Measure by Measure

The Lonely Heath at Twilight

Gustav Holst, Thomas Hardy, and a musical portrait of a timeless place

By Sudip Bose | September 27, 2018
Flickr/Trevor Owen

The opening chapter of Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native (1878) is a remarkable set piece that describes the forlorn landscape known as Egdon Heath, as it appears late on a Saturday afternoon in November. It is precisely at the moment before twilight, Hardy writes, that “the great and particular glory of the Egdon waste began, and nobody could be said to understand the heath who had not been there at such a time.” The lives of his characters, Eustacia, Wildeve, Clym, and Mrs. Yeobright, and the love triangle at the heart of the book—all that will come later. But first, Hardy wants us to see this landscape, to feel its brooding rhythms, to breathe in its abiding chill, this landscape that turns out to be as compelling and essential a character as any we will later meet.

Dense with heather, gorse, and moss, the “sombre stretch of rounds and hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom in pure sympathy, the heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it.” This “great inviolate place” has “an ancient permanence,” unmarked as it is by the people who have lived upon or near it—“even the trifling irregularities were not caused by pickaxe, plough, or spade, but remained as the very fingertouches of the last geological change.” This desolate terrain may be impervious to human activity, but it exhibits distinctly human characteristics. It has “a countenance” and “a lonely face”; “the storm was its lover, and the wind its friend,” its temperament most severe “during winter darkness, tempests, and mists. … Then it became the home of strange phantoms.”

Among the many readers to be seduced by this dark, mysterious world was the composer Gustav Holst, best known for such works as The Planets and St. Paul’s Suite. In 1927, he wrote his tone poem Egdon Heath, the result of Holst’s love of the novelist’s work and his familiarity with the heathlands of Dorset—part of the “merely realistic dream country” that made up Hardy’s fictional Wessex. Many years before, Holst had composed songs based on three of the writer’s poems. Egdon Heath, however, was something very different. Holst considered it his most accomplished piece, far better than The Planets, yet compared to that popular work, Egdon Heath has suffered from relative obscurity.

We know from Imogen Holst’s biography of her father, that the composer always insisted that concert programs include a quote from The Return of the Native: “It was at present a place perfectly accordant with man’s nature—neither ghastly, hateful, nor ugly: neither common-place, unmeaning, nor tame; but, like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony.” The music, Imogen Holst writes, that had

grown out of these words was perfectly in accordance with Holst’s own nature. It was stark and austere, and free from the least breath of compromise. Here were no clinging melodies to woo the ear, no satisfying harmonies to lull the senses into a pleasing security. Beauty and ugliness, to Holst, were but other names for strength and weakness.

It had needed no stretch of the imagination to create anew the colossal and mysterious atmosphere of the heath, for the music was the very essence of his being.

No doubt this feeling of austerity had something to do with the cool reception the piece received at its London premiere on February 23, 1928—what turned out to be a memorial concert of sorts, given that Hardy had died only a month earlier. (The New York Symphony, which had commissioned a symphony from Holst and got Egdon Heath instead, gave the first performance on February 12, 1928, and Holst himself conducted the piece in Birmingham the following evening.) The London audience seemed unable to make sense of the work, with Imogen Holst describing the crowd as “profoundly uncomfortable.” The opening line, played by muted double basses, was so quietly rendered that many did not realize the work had commenced. “And when the music at length became audible,” Imogen Holst continues,

they were even less at their ease. It was all so very unsettling. You could hate it, but you could hardly ignore it. Just as you could hardly ignore the heath itself. There were those who thought the music ugly and monotonous. Others, though they might admire the fearless economy of its strength, were none the less relieved when it came to an end and they could return once more to a less rarefied atmosphere.

Egdon Heath, then, was never going to rival The Planets, a classical-radio staple to this day. Yet what a shame that is, for this powerful and melancholy essay is a startling musical realization of Hardy’s prose poem, one that reveals its magic slowly. Here is nothing less than a sonic depiction of the heath at twilight: the line in the basses falling and rising, seemingly without a destination in mind, the sonorities of the flutes and bassoons both mysterious and uncertain. The mood is quiet, pensive, with long legato lines in the strings that are played senza portamento, that is, without the sliding from note to note that can bring warmth to a musical line. These chromatic lines chill, and their tonality is very much elusive.

“One is reminded,” the English music critic Edwin Evans wrote in 1934, “of those landscapes which at the first glance present a flat, monochrome surface and come to life gradually as the eye probes into them.” Indeed, after the music gradually begins to quiver and shake, the violins playing endless legato lines made up of agitating triplets, the heath seems to come alive just as Hardy describes it: “The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and listen.”

It isn’t all doom and gloom. In the middle of the piece, the trombones and trumpets play a very “English” sort of theme that recalls certain moments in The Planets, and there’s a noble chorale toward the end, played by muted trombones. Generally, however, the power of the work is in its harmonic uncertainty, and in the conjuring up of an ancient, unchanging world. Hardy’s heath “had waited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the crises of so many things.” Full of swarthy monotony without ever being boring, Egdon Heath unfolds like a hazy dream, its repeated themes suggesting something at once eternal and timeless. It is, like Hardy’s landscape, “a thing majestic without severity, impressive without showiness, emphatic in its admonitions, grand in its simplicity.”


Listen to André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra perform Holst’s Egdon Heath:

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