pencil drawing of Holst in middle age
Holst drawn by William Rothenstein, 1920

It was inevitable that, during the research for my own artistical activities, I would stumble upon the works of British composer Gustav Holst. Just as I do, he found inspiration for his work into the planetary system and in the Mahabharata.
The Planets, a seven-movement orchestral suite written by Holst between 1914 and 1916, has been from its premiere to the present day been enduringly popular, influential, widely performed and frequently recorded and keeps inspiring many contemporary composers. John Williams used the melodies and instrumentation of Mars as the inspiration for his soundtrack for the Star Wars films (specifically “The Imperial March”).

The most important conceptual difference between my music and Holst’s suite, is that his inspiration was astrological rather than astronomical. My work is based upon a sonorization of the electromagnetic waves emitted by the main celestial bodies of our solar system and includes Earth, the Sun, Uranus and Neptune (the two last ones still had to be discovered when Holst composed his suite). In Holst’s opera each movement is intended to convey ideas and emotions associated with the influence of the planets on the psyche, while in my work they are used as metaphors to illustrate the different cyclic phases of a human civilization. That’s also why it’s called “A Cosmology of Civilization”.

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A Cosmology of Civilization. Acrylic on canvas 100 x 80 cm by Urban Vyaas (2021).
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Holst’s interest in Indian mythology was shared by many of his contemporaries and first became musically evident in the opera Sita (1901–06). The combined influence of Ravel, Hindu spiritualism and English folk tunes enabled Holst to get beyond the once all-consuming influences of Wagner and Richard Strauss and to forge his own style.

Most of the music of Holst’s Indian verse settings remained generally western in character, but in some of the Vedic settings he experimented with Indian raga (scales). In my compositions the variations in key, rhythm and meter were determined by the strength, frequency and amplitudes of the electromagnetic waves emitted by the different elements of our solar system, translated into some good old Wagnerian bawling, characterized by the use of propulsive repetition that includes also a palette of idiosyncratic instrumental touches, and some extreme high and low octave doublings.

The influence of the Mahabharata on my art is most evident in my literary activity, since my novel The Maharajagar is fundamentally a contemporary retelling of the tale of the Mahabharata.

I had to conclude that no artist is an island, and that most artists just pick up a thread where other artists had to drop it. It is humbling to consider that most of what we do, has very often already been done before, and that our proud “inspirations” are just updated art history.

2 thoughts on “Analogies and differences between my art and that of Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934).

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