Gustav Holst first visited Thaxted in 1913 when on a walking holiday in north-west Essex. He decided he must return. The next year he and his wife rented a cottage in Monk Street, a small hamlet south of Thaxted. The cottage is no longer in existence due initially to a fire and then road widening. It was here that he composed much of his suite “The Planets.” He had been declared unfit for military service; this, compounded by their name being von Holst, caused some suspicions amongst their neighbours. The authorities, however, were unconcerned.
Conrad Noel, the vicar of Thaxted, and Holst soon became friends with Holst taking a great interest in the church choir. In 1916 Gustav organised a Whitsun Festival in the church. He taught music at Saint Paul’s Girls School, James Allen’s Girls School and was Director of Music at Morley College and some students from all those institutions came to Thaxted to be part of the festival. One, in particular, who came was Jack Putterill, who also has a place in Thaxted history. The Festival in this form was repeated in 1917 and 1918.
In 1917 the family moved into Thaxted to live in “The Steps”, 19 Town Street. A blue plaque is beside the front door. In those days it was a quiet place to work. Holst wrote several pieces specially for Thaxted including “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.”
Sadly, the Whitsuntide festival ceased after 1918. Holst was abroad for much of the year working for the YMCA, undertaking the role of Musical Organiser for troops of the Army of the Black Sea. From 1920 the Whitsuntide Festivals continued in various London Churches, Canterbury Cathedral and finally Chichester Cathedral. Here in Thaxted the tradition of great music in the church continued. Many nationally famous orchestras and musicians came to play here. Eventually a music festival in the months of June and July was restarted in 1980 and flourishes still today as the Thaxted Festival Foundation.
Holst continued to take an important part in the music in the Parish Church in many ways. This included playing the Lincoln organ which has now been restored.
After a head-injury in February 1923, Holst began to show the signs of overwork and, on strict medical advice, retired back to his beloved Thaxted for a long holiday, spending only one day a week in London. He continued to be involved with the Parish Church and its choir up until 1925 when he left Thaxted to live in at Brook End, a large Elizabethan house, some distance from Thaxted'
He held Thaxted in his thoughts for the rest of his life and Thaxted holds Gustav Holst in its heart. His works are still being played and sung in the town from the Church to the local public houses.
Holst died in 1934 at the age of fifty-nine.
A booklet, “Gustav Holst and the Thaxted Music Festival Tradition”, describes the story of Holst’s contributed to music in Thaxted and his continuing legacy. It is available from the Parish Church and Information Centre.