Haydn would develop his string quartet catalogue into one of the landmarks of 18th century musical composition.


The Schumann Quartet plays Haydn Op. 1 No. 1, Shostakovich and Smetana, Thursday February 27, 2020
© Copyright 2020 Keith Horner – khnotes@sympatico.ca

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On the trail of . . . Gustav Holst . . . in Salonika

November 11, 2018

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – one hundred years ago today – was only the beginning of the war effort for English composer Gustav Holst.

Having sailed from Southampton October 29, 1918, Holst was less than half way into a month-long journey across worn-torn Europe on his way to Salonika, Greece when the Armistice was declared.

Holst did not end his arduous travels at 11:00 am on November 11, 1918.  Neither did World War 1 end an hour before noon.

Treaties had to be negotiated and signed.  Empires had to be further broken up.  Populations redistributed.

The Allied Forces in Salonika, were to be kept on the Eastern Front (Southern Aegean / Sea of Marmara region) almost five more years, until August 1923.  Holst was with them in Salonika (present-day Thessaloniki) and Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) part of this time, on active service with the British Expeditionary Force with the YMCA for some eight months.

Salonika postcard mailed in 1918. The photograph was taken earlier since the defensive chemise around the White Tower was demolished in 1917. A massive fire also devastated much of the Old Town in 1917. The White Tower, now a museum, remains an iconic symbol of present-day Thessaloniki

His mission with the YMCA Auxiliary?

As Music Organiser, to bring music to help heal and revitalise exhausted Allied troops waiting to be demobilised, by one-on-one teaching, organising choirs, an orchestra, concerts and lectures.  But even before he set sail for the Eastern front, there was much to be done.

YMCA Music Section logo





Holst’s brother Emil, working since 1908 as a Broadway actor under the name Ernest Cossart, later a successful movie actor, was badly wounded while serving in the Canadian army during WW1

At the beginning of the war, Holst and his friend Vaughan Williams, both around 40 years old, had volunteered for military service. “The recruiting office had little use for a man who could hardly hold a fountain pen, let alone a rifle, and who was unable to recognise his own family at a distance of more than six yards,” his daughter Imogen wrote in her biography of her father.

Holst later heard about Vaughan Williams’ work with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Salonika and France. “Having been trained as a 6” Howitzer man, I’ve been bunged into a 60 pounder!” RVW wrote to his friend at one point.

As the war went on, his fellow composers and friends George Butterworth, Cecil Coles, and Ernest Farrar were all killed in action.

His wife Isobel was a volunteer ambulance driver throughout the war.

During the repeated air raids over London, Holst applied for work that would help the war effort, only to face rejection.

Meanwhile, with his thoughts constantly on the war, Holst continued teaching at St. Paul’s Girls’ School and, in the evenings, teaching adult classes at Morley College. More significantly for us, he kept busy composing in the soundproofed studio the school had constructed for him.

He wrote the ground-breaking Suite The Planets between 1914 and 1917, having to dictate part of the movement he completed last, Mercury, the Winged Messenger, because of the neuritis in his right arm.

Although he always downplayed its direct connection with WW1, the mighty Mars, the Bringer of War, completed just months before the outbreak of war in August 1914, clearly anticipates the horrors to come.

Holst’s name presented problems. Born Gustavus Theodore von Holst to musical parents, his German ancestry dated back to his great-grandfather Matthias (1769–1854) born in Rīga, of German stock – he was a composer, pianist and teacher to the Imperial Russian court in St Petersburg. This would have been a bit of a mouthful to explain to war-weary troops in Salonika.

Anti-German sentiment even against a British musician born in the comfort of a middle-class Cheltenham home was not in short supply in 1918.

G. T. VonHolst Esq’s application for Auxiliary work is accepted by the government’s Military
Intelligence Department


Holst changed his name by deed poll September 24, 1918.

Centre-right, Holst’s birthplace in 1874, then 4 Pittville Terrace, now 4 Clarence Road, and the Holst Birthplace Museum since 1975

(He was, of course, beaten to it by Mr and Mrs Saxe Coburg-Gotha, henceforth to be known as George and Mary Windsor).


Military training followed, in Nottinghamshire. “I’m going with the YMCA to Salonica for a year – it is a special educational mission. In order to be of more use I am dropping the ‘von’. I’m here under canvas and in mud learning my job.” he wrote to a friend at the time. Then Holst sought out some advice in piano tuning and maintenance, equipping him with some of the skills he would need in Salonika.

A welcome parting gift came from a friend, Henry Balfour Gardiner (great-uncle of the conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner). He hired Queen’s Hall and the London Symphony Orchestra for the morning of September 29, 1918 for a private read-through of The Planets with a small invited audience. There was time for a quick rehearsal with Adrian Boult leading the musicians and a chorus made up of

A report from London’s Musical Standard outlining the work of the YMCA in camps throughout the field of war, at troop hospitals at home and in internment camps in Europe.
Holst’s posting is mentioned.

members of Holst’s evening educational classes at Morley College and a few girls from St Paul’s. The public premiere of the suite had to wait until November 15, 1920.

