By Philippa Tudor

At the end of the 1920 summer term Gustav Holst left his post at James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS) after 16 years of teaching class singing there. Although he was no longer on the payroll, JAGS retained a special place in his heart. He returned on a number of occasions, endearing himself to his audience by referring to JAGS as “home”, and on Whit Monday 1926 JAGS gardens were Holst’s chosen venue for the première of his first choral ballet, The Golden Goose. As well as rewarding his former pupils by making good use of the bundles of music manuscript paper which they presented to him as a leaving gift, before he stopped formally teaching at JAGS Holst organised one of the three-day Whitsun festivals which he regarded as amongst the highlights of his own music making, and indeed of his life.

The Dulwich Whitsun Festival was held at a time when its participants needed something to celebrate. Thousands of men from Dulwich and nearby Camberwell had enlisted to serve their country in the Great War. Hundreds were killed, some not as a direct result of war but from the sudden and devastating Spanish Flu which swept Europe in successive deadly waves in 1918 and 1919. The 800 or so beds in the Southwark Union Poor Law Infirmary on East Dulwich Grove, just down the road from JAGS, had been requisitioned for use as a war hospital, and over the next four years between 14 and 15 thousand wounded soldiers were tended to there. In June 2019, as Holst was returning safely from his own war-related service with the YMCA, the mostly elderly civilian occupants of the Infirmary were returning to their institutional home. Dulwich schools had remained open throughout the war one way or another, and by May 1920 Dulwich village had regained much of its semi-rural tranquillity.

JAGS was the young Gustavus von Holst’s first teaching post, which he started in 1904, the year after his honeymoon. His daughter Imogen later explained how “he came back to England without a penny in the world, but with the firm conviction that it was time to give up the trombone and that he would spend his life composing”. Life was hard for the struggling composer and his wife, and they barely made ends meet through the ingenuity of Holst’s wife Isobel making clothes for her friends, which she was good at, and music-copying, which the surviving evidence suggests she was not. Just in the nick of time Holst’s great friend from the Royal College of Music Ralph Vaughan Williams suggested that he should replace him at JAGS. After a term’s probation Holst had proved his worth and was taken on on a permanent basis.

Teaching in Dulwich was never convenient for Holst. Arriving in time to play the piano for Friday morning assembly before a full day’s teaching involved an early start from his home in West London. The maid who joined the small von Holst household after the birth of daughter Imogen in 1907 “… couldn’t bear to have to call him on the mornings when he taught at Dulwich, as it seemed hard that anyone who always looked so tired should have to go to work so very early. She would compromise between duty and inclination by tapping as lightly as possible at the door, and whispering hoarsely: ‘Ere’s yer ot water, sir. Poor man.’”

The conditions for teaching music at JAGS were not ideal - in contrast to those at one of his subsequent major teaching appointments at St Paul’s Girls’ School, where in 1913 a new music wing was opened, complete with a sound-proof room built to Holst’s demanding specification. Singing classes at JAGS were held in what is now the Holst Hall, as Mary Nash (JAGS 1918-1924) recalled:

“During the day we went, form by form, into the Dining Hall, with the form rooms on either side in use for normal lessons. The room on the right hand side of the hall was called the “shutter classroom”, that shutter not completely blocking the all-day singing, as I remember when it was our form room!, and there was always a certain amount of traffic through the Hall, and the dinner tables being set out, also people crossing the gallery - so hardly the ideal setting.”

The fact that Holst stuck it out for so long is an indication of his deep affection for his JAGS pupils. So too was the music he wrote for them, which includes some of his most beautiful choral works. In 1905 Holst collaborated with the headmistress on a series of tableaux based on Tennyson’s poem “The Princess”. His songs were to become some of his first serious music to be published, and are still frequently performed across the world. He turned the vicissitudes of the physical space in which he had to teach into an advantage, using for the first time an echo chorus in “The splendour falls”. One of his pupils described “the choir singing and walking off along a corridor and shutting themselves in a far-off room getting softer and softer - leaving the audience straining their ears for the last note.” Holst was later to use a similar technique in his most famous composition, The Planets Suite.

