Everyone Knows that several of Gustav Holst's early works are concerned with subject-matter derived from Indian mythology. The most significant, though by no means the only, examples are the operas Sita and Savitri, the cantata The Cloud Messenger, and the various settings of Hymns from the Rig Veda. His knowledge and use of that subject-matter, however, has received little critical appraisal. Conventional formulations such as that in John Vinton's Dictionary of 20th Century Music (‘his studies of Sanskrit … introduced him to Eastern thought’), themselves derived from Imogen Holst's biography of her father, have been allowed to stand unscrutinized. There has, in particular, been little or no discussion of the relationship between Holst's sources, compositional style, and creative achievement in these works – which constitute, after all, his first really personal contribution to European music. Yet these are vitally important considerations if the music of Holst's ‘Indian’ period is to be rescued from the picturesque. Just as important as the literary and philosophical aspects is the cultural context; a discussion of that will help to explain why Holst should have been looking towards India in the first place.
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