from Holst, Gustav, 1874-1934 to Vaughan Williams, Ralph, 1872-1958

Letter No. VWL5227

Letter from Gustav Holst to Ralph Vaughan Williams

Letter No.: VWL5227


Tuesday [1903]

Dear RVW
I really don’t know what to say about the rhapsody parts excepting that I have walked my wife off her legs day after day until she was too tired to do any copying.1 While lately I am sorry to say she has not been very well. Also she does not seem able to acquire a ‘teshneek’ but can only do it very slowly so that these few pages we send you really represent rather a lot of work. I have only been able to correct the two first flutes. On p.6, last bar but one, surely you mean C for Fl I and not E. But if so why have you scratched out C? I have not corrected that but in other places I have filled in a few accidentals.
Please don’t be very disgusted with us. I must drop this now as I have such a heap to write about.
I hope you bear in mind that all the rot that I write is merely a collection of stray thoughts. Well to begin with what the Hell do you mean by talking about premature decay and getting fat?
I meant ‘getting old’ in the sense of ‘becoming mature’- that is when progress either stops or becomes slower. We must not get old for the next forty years because we have such a stiff job and (1) you sometimes have said that you feel that ‘it is time you did something’ after all these years – I forget your exact words but I have felt the same myself often but it is rot. We are not old enough and we have not had enough training of the right sort (I am coming to that).
(2) Sometimes when anything turns out an awful failure it may teach us more than a thundering success – it does not follow that it will but it may – which would be of little use if one was growing old.
So for these two reasons and for the further one that we have so much to learn and it is so difficult to find out how to learn it, we must regard ourselves as very ‘Eb’ chickens*
As  I told you once before, Richard II (Strauss) seems to me to be the most ‘Beethovenish’ composer since Beethoven. Perhaps I am wrong but anyhow you will agree that whatever his faults, he is a real life composer.
As far as I can make out his training seems to have been
Bach, Mozart, Beethoven
Schumann and Brahms

Mine has been:

This alone speaks volumes.
Richard II had such a terrific classical training that Brahms and Wagner never lifted him off his feet.
Whereas I (as you say of yourself) ‘don’t seem to fit on to their music at all’. (Mozart and Beethoven). And I believe, as you once said about Richard II himself, that one ought to be able to feel that every composer is the result of those that have gone before him. So we must begin by feeling it about ourselves.
Now if you can prove to me that all this is nonsense I shall be only too delighted as it is a serious thing to discover and if true it means years and years of extra study with the usual lot thrown in.
If it is true there is no one in England to teach us as far as I know. Twelve years ago Parry would have been the man. As far as I can tell, McCunn has a lot to learn from you.
If you really must have lessons in London I sometimes think that Stanford is the only man now that he has learnt the elements of good manners towards you. But I don’t want you to go to him.
Could you not go to H.J.W.2 once every two months or so and get his opinion on all you have written? (Paying him of course.)
But I believe that really the only good that will last will be done by struggling away on your own. Stanford is all crotchets and fads and moods although the latter have improved. And that healthy vigorous beefsteak optimism of Parry is a delusion that blinds one to the real difficulties in the way. Whrn under a master I instinctively try to please him whereas our business is to learn to please ourselves which is far more difficult as it is so hard to find out what we want.
I though that perhaps trying to write so many themes every day might possibly develop one’s invention but I expect that is all nonsense. Anyhow I can think of no other way.

I have been trying to make up my mind as to what is the best way of settling down to compose. On the whole I think the chief ingredients are:
(1) Hard work. (But not this alone as I have always thought until now – as you say, one cannot be always composing.)
(2) Having just the very best art of all kinds
(3) Complete change from music. To be divided into (a) other work or exercise, and (this is most important) (b) Absolute laziness.
All this sounds cheap and obvious but unless you can assure me that it is false there are one or two conclusions to be drawn from it. To begin with, ‘Worming’ is absolutely criminal. One gets wearied out by false art – becomes saturated by it in fact. It is bad enough when I get sick of it but it is worse when I enter into the spirit of it and enjoy it in a beastly sort of way. May be one ought to do something besides composition, but it ought to be something outside music I think.
Then you once said you were so ashamed of yourself because your life seemed all holiday. Now if you find that you write better for going away into the country now and than, then it is your DUTY to go and do so. Again, are you able to discover what helps you in composition and what takes your thoughts entirely away from music? For instance, I think walking always sets me thinking of new tunes etc whereas bicycling drives all music away. Both are necessary, because when one is not actually writing or mentally composing one should not mentally drivel on about music as I do so often. When I thought that composition was merely hard work I used to worry about it in an irritating sort of way and I believe you do the same sometimes. Whereas if I am right we must drop music altogether every now and then so that we never feel stale when we write.
I am more determined than ever to ‘go into training’ only I want to make sure first what that will consist of.
Systematic planning out of the day or anything approaching it is surely out of the question. We must be more thorough when we play each other our things and we ought to play each one two or three times over at each meeting until the other one knows it thoroughly. The only drawback is that whenever we are together I have always such a lot to talk about!
I have just remembered another point as regards not getting old. It is quite possible that while cultivating concentration of mind you may spoil one or two ideas – anyhow you say you have done so. But that is quite worth it if you don’t want any immediate results. It is like stropping the razor before shaving.

The music has gone today (Wednesday) by special permission of the German authorities. It cost 1.45. If it is the same to you we would rather not have the money until we return. There is a slip to be pasted on to the 2nd flute.
Are you quite sure that analysing a Beethoven sonata and then writing one in the same form would not be good? Wagner did it (see ‘Grove’) and he was the greatest master of form and also one of the most original of all composers. Besides is it not what all painters and poets do? It seems much more sensible to me than more counterpoint.
As for pictures I am quite bewildered. I cannot see the great beauty of Veronese. On the whole I think I like Correggio better than him. But somehow or other my chief delights are the very old pictures – Van Eyck, Holbein, Weyden, Conegliano, Botticelli and Mantegna etc. I seem to ‘feel’ them so much more easily than I do Rubens or Veronese. I put it down to the fact that I am only beginning to enjoy pictures and I hope to grow to the others in time – perhaps you can help me. Of course the Sistine Madonna is a thing by itself. I nearly went through the roof when I first caught sight of it. But it bothers me to think that I prefer Van Eyck to Rubens etc. – I feel like the curate who only likes the Messiah and the Elijah still I suppose it is all right as long as I don’t stop as I am. Everything must have a beginning. We go to Munich on Friday.
G v H

1. Holst and his wife appeared to be copying out parts of one of VW’s works, presumably the now-destroyed Symphonic rhapsody.
2. Henry Wood,  conductor and composer