Music website of Christopher Tinker

Please see for details of the CD of her string music

A short introduction to the Musical Style of Imogen Holst

imogen holst composer diana batchelor cartoonImogen Holst made an enormous contribution  to British musical life in many  spheres, but little has been known about her true worth as a composer until the recent pulication of the book ‘Imogen Holst – a life in music’.  Many unpublished compositions and arrangements have laid dormant since early performances, but study of them has revealed a personal style that has warranted full investigation and commentary.  In this short introduction to the music, it is important to stress such points as her natural and inescapable relationship with the English musical establishment, the unavoidable influence of her father's music during her formative years as a composer, the affinity she felt towards folk song, and the correlation between her compositions and other musical activities.  Imogen Holst’s development as a composer took a different direction from contemporaries such as Maconchy or Lutyens; whereas Elizabeth Maconchy's technical processes might be matched with those of Bartok, and Lutyens’ to her own brand of serialism, Imogen Holst's music is more a twentieth century recasting of older traditions, not as a neo-classicist but through an historic awareness which had been initiated by her father.  

The style of many student works was touched with a soft Romanticism, though later, during the 1940s she adopted a starker approach.  European advances did not infiltrate this decidedly English mind to any substantial degree, her preoccupation with English music of the 16th/17th centuries and with folk song resulting in a linear style and a modal outlook.  Later advances towards dissonance arise from a peculiarly independent approach to melodic and harmonic intervals.

A full measure of Imogen Holst's worth as a musician can only be understood through study of the music written largely for professional choirs and ensembles, such compositions representing the core of her musical personality.  Within this category there are only about thirty titles, choral and instrumental , but these scores are far removed from the folk song arrangements and suites for amateur ensembles; within them can be found the high quality of her work as a true composer.  The warmth of her earlier style, as found in student works, can be seen as late as 1940 in the setting of John Donne's In what torn ship so ever I embarke. 

Following this, the style submits to a growing starkness during the 1940s where a developing musical vocabulary becomes perceptible in harmonic economy, the preference for quartal as opposed to triadic chording, and the pursual of semitonal dissonance which can be associated with the initial semitone of the Phrygian mode. The Three Psalms (1943) for mixed chorus and string orchestra and  Four Songs from Tottel's Miscellany (1944) make stylistic headway;  they remain unpublished, but a few published titles for female voices follow, not least Welcome Joy and welcome Sorrow (1950) and the cantata The Sun's Journey (1965) accompanied b small orchestra.  The Sun's Journey displays a curious mixture of style: more demanding music for soloists and semi-chorus set against a number of rounds and canons for chorus, devices she had always used as a choir trainer. 

But it is not until 1972 that we arrive at perhaps the most testing of all her choral works, 'Hallo my Fancy’, a setting of poetry by William Cleland, written for the Purcell Consort of Voices . Imogen Holst uses her own personal scales in this score, one for each verse, and harmonies develop naturally from a directional pull (contrary motion) into added note chords built on fourths not thirds. Clusters which result from this linear style retain tension until a final resolution, usually to the unison (a common trait). 

Chamber music represents a small but significant element of her composition. The music encompasses the usual ensembles such as string trio and quartet, along with some which are less usual such as a trio for flute, viola and bassoon. The viola is further represented with a solo suite and a duo with piano.   The recorder also features amongst her chamber works, there being two trios as early as 1943, and her unfinished concerto right at the end of her life.

The fingerprints of Imogen Holst’s style, which became clearer and more personal during the 1940s, are particularly evident within the chamber music, and can be summarised through three principal elements, all of them closely linked: the use of modes and other scales, often juxtaposed in conflict; the significance of the interval of a second; and the establishment of tonal centre (very often E) rather than key.  

Works for strings have recently been recorded by Court Lane music, and further stylistic comment accompanies the CD in the sleeve note.  This is due for release in February 2008, and includes her most revealing works:  the Phantasy Quartet of 1928 which won the Cobbett Prize, the Sonata for Violin and Cello (first known performance Cheltenham, November 2007), the String Trio (1944), The Fall of the Leaf (1963), the Duo of Viola and Piano (1968) and the late String Quintet (1982). Of these, only The Fall of the Leaf, written for solo ‘cello, and the String Quintet are pulished.

