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Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is one of those composers who have attained fame throughout just one piece, in this case the huge orchestral suite The Planets. His catalogue of works is substantial and his interests were indeed diverse; from symphonic to choral, concerto to song, opera to chamber music. He was also highly interested in the culture of other countries, particularly Indian literature and poetry.
Holst had first encountered the epic poem The Cloud Messenger as translated in R W Frazer's Silent Gods and Sun-Steeped Lands, published in 1896. It was indeed that volume which inspired the composer to start delving into Sanskrit literature, and most probably it was some time in the 1890s that Holst began studying the works of the great fifth century Indian poet Kalidasa.
So dedicated was he to his task that, by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, Holst had already acquired a fair knowledge of how that ancient language works. Certainly he knew enough to undertake his own translations aided by previous translations from other scholars, and in a fairly short time he had built an extensive library of Indian literature, including several books in Devanagari and Sanskrit script in which one may observe Holst's own annotations.
The Cloud Messenger, based on Kalidasa's epic poem Meghaduta, was the composer's favourite piece in the genre, together with Savitri, and he rated these two works as better than the 'Veda' hymn settings. The storyline, in brief, is one of true marital love and fidelity. A 'yaksha', a semi-divine subject of King Kubera, is exiled for neglecting his duties. Pining for his wife, he petitions a passing cloud to deliver to her a consoling message of his love. At this stage Holst embarks on a journey describing the landscapes, cities and sights the cloud encounters on its voyage.
Listen — Holst: Rushing northward (The Cloud Messenger)
(track 5, 0:00-0:38) © 2020 Delphian Records Ltd :
Finally the cloud arrives at the foot of the Himalayas and the sacred city where the yaksha's wife is languishing. The work reaches its climax as the temple dancers greet the cloud's arrival.
Listen — Holst: And see! The Great God himself (The Cloud Messenger)
(track 13, 0:26-0:39) © 2020 Delphian Records Ltd :
It took Holst seven years to complete the piece (1903-1910), but he had to wait a further three years to see it premiered on 4 March 1913. The performance was a disaster due to a technical oversight when no semi-chorus had been prepared in time for the occasion. In a desperate attempt to save the performance the main chorus was made to sight-read the former's part and in the final eight minutes chaos reigned. Since that fateful night the piece fell into obscurity, and has received only a handful of performances. A grave omission this, as The Cloud Messenger is the masterpiece of Holst's Sanskrit period and deserves to be better known. Its rich harmonic language and ingenuity of motivic construction points the way to the next of Holst's major works, The Planets.
Listen — Holst: Thou has reached the snowy peaks (The Cloud Messenger)
(track 12, 2:13-3:10) © 2020 Delphian Records Ltd :
This colourful chamber version by Joseph Fort lends the more tender passages a new intimacy and clarity, while retaining much of the force of the original and preparing the foundations for a new life in performance.
The disc is completed by a set of five part-songs completed the year The Cloud Messenger was begun - 1903 - which show the newly married Holst similarly absorbed by love's trials and rewards.
Listen — Holst: Come to me (Five Partsongs, Op 12)
(track 23, 0:00-0:55) © 2020 Delphian Records Ltd :
Fort and his forces deliver the piece with exhilarating intensity and their sense of musicality is powerfully moving. An inspiring addition to the Holst discography, in truly great sound complemented by a scholarly essay. Recommended.
Copyright © 14 May 2020