Throughout his time teaching at Dulwich, however, Holst’s future fame was far from apparent. In public life he was painfully shy, but he soon became a popular teacher. In 1910 the School Inspectors reported: the “large classes [usually two forms together] are managed with extraordinary skill by the Master, who contrives to teach them not only Singing but a good deal of the technique of the subject”. The younger girls sang with “an alertness and precision of attack which are very uncommon even with very much older children”.

Holst deprecated the music usually served up at girls’ schools. He enjoyed teaching precision in part-singing by getting his pupils to sing rounds such as the Dargason faster and faster. One current Dulwich resident recalls his mother simply describing his lessons as “fun”. Another early published work (1908) was Holst’s edition of Michael Este’s 17th madrigal “How merrily we live”, which was one of his favourite pieces at JAGS, and which quickly entered the repertoire for singing competitions. As well as working their way through the National Song Book, Holst’s JAGS pupils sang Orlando di Lasso’s “Adoremus Te”, Victoria’s “Duo Seraphim”, and the four Brahms part-songs for female voices, horn and strings. When he started teaching at JAGS there was no school orchestra, so for the Brahms performance Holst enlisted Adolf Borsdorf, probably the best horn player at the time, and the founder of the London Symphony Orchestra.

Holst, like Borsdorf, suffered from the anti-German sentiment rampant during the First World War, despite the fact in Holst’s case that his ancestors were not in fact German. Repeatedly turned down for war service, unlike Vaughan Williams, and unlike his wife, who became a volunteer ambulance driver, Holst was frustrated by the fact that his contribution was limited to leading his adult pupils in singing in underground shelters to raise morale. On 31 May 1916, when the plans for the Battle of the Somme were underway, the Prime Minister announced the postponement of the traditional Whitsun holiday in munitions areas. Holst’s response was to organise the first of three annual Whitsun festivals at his home town of Thaxted in Essex, which he and its participants experienced as “a feast - an orgy” of music-making.

In 1918 Holst was finally accepted for war-related service with the YMCA in Salonica. As well as his always poor health his surname - von Holst - had been viewed as a barrier to service. Former JAGS pupil May Moore, recounting second-hand memories by her friends, later remembered “being told that when Mr Holst, like many other people with German-sounding names, changed his name by deed poll, the school was told that they must be very careful to call him Mr Holst and not Mr Von Holst.”

Whilst he was absent abroad the JAGS brownies were encouraged to write to Holst, and some of his picture postcard replies are now treasured in the JAGS archives. When making plans for his arrival back in England at the end of June 1919 Holst prioritised early visits to St Paul’s Girls’ School and JAGS. He was certainly enthusiastically greeted at the latter, writing to his friend Whittaker: “I’m having a wild time. My clothes were nearly torn off by 350 small people at my Dulwich school yesterday.”

But Holst’s absence from the weekly grind had also provided time for reflection about the next phase of his career. Whilst reluctant to abandon teaching, he also wanted to cut back on the time spent commuting so as to spend more of the week in Thaxted, and thus to have more time to compose. By 1919 he had already composed several of his best-known works, including The Planets Suite and The Hymn of Jesus. He spent the late summer of 1919 writing his beautiful Ode to Death in memory of musicians who had been killed in the war. He also composed his Festival Te Deum for chorus and orchestra, and, as his notebook records in brackets, he “revised old things for press”. The Hymn of Jesus was published in 1919 and when Holst conducted its first public performance in March 1920 it was such an overwhelming success that there were calls from the audience for a repeat performance there and then. Overwhelmed himself by the acclaim to which he never became accustomed, Holst walked out into the street whilst the applause continued. Although the even more popular Planets Suite did not receive its first complete performance until the end of 1920, unbeknownst to his pupils in Dulwich and elsewhere their teacher was about to become a musical celebrity.

