Re-examining Holst through a Feminist Lens

Rachel Gain, University of North Texas

Existing musicological research on the composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is narrowly focused. Noteworthy portions of his life remain unexamined, including his personal convictions, which arguably had a significant impact on his works. Many sources show that Holst held progressive, egalitarian views, including beliefs which we would now interpret as feminist. In overlooking this aspect of his life, we are unable to fully understand and appreciate Holst's works. In this paper, I thus advocate broadening analytical topics to include feminist perspectives.

For thirty-one years, Holst was a music teacher at girls' schools in London, concurrent to his career as a composer. Despite wide-ranging limitations on girls in the Edwardian era, Holst encouraged his students to engage in "masculine" musical activities, such as composing, conducting, and playing woodwind instruments. He also composed works for his pupils to compensate for a lack of rewarding repertoire for girls. Several of his students went on to become professional musicians, including in fields almost exclusively male.

I consider how Holst's feminism might materialize in his music and, consequently, how this might influence our analytical approaches. To illustrate this, I present analyses of Holst's St. Paul's Suite (1912-13), written for his students at St. Paul's Girls' School. I adapt methodologies and concepts from feminist musicology to demonstrate possible approaches for interpreting both the music itself and its performance by schoolgirls. These analyses are grounded in semiotics, embodiment, and the performance and perception of gender. My analysis reveals the work as progressive and shaped by feminist ideals.