Without wishing to overestimate the measure of Imogen Holst’s compositional achievement, a number of these works deserve to be heard and played; at present most of them have only received their first performance.  Her musical output went much further than the fine collections of arrangements for which she is already recognised.  Composition was the area in which she excelled as a student.  Her life took on many tasks essential to the world of English music, but that talent for composition never left her, and it perhaps reached its fruition in the works of the latter period.  She spoke little of it, but was heard to remark on the publication of her String Quintet: ‘Ah! A composer at last!’

© Christopher Tinker 2007

IH composed principally for voices and strings, and Schott published several short works for recorder ensembles.  This is a list of the more important works.  These are largely unpublished, but contact the author for availability. Those with asterisk are recorded on the CD

Phantasy String Quartet 1928*
Sonata for violin and cello 1930*
Suite for solo viola 1930
A Hymne to Christ 1940 (SATB)
Serenade 1942 (flute, viola, bassoon)
Three Psalms 1943 (mixed voices and strings)
Five Songs 1944 (SSSAA)
String Trio no 1 1944*
String Quartet no 1 1946
Welcome Joy and Welcome Sorrow 1950  (SSA/Harp)
The Fall of the Leaf 1963* (solo cello)
The Twelve Kindly Months 1963 (SSA)
The Sun's Journey 1965 (female voices and orchestra)  OUP
Duo for viola and piano 1968*
Hallo my Fancy 1972 (mixed voices)
String Quintet 1982*
Homage to William Morris 1984 (bass voice and string bass)
Sextet for Recorders 1984

In terms of published material, Imogen Holst is best known in the field of folk song arrangement, either for educational purposes or for the English Folk Dance and Song Society.  She wrote and arranged for bamboo pipes, piano, string classes and of course voices – ‘useful music’ as she would put it.  Music for pipes resulted in arrangements including country dance tunes from Playford's Dancing Master, music of Morley, Purcell, Lawes and Weekes, and of Gustav Holst, all of which served to extend the musical experience of a novice as well as being suitable for their primary function.  The piano pieces resulted from her teaching during the 1930s, and approached matters of fingering and independence of hands in two lovely volumes of simple compositions along with some arrangements. 

She also arranged for larger ensembles, and by all accounts she undertook a good deal of such work, though little survives.  She first arranged traditional country dance tunes for brass and military bands, and she also arranged for ensembles to lead country dancing by members of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Indeed, some public recognition resulted from the occasional BBC broadcast of concerts and festivals promoted by the EFDSS, and also from the 78’s of her arrangements, made for the Gramophone Company in 1934. 

The small amount of material for string classes came from the years at Dartington when she had Sybil Eaton, violinist, on her staff.  The Six Canons for Violin Classes appeared in 1946, and the note in the front of the copy states that ‘the least experienced players will be able to take an easy part in contrapuntal music that is not confined to the familiar tonic and dominant seventh...’

Later on, recorder music became ever more prominent within her arrangements, much of it during the 1950s, as a joint venture with Benjamin Britten.  The combination of Britten, an enthusiastic player, and IH with her extensive teaching experience resulted in a highly successful collaboration and publications from Boosey and Hawkes.   

Following her visit to India in an exploration of its indigenous folk music in 1951, one might have expected a variety of arrangements based on Indian tunes to follow; in fact she produced just one such collection, the Ten Indian Folk Tunes for recorder in 1953.

Imogen Holst turned to choral arrangement and not least that for SSA during the 1930s.  Judging by the amount of time she spent on such arrangements over the next twenty five years, either her appetite for choral arrangements was insatiable or the offer from publishers too generous to refuse!    Many of these, largely of popular folk songs, were published; her approach is simple, never self indulgent, resulting in a plain and natural treatment of the original modal material (Dorian being the most common in arrangements).  The arrangements retain the strophic or strophic variation forms of their originals, and this contrasts with her vocal and choral compositions which avoid strophic form and are usually through-composed, following the texts which were of such importance to her. 

