The only child of composer Gustav Holst and long-time collaborator of Benjamin Britten, Imogen Holst was a gifted musician and scholar in her own right.
Born in Richmond, Surrey in 1907 to her music teacher and aspiring composer father Gustav and amateur singer mother Isobel, music and dance were always central in Imogen Holst’s world. Her early school life brought a rich combination of piano and other instrument lessons from accomplished musicians, and composition theory from her father’s star pupil Jane Joseph, herself a composer who had recently helped to transcribe Gustav’s The Planets.
Imogen’s senior schooldays were peppered with music prizes and notable concerts, although minor health concerns began to shape her career away from dancing or becoming a notable professional pianist.
After a year post-school of studying composition, piano and French horn and organising a fund-raising music pageant for the English Folk Dance Society, Imogen entered the Royal College of Music. As soon as her first year, skills in conducting began to emerge, with the Daily Telegraph proposing that she may one day become the UK’s first established female conductor.
In the years that followed, international travel, prizes and a BBC broadcast of her string quartet composition Phantasy all marked a successful and rapid growth. A £100 scholarship, awarded as Imogen graduated, allowed for a year of further travelling and musical study.
Teaching, freelance conducting and arranging paid Imogen's bills for the next few years, until her father’s death in May 1934. Recognising Gustav’s impact, she vowed to protect his musical legacy, with concerts in his honour and the writing of his biography, published in 1938.
With the threat of war looming, Imogen’s European travel ceased, to be replaced by UK travel for the Pilgrim Trust as one of six regional music ambassadors, whose purpose was to bring music to rural communities. For more than two years, she worked tirelessly, bringing her exceptional organisational skills and musical prowess to bear. But in 1942, exhaustion forced her to resign.
Her recuperation took place at Dartington Hall in Devon, an arts school near Totnes. Rest was short-lived, by September Imogen had established a one-year music course which flourished into a full music school over the next eight years.
Collaboration with Benjamin Britten
It was at Dartington where Imogen first met Benjamin Britten in 1943, beginning a friendship and collaboration that would shape both of their lives. Their mutual interest in Renaissance and Baroque music led to him asking her to join him in Aldeburgh in Suffolk in 1952. At first she was there to help organise the town’s newly established arts festival, which had begun in 1948, but he was also about to embark on the ambitious and time-constrained project to write the opera Gloriana for the 1953 Coronation. The pressure felt by the two during the nine-month process was later dramatised in the BBC Radio 3 play Imo and Ben, and is now being brought to stage in Stratford-upon-Avon as the powerful new play: Ben and Imo, by Mark Ravenhill.
After initially working as Britten’s music assistant, Imogen became Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 1956 to 1977, while also cataloguing her father Gustav’s works and supervising their recordings. She received multiple honours, including being made a Fellow of the Royal College of Music, honorary doctorates from three universities and a CBE. She remained in Aldeburgh for the rest of her life, living in a small modernist bungalow for a peppercorn rent, and continued to compose and write about music until her death in 1984.