It’s probably not surprising that listening to the OST for The Empire Strikes Back (for the last entry) would put me in the mood for Gustav Holst. There’s The Planets, after all, which John Williams has referenced (mined?) in a variety of ways throughout the Star Wars saga.
But the record I pulled off the shelf this week was not The Planets, but Holst’s Sāvitri (1908), a stunning one-act opera clocking in at about 30 minutes, with a B-side that I’d never heard: The Dream-City, a ten-song cycle that composer-conductor Colin Matthews arranged and orchestrated from Holst’s Twelve Songs, Op. 48 (1929), on poems by Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940). Matthews’s The Dream-City (1983), like Holst’s Op. 48, is by no means well known, but it’s frequently attractive and occasionally fascinating. Matthews organized the ten Holst songs into three “parts” and, in addition to having orchestrated them “more elaborately, perhaps, than Holst might have allowed himself,” he contributed some “linking material” to weld certain songs together. The third part, for example, connects three songs in one unbroken set: “Rhyme,” “Journey’s End,” and. . .wait for it. . .“Betelgeuse.”
Another week, another ‘80s movie reference. Behold, I bring you: Beetlejuice (1988). Granted, the weird nightmare landscapes that Michael Keaton’s poltergeist-purveying title character slinks through in Tim Burton’s film are a far cry from the wisps of dreams in Humbert Wolfe’s poems. But something does tie together that bizarre film, Wolfe’s poetry, Holst’s settings, and Matthews’s orchestration: the strangeness of our fantasies about death.
“Rhyme,” jittery and unsettling, is about the power of that particular characteristic of poetry to disrupt the natural order, to jolt us “out of space and time.” “Journey’s End,” written in a sort of faux naïve father-son dialogue, depicts the afterlife as the cold, dark, and silent “room” of a coffin. Holst’s music (and Matthews’s beautiful orchestration) goes much further, revealing the numinous through its arching lyricism.
By placing “Betelgeuse” last in the cycle, Matthews sustains this meditation on an afterlife “out of space and time”: “On Betelgeuse the gold leaves hang in golden aisles for twice a hundred million miles,/and twice a hundred million years/they golden hang and nothing stirs,/on Betelgeuse.” This science-fiction-like vision of death—which reminds me of the terrifying frozen world of the White Witch’s home planet in C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew (1955)—becomes a marvel in Matthews’s rendering. He has forged a sonic Betelgeuse in the environment of his orchestration, with sly references to Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” to ground the autumnal quality of the poetry in the musical language of the Romantic orchestral song cycle. In the recording, soprano Patrizia Kwella barely touches consonants and uses light vibrato or straight tone throughout while perfectly placing every pitch, aiding the sense of the strangely beautiful and otherworldly, her voice attaining the quality of an instrument beyond the human frame. (She sounds like a glass harmonica at times!) Perhaps Kwella and Matthews were thinking of the 1968 recording of Holst’s Op. 48 by Peter Pears and Britten, in which Pears attains a similar diction-light placidity? Or perhaps Matthews heard Britten and Pears perform it live, since shortly after the recording was made he became the composer’s assistant.
I admit that it’s a bit perverse to have “gone nexus” on the LP’s B side without lavishing attention on Sāvitri, which is, well, a truly wonderful work. How do I love it? Let me count the ways. Or at least briefly mention a few of the things that I love about it.
It is an opera with only three roles—Death, Sāvitri, and her beloved Satyavan—in which Holst gives Death the first word. (Like Wagner, Holst wrote his own librettos, in this case adapting the story from the Sanskrit epic The Mahābhārata.) Death sings the opening section alone, without orchestral accompaniment, which might initially suggest Wagner’s strategy at the beginning of Act I of Tristan und Isolde, but in Holst there’s no prelude to set up the emptiness of the opening song. And then, magic! Sāvitri joins Death in an unaccompanied duet and reveals that his song has been running through her mind. So the first character we hear is actually the thought of another character. The stark tension between the two vocal parts seems to prophecy Peter and Ellen’s bitonal duet in Britten’s Peter Grimes, which is similarly unmoored from orchestral accompaniment. Composer-scholar Raymond Head claims that Sāvitri features Holst’s first use of bitonality (“Holst and India (III)” Tempo 166 [September 1988]: 37), and given that Britten acknowledged his debt to Holst’s harmonic thinking, the Sāvitri-Grimes link seems intriguing.
Another favorite moment is the use of women’s chorus to accompany Sāvitri’s song to death (“Welcome, Lord!”), which sounds like the very best of the Anglican choral tradition, and so glosses the Hindu mythology of the story with the resounding strains of a British paradise. If that seems uncomfortably colonial, well. . .how could it not? Holst was inevitably a tenant of his times.
I’m not sure it counts as a “favorite moment,” but I’m also amazed by the conversation (argument, really) that Sāvitri has with Death, over the course of which she essentially tricks him into not taking the life of her Satyavan. The deliberately archaic language of the libretto echoes Wagner, certainly, but I’m more fascinated by the musical logic of this section of the opera. The succession of tempos, the modal shifts, the way the orchestra supports the drama—all suggest the logic of Wagner while remaining satisfyingly Holstian. But it’s more specific than that. I almost feel that this particular collection of tempos and moods comes from something: Tristan and Isolde’s conversation at the end of Act I, perhaps? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but seeking an answer is a quest well worth taking up sometime. Meanwhile. . .
So. Many. Records.