Further stylistic hallmarks include oblique motion away from and back to the unison, the tonal centre E and some notable rhythmic invention.  Her style is more linear in approach than much of the heavy, chordal work around in England at the time!  Gypsy Davy (1970) is an arrangement of a southern Appalachian song and was written for Russell Burgess’s Wandsworth School Choir.  Changes of time signature, difficult intervals, arresting harmonies and unpredictable dynamic contrasts collectively sustain fever pitch.  This free arrangement has a more potent compositional element than is customary within the arrangements.

Towards the end of her life she turned more to composition – please see the relevant section on this website for further information.

© Christopher Tinker 2007

The editions listed below have become something of a legacy, such is the importance of this area of IH’s work. Indeed, her first task when she moved to Aldeburgh was to orchestrate Britten’s cantata ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’.  There is an enormous amount of material, edited and arranged, in the Holst Library at Snape and also at the house in Aldeburgh where she lived during the last few years of her life.  Editing ranged from the preparation of short songs for a single performance to the production of full-scale editions; a number of the latter have been published. She prepared much material for performance with the Purcell Singers during the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in fresh editions of notable choral works.

Almost all of the work listed was undertaken during her time at Aldeburgh (1952-1984), and includes piano reductions for Britten, opera and oratorio, instrumental music and choral music.  Her arrangements, where they involve more than editing, and including much for recorder, are listed in the main catalogue.  In addition, there are many works by Gustav Holst which IH edited and revised – some of these may be found in her catalogue of his works (1974).

A list of the editions made of works by other composers
Piano reductions (Britten)
All published by Boosey and Hawkes except Curlew River (Faber)
GlorianaOp 531953
The Turn of the ScrewOp 541954
The Prince of the PagodasOp 57a1956
Noye’s FluddeOp 591957
NocturneOp 601958
Cantata AcademicaOp 621959
A Midsummer Night’s DreamOp 641960 (with Martin Penny)
War Requiem Op 661961
Symphony for Cello and Orchestra (with Mstislav Rostropovich)Op 681963
Cantata Misericordium   Op 69 1963
Curlew River Op 711964    (Rehearsal Score)
Opera and Oratorio
Venus and Adonis Blow1956    -           revised
Dido and Aeneas  Purcell1960    B&H   ed. with Britten
St John Passion   Schutz1962    OUP    ed. with Pears
St Matthew PassionSchutz1965    OUP    ed. with Pears
St Luke Passion 1965 ed.from anonymous manuscripts circa 1440
How Blest are They  Purcell1968    OUP    ed. with Ledger
The Fairy Queen  Purcell1969    Faber   ed. with Britten
Instrumental Music
Rejoice in the Lamb   Britten1952    B&H  (arrangement of the organ part for orchestra)
March from GlorianaBritten1954    (MS) scored for orchestra
Fifty Bach Tunes  J.S. Bach1960    (MS) trans. for d. rec.
Ten Bach Tunes J.S. Bach1961    (MS) trans. for d. rec
Seven Tunes for Piano Gustav Holst1983    Faber arr. for easy piano
Choral Music
This list is based upon the manuscripts at 9, Church Walk, Aldeburgh.  Imogen Holst edited numerous other short works for performance, but the manuscripts have not been found.  Undated manuscripts are not included here.
Three Songs  Humphrey1938    Lyrebird ed. for voice/pft
Nature’s Homily   Humphrey1941    MS ed. for baritone/pft
As when the dove  Handel1942    MS realisation of cont.
Cantata no 79 J.S. Bach[1945] ed. for SSA
St John Passion  J.S. Bach1948    ed./trans.
O Lord, grant the QueenPurcell1953    ed/realised
Under the Greenwood TreeArne1955    realised for voice/pft
Four SongsCarey1955    realised for voice/pft
For ever blessed Handel1955    realised for voice/pft
Forty RoundsRavenscroftc.1960prepared for publication
Misc. medieval music  c.1960ed. for Purcell Singers
Bach Chorales  1960s  ed./trans. for performances at Long Melford)
St Luke PassionAnon c. 1440 1965 realised for unacc. voices
O Jesu, lookKirbye1966    ed. for SSATB
I will lift up Tudway1966    realised for S/cont.
BrowningByrd1970    ed. for performance
A Dialogue between two PenitentsBlow1978    realised for 2 T/kbd

© Christopher Tinker 2007

Imogen Holst published about twenty books during her lifetime, the first being a biography of her father, written a few years after his death in 1934.  Most of the other books are either educational, or about Baroque composers, although she also produced a book about Britten shortly after her time working as his amanuensis. 

