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Composers

Imogen Holst

(1907- 1984)

Imogen Holst (1907-1984), or ‘Imo’ as she was affectionately known by most, was born on 12th April 1907 in Richmond, Surrey. Daughter to eminent English composer, Gustav Holst, Imo lived a profoundly musical life, from early adolescence to training at the Royal College of Music, teaching at Dartington, and later working alongside Benjamin Britten. Inspired by her travels and affinity for folk music, Colin Matthews recalls Imo’s musical tastes as ‘very decided, and very much her own’. Her compositions reflect this individuality and, through her writing, teaching, arranging, conducting, and work to preserve her father’s musical legacy, she made a remarkable contribution to British musical life.

Folk music and dance were essential to Imo’s musical education and subsequent style, stemming from her earliest memories of dancing and singing to her father’s piano playing. She started at Froebel Demonstration School in Colet Gardens in 1912, before moving to Eothen School, Catherham, and finally to St Paul’s Girls’ where she received numerous awards. Encouraged by her parents, Imo took up both piano and violin and soon discovered composition, receiving guidance from Jane Joseph, and later Herbert Howells and Adine O’Neill. She even had a brief spell of French Horn tuition from Adolph Borsdorf, well-equipping her to direct small orchestras and choirs by the time she left school.

Imo composed abundantly from a young age, and her earliest works included her Op. 1 Sonata in D Minor for strings and piano, and choral settings of Edith Rickert’s Ancient English Christmas Carols, 1400-1700. Many of her compositions featured in her school concerts and were highly praised, including by Gustav Holst who gratefully received Imo’s work by post during his placement in Salonica as YMCA Music Organiser.

At sixteen Imo became a member of the English Folk Dance Society (EFDS). This affiliation would sustain her for many years musically, financially (from her work as an accompanist, conductor, organiser and arranger) and through enabling her to travel.

Imo won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1926, and went on to receive the Cobbett Prize, Morely Scholarship, Sullivan Prize for composition, and the 1929 Octavia Travelling Scholarship. She took piano with Kathleen Long, conducting with W. H. Reed, and composition initially with George Dyson, and later Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Gordon Jacob. She also continued to dance, studying both ballet and folk-dance.

Upon graduating in 1930, Imo travelled throughout Europe, Scandinavia and America. She joined the staff of EFDS, worked as a school music teacher and developed her freelance career, valuing her independence and ability to earn a living. Whilst her early songs show the influence of her father, for example ‘Weathers’ (1926, Thomas Hardy), she became increasingly drawn to producing ‘useful music’ for the amateur singer or player. This complimented her motivation to preserve English folksong as she arranged traditional songs and country dances, including tunes by Morley, Weelkes and Purcell, as well as many of Cecil Sharp’s collections. Notable examples include Imo’s ‘Four Oxfordshire Folk Songs’ for soprano duet and piano (1934), ‘Four Somerset Folk Songs’ for two sopranos and alto (1934), ‘Twelve Songs for Children’ (1937) – a Cecil Sharp collection for which Imo composed piano accompaniments – and her ‘Ten Appalachian Folk Songs’ (1938).

Imo’s reputation led her to join CEMA, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, in 1939, in which she took on the enormous challenge of travelling mostly by foot or bicycle throughout the South-West to facilitate wartime community music-making. This experience led her to publish ‘Singing for Pleasure’ (1957) – a collection of folk songs, unison songs, rounds and accompanied songs for female voices, and ‘A Jubilee Book of English Folk Songs’ (1958).

Since contracting typhoid as a child, Imo struggled periodically with her health and sustained an arm injury which prevented her from pursuing a performance career. She took respite from 1942-50 at Dartington in Totness, where she substantially developed their music department, establishing a new training course and orchestra. She also took on numerous students, many of whom credit a life-long dept to Imogen for her inspiration and training.

Imo’s compositions during this period, including Three Psalms for SSAATTBB choir and orchestra (1943) and The Four Songs for soprano and piano (setting Tottel’s Miscellany and composed for Imo’s first Dartington students, 1944), were well-received by London audiences, broadcast by the BBC and performed at festivals. Her style developed a starker ‘peculiarly independent’ edge over time, with more harmonic experimentation and virtuosity for both voice and accompaniment. Unfortunately, the quantity and quality of her output remains enigmatic.

In 1951, Imogen travelled to Venice, Paris and then to India, exploring indigenous music and learning Indian dance and notation. She produced one collection, Ten Indian Folk Tunes for recorder (1953) during this period.

Upon returning to England, Imo helped Benjamin Britten to produce the fifth Aldeburgh Festival. Since meeting Britten in 1943, she had developed great admiration for his works and became his most trusted assistant until 1964, working with him to produce the annual festival as well as numerous compositions, including a 1952 orchestration of ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’. Her own compositions took a backseat until 1962, when she moved permanently into a new house in Aldeburgh.

From 1964 Imo turned to focus on preserving her father’s musical legacy, working with Colin Matthews in 1971 to produce a thematic catalogue of his works. Appointed a fellow of the RCM in 1966, Imo was also granted honorary membership of the Royal Academy of Music and awarded a CBE in 1975. 

In the years leading up to her death at her home in Aldeburgh in 1984, Imo’s compositional output increased, and involved many commissions. For voice, her late works include ‘Hallo My Fancy, Whither Wilt Thou Go?’ (SS C-T TBB, 1972) for her Purcell Consort of Voices, the humorous ‘Farewell to Rod’ (1974), ‘A Greeting’ (for two sopranos, mezzo-soprano and piano, 1980), ‘Song for a Well-Loved Librarian’ (for soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone, 1982) and her ‘Homage to William Morris’ (for bass voice and string bass, 1984). As fellow assistant to Britten, Rosamund Stroud, and authors, Christopher Grogan, Peter Cox and Christopher Tinker have recognised, Imo developed a unique style, combining elements of twentieth-century English song with her affinity for folk traditions, whilst heeding to continental trends of harmonic experimentation.

© Rachel Howe, 2022

Worked with the following poets texts