Thus is was that JAGS teachers wrote in the School Magazine after his untimely death in 1934, having decided to cut back on his school teaching commitments:

“Holst wanted the James Allen’s girls to share, for once, at least, such a wonderful experience, so with the permission of the Dulwich College authorities the Whitsuntide Festival of 1920 was held in the Old College Chapel and its garden … He wanted them to have every chance of enjoying music, for he believed with Bach that ‘the aim of music is the glory of God and pleasant recreation.’ ”

Moving the Whitsun Festival from Thaxted, where the parish church is exceptionally large and uncluttered, to Dulwich involved careful organisation. Fortunately this means that Holst’s Dulwich festival is particularly well documented, with several pages of pencil notes in his pocket notebooks detailing his plans as they evolved. A contingent of his pupils at Morley College for working men and women in Waterloo were to “come Sat wet or fine”. The venue was Christ’s Chapel and its gardens, and Holst mapped out how to arrange the choir both inside and out. He noted down the number of places in the chapel, reckoning on seven in each stall, with the basses spread out. Outside he spread the choir members across one of the sides of the quadrangle.

Holst’s notes document how he built up the three-day programme, and administrative details, from arranging for music copying, to counting the copies of scores, deputing someone to fetch the music on the Saturday morning (“Dulcie see to it?)”. From an early stage of his planning a masque arranged by his 13-year-old daughter Imogen was to be included, despite the fact that she was never a pupil at JAGS. That involved him correcting the proofs of her dances, arranging for a suitable location for its performance, briefing his daughter, and ensuring the “girl singers put away music stands etc.” before it.

The link with Thaxted was provided by borrowing its famous Bach banner, to be carried in procession, as well as incorporating some of the music performed in previous Thaxted Whitsun festivals. This included Bach’s Sleepers Wake and several settings by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd. The Dulwich festival was particularly rich in first performances, with Holst’s own Short Festival Te Deum sung with an orchestral accompaniment and dedicated to Morley College. Holst’s manuscript amendments to the typescript programme show that he had intended Bach’s Soul array thyself - one of his favourite cantatas - to take the place of the second hymn at the first service on the Saturday, but in the event all three hymns were those he had composed or arranged himself - A Festival Chime, Turn Back O Man and Let all mortal flesh keep silence. To Holst’s delight his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams participated in the Festival for the first time, bringing with him the manuscript for the first performance of the Kyrie from his Mass in G Minor, dedicated to “Gustav Holst and his Whitsuntide Singers”. Imogen Holst’s own composition for her dancing masque was another first performance, subsequently repeated at her school at Eothen, and now preserved with her archive at the Britten-Pears Foundation.

Musicians from all three of Holst’s main teaching commitments were to come together for three days of rehearsal, liturgy and music-making. As at Thaxted, those involved came from Morley College and St Paul’s Girls’ School, but in 1920 there were fewer of the latter, and JAGS pupils were added to the mix.

Before the first Thaxted Festival Holst had deliberated over the dress code for the musicians, who at Thaxted included some of the local factory workers, and Holst was always careful to ensure that poverty was not a barrier to participation. Having first thought of white - appropriate for Whitsun and the standard “best dress” for girls in the early 20th century - he alighted on the much cheaper solution of achieving a measure of uniformity for the female singers by his wife Isobel making veils in the colour chosen by the wearer for a shilling each. The colourful veils were retained for the Dulwich Festival, but this time the girls wore their white dresses. Years later Catherine Fairbairns, who left JAGS in 1927, so would have been quite young in 1920, recalled “going with my mother to buy a few yards of colourful chiffon. We could choose whatever colour we liked. I chose orange. We then wore them as veils at a gathering in the Chaplain’s garden and danced around in front of the audience. I hadn’t the vaguest idea what all this was about!”

Fortunately, several other more formal accounts of the great weekend were preserved, including in the annual magazines of all three of the participating organisations. The July 1920 edition of the St Paul’s Girls’ School magazine The Paulina provides one of the most complete contemporary accounts:

“For some of us the Whitsun Holiday of 1920 will be among the most memorable we have ever spent. I mean for those who took part in the Musical Festival at Dulwich. This Festival has been held for many Whitsuntides, but never before near enough to London to make it possible for a general invitation to be extended to Paulinas. So for most people it was a new and completely thrilling experience. But only a small number of those taking part were Paulinas; the rest were members of Mr. Holst’s choir and orchestra at Morley College - including several Old Paulinas - and girls from the James Allen School. Saturday afternoon was spent in rehearsing, and for those who hold that “a bad rehearsal is a good performance,” the rehearsal was entirely satisfactory” On Sunday the real thing began; morning service was at 10.30, beginning with a procession, at the head of which was carried a banner bearing this inscription; “The aim of Music is the glory of God and pleasant recreation.” The service took place in the quadrangle of Old Dulwich College, with the choir and orchestra on one side of the path leading to the Chapel, and the congregation on the other.