Imogen Holst also edited collected facsimiles of her father’s works in four volumes dated 1974, 1977, 1979 and 1983.  Colin Matthews was the assistant editor in 1977, and the co-editor in 1979 and 1983.   

There follows a list of her published books, dates given being of first publication of course, and below these is a list of articles she wrote for Aldeburgh Festival programmes.

Published Books and Articles
Gustav Holst – a Biography   1938    OUP; O/OX 1390, reprinted 1958
The Music of Gustav Holst1951    OUP
The Book of the Dolmetsch Descant Recorder1957    Boosey and Hawkes
The Story of Music1958    Rathbone
written with Britten and reprinted as: 
The Wonderful World of Music1968    Aldus
Purcell1959    OUP
Tune1961    Faber and Faber Ltd
An ABC of Music1963    OUP
Bach (Great Composer Series)1965    Faber and Faber
Britten (Great Composer Series)1966    Faber and Faber
The Music of Gustav Holst (2nd Edition)1968    OUP
Gustav Holst – A Biography (2nd Edition)1969    OUP
Holst (Short Biographies Series)1972    Novello
Byrd1972    Faber and Faber
Conducting a Choir1973    OUP
Holst (Great Composer Series)1974    Faber and Faber Ltd
A Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst’s Music1974    Faber Music Ltd
A Scrapbook for the Holst Birthplace Museum1978    Lowe and Brydone
Holst (Great Composer Series, 2nd Edition)1974    Faber and Faber Ltd
The Music of Gustav Holst 3rd Edition / Holst's Music Reconsidered1985    OUP


Short articles appeared in the Journals for the EFDSS during the 1930s usually under the title of ‘Music Notes’.  In addition, an article entitled ‘Cecil Sharp and the music  and music-making of the twentieth century’ appeared in ‘English Dance and Song’ in June 1959.

The following articles appeared in the Aldeburgh Festival Programme Books:

1950p10The Suffolk Rural Music School
1951p10Elizabethan Music
1959p16Folk Songs
1961p12Music in Venice
1964p49The music that Bach was brought up on
1973p7Wind bands
1976p7Not too educational
1978p8Recollections of times past
1980p10The Advantages of being Seventy

© Christopher Tinker 2007

IMOGEN HOLST - A Biography

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH (Part 1, birth to Royal College of Music)

Imogen Holst was born in Richmond, Surrey on 12 April 1907.  During the same year the family moved to Barnes, the place of Imogen’s earliest years and upbringing; her mother Isobel was a particularly special home-maker.  In the summer of 1912 Imogen joined the Kindergarten class of the Incorporated Froebel Education Institute, but her education there was interrupted by contraction of typhoid t the age of seven.  In order that she might most satisfactorily convalesce, her parents acquired the tenancy of a house in Thaxted, and she was cared for during the week (when Gustav and Isobel were in London) by two sisters of a local family named Beames.  Following her illness, she continued at the Froebel Institute until 1917 when she went as a boarder to Eothen School, Caterham, a school to which she returned later as a music teacher.

Musical studies included the piano and violin (the latter at Eothen) but prior to formal study the first musical sounds she had experienced were of her father at the piano playing the Lyric Pieces of Grieg, and she danced to these before she could walk – dancing is how she began to move!  Ever since these childhood days she thought of music in terms of dance. The earliest manuscripts of IH dated from 1918 when she was 11 years old.  The Sonata for Strings and Piano, in only one short movement and written under the supervision of Mabel Rodwell Jones, is proudly marked Opus 1 (she never used Opus numbers as an adult) and was written in the summer at Thaxted during the family weekends spent there.  Within that year one can perceive notable strides in her development, from the Four English Christmas Carols (Opus 2) which, as single line melodies (one petering out unfinished) appear to be the first unaided attempts at composition, to the Duet for Viola and Piano Opus 3, an altogether more assured little piece; her father, travelling on duty in the eastern Mediterranean at the time, was sent parcels on her prose, verse and music which he was always impatient and delighted to receive.

