Making Connections: I Vow to Thee My Country

The tune to the song “I Vow to Thee My Country” is a favorite of harpists everywhere, thanks in part to skillful arrangements by artists like Kim Robertson and Rhett Barnwell. The melody is one of the themes from “Jupiter,” a movement of Gustav Holst’s iconic symphonic suite, The Planets. As is often the case, the back story is nearly as compelling as the tune, presented here in a quick compendium of fun facts.

  1. Gustav Holst (birth name Gustavus Theodore von Holst) was born in Cheltenham. England in 1874. His mother was a British singer and pianist. His father was an organist and choirmaster of Swedish, Latvian and German descent.
  2. Both Holst’s grandfather Gustavus and great-grandfather Matthias were composers and harp teachers. Matthias Holst taught harp at the Imperial Russian Court in St. Petersburg.
  3. After leaving the Royal College of Music, Holst supported himself as a trombonist famously quipping, "Man cannot live by composition alone."
  4. From 1904 until his death, he taught music at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, England, and it was for these students that he composed one of his well-loved works , the St. Paul’s Suite.
  5. Holst and fellow composer Ralph Vaughan Williams were close friends and together enjoyed hiking or “rambling” in the English countryside.
  6. The Planets is a seven movement suite with a movement for every planet other than Earth and Pluto, which wasn’t discovered until 1930.
  7. The entire orchestral suite calls for a large orchestra, including two harps and an organ, plus two separate three-part women’s choruses. The performance time for the piece is around 50 minutes.
  8. The piece was performed for the first time in 1918 for an invited audience of only 250 people. The performance was given on short notice; the orchestra saw the music only two hours before the performance.
  9. The Planets was given a more public premiere in 1919. The conductor Sir Adrian Boult who led the Royal Philharmonic Society in the performance (he had also conducted the initial performance) felt that a half hour of this innovative music was all an audience could take in one sitting. The first complete premiere was given in 1920. Holst disliked incomplete performances of the work. According to his daughter Imogen, “He particularly disliked having to finish with Jupiter, to make a 'happy ending', for, as he himself said, ‘in the real world the end is not happy at all.’”
  10. The central melody of “Jupiter” was set by Holst to text from a poem by Sir Cecil Spring Rice entitled "Urbs Dei" ("The City of God") or "The Two Fatherlands." The poem refers to the dual allegiance to God and country.
  11. The melody has the hymn tune name of Thaxted, a town in Essex, England where Holst and his wife spent weekends and school vacations.
  12. The tune has also been used for other hymns including, "O God beyond all praising" and "We Praise You and Acknowledge You."  With the lyrics  “World in Unison,” it is the theme song for the Rugby World Cup.

Perhaps the most impressive fact about The Planets is about Holst’s method of composition. He wrote the piece over a two year period, from 1914-1916. The first World War was raging. Holst had been declared unfit for military service due to his asthma, poor eyesight and neuritis in one arm. He was teaching music and composing when he could find time. In fact, this monumental composition was written primarily in 20 minute breaks between classes and during vacation times. 

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