It was very hot, so hot that the sun nearly melted the varnish off our instruments; but what matter? We were making music. After morning service the choir adjourned to the Chapel, where we sang, unaccompanied, sixteenth century music during the Communion Service. This was the most beautiful music we ever sang, and our only wish that we could do more of it and still more. Our labours concluded, we hurried off to the James Allen School for our well-earned lunch. We (Paulinas) picnicked in the girls’ cookery kitchen, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

On Sunday afternoon we went over to the Infirmary, where we repeated a great deal of the music of the morning for the benefit of those who were unable to come and hear it for themselves. After an interval for tea, we went back to the College for evening service. The spirit of the Festival seemed to have spread right through Dulwich; it almost felt quite natural to be walking through the streets attired in white dresses and veils, even on Bank Holiday people used to ask us as we went by if we were “singing up at the College again this evening,” and the size of the congregation both on Sunday and Monday showed that our efforts were appreciated. Anyone might come into the Quadrangle or the Chaplain’s Garden (where the Mystery Play and several other things were performed on Whit Monday evening), for as long as he or she liked; and it was no unusual thing to see tennis parties, arrayed in “whites,” sitting on the grass listening for half an hour or so in the interval of playing tennis.

As well as glossing over the important details of what music was actually performed - information supplied by the programme with Holst’s own corrections - the Paulina review omitted to mention the important participation of both Holst, as principal conductor and organiser, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Former JAGS pupil Dorothy Callard, who had progressed from being a naughty pupil to playing strings in the Morley Orchestra, was about 22 at the time. She later recalled the significance of the “Informal Music in Chapel” on the Sunday evening:

“The most exciting thing that happened was, that whilst we were eating our lunch in the chaplain’s garden, Mr Holst came to me and said Uncle Ralph is writing us a Communion service for our festivals. He has brought the Kyrie with him this morning. Now you borrow my fountain pen and go into the vestry and make eight single voice copies and we’ll try it through. So I did. Twelve of us went up into the chapel gallery, with Mr. Holst perched on the corner of the balustrade, and Ralph Vaughan Williams on the organ seat …”

The Monday morning was a repeat of the previous day - Holst often liked his musicians to perform things more than once. The afternoon and evening were more relaxed - rehearsing, some of the group having a guided tour of the Picture Gallery, sacred music by Holst’s professional friends in the Chapel and then, from 6-8 pm, music in the Chaplain’s garden. Starting with folksongs with orchestra “to be sung by everyone”, the programme moved on to Haydn’s London Symphony (Holst corrected the typescript reference to the London Symphony Orchestra), three unspecified madrigals and then, before the “concluding informal Music in the Chapel”, a mystery play on the unseasonal Christmas theme of the adoration of the shepherds.

As for Gustav Holst himself, he had no regrets at having held the Festival in Dulwich rather than Thaxted. To him Whitsun was “as wonderful as ever.” He wrote to the future vicar of Thaxted, Jack Putterill: “I don’t sympathise with your wish to have the first Whitsun or the first anything else over again. What I enjoy in life is the breaking out of the same Spirit in new Forms. Surely that is the great thing in life.”

In March 2020 Morley College choirs were starting to rehearse for the celebration of the centenary of Holst’s Whitsun Festival in Dulwich, with a repertoire based on his typescript programme, when another pandemic cast its long shadow across the world. At the time of writing, if the celebration planned for 28 June 2020 proves impossible the intention is to mark this major event in the musical history of Dulwich in 1921.

NOTE: All illustrations are copyright by the Britten-Pears Foundation and the National Picture Gallery and reproduced in this Journal with permission. The quotation from Holst’s letter to Jack Putterill is reproduced with thanks to his daughter, Sylvia Heath.