IH was a youngster of ingenuity and leadership, with a sharp eye for opportunity.  The Dance of Nymphs and Shepherds from the Masque of The Tempest, a short one-movement string quartet, was composed especially so that she could pursue her passion for dancing.  The experiment enabled her, as composer, to take charge of a group of girls, and photographs show that her achievements in choreography were not without merit! Although these four manuscripts survive, as well as one orchestrated arrangement, there follows a gap of some three years between 1922 to 1924 from which no music has been found. 

In 1921, at the age of fourteen, she went to dancing school.  She had been longing for the day to arrive, and she began her training under Ruby Ginner. Alas, this was short-lived: ill-health forced her to accept that she could not withstand a physical education of this kind.  Although deeply disappointed, this did not affect her terrific spirit, and she was fortunate in being sent to St Paul’s Girls’ School where her father was Director of Music.   She took up the horn in preference to the violin, the piano remaining very much her first study under Adine O’Neill.  She left SPGS in 1925 after four successful years, but lived on in the school’s boarding house, Bute House, whilst studying to enter the Royal College of Music.  Arriving there in 1926, she remained a student for four years until the summer of 1930.  On admission, she took principal study piano with Kathleen Long and second study composition with George Dyson.  Ralph Vaughan Williams covered paperwork, Elme Buesst score-reading, and W.H. Reed conducting.  Percy Buck was in charge of the ‘music class’ and Hugh Allen, Director of the RCM, took the choral class.  Her choices of first and second study soon altered.  By the end of her first term she had already added conducting as another second study.  During the following year, 1927-28, composition was elevated to partner the piano as joint principal study.  Later, with continuing trouble from neuritis, she abandoned the piano altogether, composition thus assuming prime importance.  She left George Dyson at the end of the summer of 1928, and became a pupil of Gordon Jacob.  RVW continued to cover her paperwork.

She won a number of scholarships and prizes, notably an Open Scholarship in 1927 for composition, the Cobbett prize in 1928 for her Phantasy String Quartet (Grace Williams was placed second) and the Octavia Travelling Scholarship in 1930.  She also won the Morley Scholarship in 1928 for the best all-round student.  She was short-listed for the Mendelssohn Scholarship in June 1929, but this went to David Moule-Evans.

Although one might assume that IH was kept fully occupied by musical study, life was made busier by her interest in ballet and folk dancing, and she took advantage of the optional classes which were offered.  Neither did she allow herself to be confined to the RCM: like so many students, she was attracted by the variety that London could offer, and these years were full of fascinating and inspiring experiences.  In June 1927 she was introduced to Edward Elgar by her father; in the same year she attended a performance of the ballet Petrouchka conducted by the composer.  Carmen was her first opera.  She was already undertaking duties as an accompanist at the Morley College folk dancing class, and at about the same time she gave her first music lessons (surprisingly) to an organ pupil.  The English Folk Dance Society asked her to teach at Royal Holloway College in October 1928.  The Phantasy String Quartet success of 1928 played its part in the forging of potentially valuable contacts; besides College performances, it was heard at concerts supported by the Society of Women Musicians and by the British Music Society, the latter at the London Contemporary Music Centre.  She was also represented at the Ballet Club Theatre, an important venue which recognised all the promising young composers of the time, with her Suite for solo viola.

Besides all this, she found time for a significant amount of foreign travel towards the end of the 1920s. She visited Bruges in 1927, went to Germany with a Morris Dancing group in 1928 and spent the prize money from her Cobbett success on a holiday in Switzerland in the same year.  During 1929 a private visit to the Scilly Isles was followed by a trip to Canada and New York with Douglas Kennedy of the EFDS  This seemingly limitless passion for travel was as yet unabated, and in 1930 the Octavia Travelling Scholarship took her to such cities as Copenhagen, Hamburg, Liege and Vienna.


This is the first part of a full biography as yet incomplete, but for those wishing to research further, see the book Imogen Holst - A Life in Music (Boydell and Brewer).   

© Christopher Tinker 2007


Please see for details of the CD of her string music