A walk with Holst

We go on a Planetary tour of Cheltenham

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From now until October, Holst's birth town of Cheltenham is celebrating the centenary of the composer's most famous work with a 'Planets Listening Trail' - a series of seven listening posts dotted around the town centre. Jeremy Pound, BBC Music Magazine's deputy editor and a Cheltenham resident, tries out this unique walking-and-listening experience…

Having lived in Cheltenham for over 10 years, I’m no stranger to the Lloyds Bank on the town’s High Street. I’ve paid in cheques here, arranged overdrafts here, discussed mortgages here, you name it. Never, however, have I listened to Holst’s ‘Mercury – the winged messenger’ here. Until now, that is.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and the bank is, if not exactly buzzing, at least going about its daily banky business (below). Would I say it’s quiet? I wouldn’t actually know, as I am standing in a listening booth with headphones on. The recording of ‘Mercury’ I’m hearing is that by Sir Mark Elder and the HallĂ© (nice, though I wouldn’t mind Elder’s winged messenger being just that little bit friskier…). After Sir Mark has finished, I move onto another version of the same movement – from 1922, conducted by the composer himself. In front of me is a colourful panel, illustrated with a picture of the bank and telling me about both ‘Mercury’ and Holst’s Planets suite in general. It’s all rather fun (and beats standing in the queue to pay off a credit card bill any day).

This listening post is one of seven that have been set up round the Gloucestershire town, each featuring one movement from The Planets, the work that Holst began composing exactly 100 years ago. Beginning with ‘Mars’ at the Holst Birthplace Museum on Clarence Road and finishing with ‘Neptune’ at another Lloyds bank – in the Rotunda building in Montpellier – the seven posts take listeners on a Holstian walking tour through the town centre, stopping off at buildings of importance along the way. Also included are ‘Venus’ at All Saints Church, ‘Jupiter’ at the Everyman Theatre, ‘Saturn’ at The Wilson art gallery and ‘Uranus’ at the Town Hall. Theoretically, one should listen to all seven in turn, but dipping into one planet here, another there, is also fine.

Ranging from old-fashioned telephones at The Everyman and The Wilson to a giant gramophone horn at All Saints Church (below), the listening posts will be here until October. By that time, says Laura Kinnear, curator of the Holst Birthplace Museum, she hopes that Cheltonians will have had the chance to become better acquainted with their town’s most famous musical son and his greatest work.

‘When we were thinking of the projects we could do celebrate the centenary of The Planets, I wanted to think of a way in which we could get people actually listening to the music,’ she tells me. ‘At first, I thought of just the one listening post playing the whole work, but then realised that no-one would be likely to stand there for 45 minutes or so! So we decided on seven, each in buildings that have some relevance to Holst.

‘Ideally, I’d like people to listen to more of Holst’s music, but actually, quite a few people have never even heard of The Planets itself; or, quite often, they may recognise the music but have no idea what it is. We also want people to make the link with Cheltenham – there are 100,000 people living here, but I suspect only a small percentage know Holst was from the town.’

As Kinnear and I amble from one listening post to another, she explains how each building has that relevance to Holst that she refers to. The Holst Birthplace Museum – where the listening post is situated in what is believed to be the very room in which the composer was born (below) – pretty much speaks for itself, while the glorious All Saints Church is where his father was organist and Holst himself sang in the choir. The Everyman, The Wilson and the Town Hall, meanwhile, all date roughly from when Holst was a young man growing up in the town.

But what about those two Lloyds Banks? I’m intrigued here. Is it that Gustav Holst spent his early career counting notes, authorising cheques and stamping bills? Actually no. The High Street branch, Kinnear tells me, is on the site of the now-demolished Assembly Rooms, where Holst conducted some of his first works, while the Rotunda branch also served as a concert hall in his day. (In fact, Holst himself never had the happiest of relationships with money, and spent much of his existence stony broke. From that point of view, at least, the appearance of two banks on a Planets Listening Trail couldn’t be less apposite. I’m sure he’d have appreciated the irony, though…)

Listening in full to all seven planets, The Planets Listening Trail takes just over an hour and a half, and makes an excellent way to explore the heart of Cheltenham (or, for us locals, to head into buildings we haven’t been to for a while). And the best way to round it off? Well, Holst was an avid enthusiast of Indian culture and, in particular, Indian food. So if that’s not a perfect excuse for a curry…

 

The Planets Listening Trail will be in Cheltenham until 12 October. On 12 July, Martyn Brabbins conducts the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Holst’s The Planets at Cheltenham Town Hall. See: www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/music