Holst finally arrived in Salonika December 1, 1918 and quickly settled into a shared room at the YMCA Education Office, 19 Evonon.

Two days later,, an entry in his diary reads: “Wrote lecture in morning, singing lesson Lucas Collins, Theory Lucas Collins, Interview Hagget, and see Bates at night at H2.” (the main YMCA hut in the city).

Still, music education must have been an uphill struggle for all concerned, though Holst appears to have done his best to create a welcoming environment out of his music room. Before the end of the month he wrote to his wife:

“It has a bed, two chairs, three tables and many shelves made of packing cases. I have been there every afternoon except one when I went to the Scottish Women’s Hospital to arrange teaching wounded French and Serbians (I fancy teaching tonic solfa to Serbians!) and men come in for lessons whenever they can. It is a free and easy

arrangement that appeals to them greatly.”

For three long years, the Allied expeditionary force, based in Salonika in the North of a divided Greece, had fought to support Serbia in defending a 250-mile front against Bulgarian and pro-German forces.

By late September 1918, suffering thousands of deaths on both sides, widespread influenza, rampant malaria (with over 160,000 cases in the British Salonika force alone) and exhaustion after the extended stalemate in primitive living conditions, the Allied contingent entered Bulgarian territory.

The Salonika Armistice came into effect September 29, 1918, the very same day that Holst’s The Planets introduced both war (Mars) and peace (Venus) to a London concert hall.

Another armistice was declared when the Ottoman Empire collapsed a month later. Holst would later travel with the Salonika Forces to Constantinople.

Salonika Camp Christmas card 1918





Holst had a keen eye when walking around the battered city of  Salonika.

On Christmas Day, 1918 he wrote to his wife:

“I went on a long walk and visited an old church that was first a church and then a mosque and then a church again and now a ruin because it was burnt by the terrible fire last year and since then has been used as a living place for starving refugees.”

“Our Camp Concert” is the title of this postcard below, produced by the YMCA c1916. Even though it may have sent the men running, music was an important part of camp life.





On other occasions, Holst traveled to many of the other camps in the region, giving lectures, lessons and training choirs.

January 25, 1919 finds him in Serres and his diary reads:

“Walk alone on hills till 1 am. Motor across Struma plain – see men ploughing. Arrive Serres midday . . . Lecture 7 to 8:30. Sleep on ground. Quite warm. Heard wolves in distance.”


Holst’s most ambitious event

One month later, Holst organised a “Concert of Music of British Composers” in the large canvas theatre of the 52nd General Hospital.

One of the Pomp and Circumstance marches of Elgar (little doubt that it was Land of Hope and Glory) opened the ambitious event. A part-song for female voices by Elgar was also included.

Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, the most popular oratorio among British choral societies since Handel’s Messiah, was the centrepiece. And there was music by Purcell too, though nothing by Holst himself.

“Hundreds, including a number of red-hatted staff officers, were turned away. Some 500 sat on chairs, others on the ground, in the orchestra, in the dressing-rooms, behind the chorus and in other odd corners (five men and a dog sat on the double-bass case!).” (The Musical Standard)

By March, Holst and most of the entire camp were re-posted to Constantinople, present-day Istanbul. Buoyed by the success of the Salonika concert, Holst repeated the event at the Theatre Petits-champs in Constantinople, this time over six consecutive evenings in June.


Holst felt that the results were mixed. But his followers had enduring memories long after being demobbed and resuming lives cruelly interrupted by the war.

Laura Kinnear, curator of an intimate, well-documented exhibition at the Holst Birthplace Museum in Cheltenham titled Gustav Holst’s WW1 with the Salonika Forces – to whom I am indebted for much of the information and graphics for this blog post – quotes one soldier who wrote to the BBC in September 1950:

“My happiest memory was of the morning visits with a few of his keener followers to where, seated at the organ with the men clustered around, he used to teach us simple harmonies . . . The greatness of Holst as a man was enhanced by his innate humility and his desire to enrich the musical understanding of a crowd of very ordinary soldiers. This episode will remain with me as one of the most fragrant memories of my life.”

Holst left for England towards the end of June 1919. He had not found time or the inspiration to compose while in Salonika or Constantinople and his wartime years of composition had produced little that directly reflected its impact. But there was more to come and it was to result directly from his first-hand experience among the troops on the Eastern Front.

The Ode to Death, for chorus and orchestra,was written that summer upon his return. It is the most powerful and, perhaps, meaningful of his choral works, written in memory of lost friends. The words are by Walt Whitman taken from When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, the American poet’s elegy upon the assassination of Lincoln. Holst turns this short choral work into a music of transcendent beauty, conveying not a sense of despair of the millions of lives so futilely lost, but rather a feeling of pride in their sacrifice and profound gratitude for what they achieved.

© copyright 2018 Keith Horner – khnotes@sympatico.ca

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