Gustav Holst was born on September 21, 1874 in Cheltenham. His ancestors were Russian exiles from Riga. Holst’s father, Adolph, was an accomplished pianist who practiced all hours of the day to the neglect of his wife, Clara, and their two children. His mother’s Spanish great – great grandmother had been an actress who was carried off to Ireland by an Irish peer. Holst’s mother was sweet, gentle and unassuming but she was not very strong. Clara von Holst died when Gustav was only eight. Adolph’s sister, Nina, was brought in to look after the children, but she too was equally distracted by the piano. In her youth, she had strewn pedals in the path of Liszt.
Gustav appears to have been an oversensitive and somewhat miserable child. His eyes were weak, but no one realized that he had to wear spectacles. His chest was also weak, and again no one bothered much with his asthma. He had to rest while climbing stairs. Gustav hated practicing the violin, but he enjoyed the piano.
Later, Adolph married another one of his students and Gustav was sent to Cheltenham Grammar School. His father was determined to make young Gustav a good pianist, but even in his youth Holst was troubled with neuritis in his hands. That made his long hours of practice a severe strain. Gustav tried his hand at composition, but failed to gain scholarships to the Royal College of Music and various other colleges in London.
Holst’s first engagement was at Wick Rissington, a small Cotswold village. Soon afterwards he became organist and choirmaster of the choral society at Bourbon on the Water. He composed an operetta, called Lansdowne Castle which was produced at the Cheltenham Corn Exchange in 1893. Though the music was heavily influenced by Arthur Sullivan, the performance was a great success. His father was sufficiently impressed to borrow money to send Gustav to the Royal College of Music under regular admission. At the College, Holst studied composition with Charles Stanford. Although he often disagreed with Stanford’s opinions, Holst was always grateful to him, especially for teaching him how to become his own critic.
A fellow student, Fritz Hart, converted Holst to the music of Wagner. After hearing Gotterdammerung under Mahler at the Covent Garden, Gustav became an ardent enthusiast. Once after hearing Tristan and Isolde in the gallery, he walked all night through the streets of London with his mind in a whirl.
Another overwhelming experience was hearing the Bach Mass in B Minor at the Three Choirs Festival in Worchester. It was one of the few enjoyable musical events in his life at the time. The cramping neuritis in his right hand was perpetually defeating him as a keyboardist. Prolonged practice was impossible and he was forced to realize that he could not keep up technique any longer.
Holst therefore decided to take up the trombone. It would allow him to play in orchestras and provide him with an income. Also, the experience would be useful to him as a composer. Perhaps, he also thought that playing the trombone would even help to strengthen his chest and lungs.
As a student, Gustav Holst was frugal. He never smoked nor drank. Since leaving home he had also become a strict vegetarian. But vegetarianism was not encouraged in his cheap lodgings in the 1890’s. Since he was never given a completely nourishing meal, his eyes became very weak and his hand remained in constant pain. Yet despite all of the physical problems and his extremely shy and solitary nature, he was already showing an absorbing interest in other people. He hated conventionality and rejoiced in ideas he found fantastic or humorous.