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Holst: In the Bleak Midwinter


Dates: 21 September

To celebrate the birthday of Cheltenham’s greatest son, we are showing this wonderful documentary, the first and only full-length film made about him. Its director, Tony Palmer, is coming from London to join us.

You may have seen our very own composer cast in bronze in Imperial Gardens. You may know ‘Mars’, the noisiest of The Planets. Or ‘Jupiter’, whose big tune he lent to ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’ (1921). Or the Christmas carol tune that provides the title of this film.

Holst is more than that. Born in 1874 in Pittville Terrace, he was asthmatic, short-sighted (no-one noticed) and had a near-paralysed right arm.  At 17, he became choir master at Wyck Rissington, traipsing 15 miles each way every Sunday.  At 18, his dad borrowed £100 to send him to London. There he learnt about orchestration, singing, conducting, vegetarianism, teetotalism, William Morris, English folk song, Hindu scripture, Sanskrit, Algerian street culture, the poetry of Walt Whitman, astrology, Christian socialism, Irish republicanism, sound recording, war, death and the universe. In time, his compositions were acclaimed internationally, but undervalued at home.

All his life, he composed mostly on Sundays and taught the rest of the time. He taught musical outcasts, which meant women and girls; country folk; factory workers; demobbed soldiers in Salonica; people with missing limbs and broken instruments; the poor; anyone prepared to work hard.  He died, aged 59, in May 1934.  The London newspapers said he could have been up there with Elgar and Delius if he hadn’t worn himself out teaching children and amateurs. But that’s why we love him.

After attending university, Tony Palmer became a BBC trainee, apprenticed to Ken Russell and Jonathan Miller. His debut film, about Benjamin Britten, was the first BBC documentary to be networked in the USA. He subsequently made more than 100 films with and/or about such luminaries as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Igor Stravinsky, Maria Callas, Liberace, Peter Sellers, Bobby Moore, Wagner, NASA, The Wigan Casino, Fairport Convention and Pieter Dirk-Uiys. Wiki him and marvel! We are honoured to have him as our guest.


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