Imogen Holst

Composer and Conductor

A black and white image of a woman sitting at a desk looking at sheet music

Imogen Holst at her home in Aldeburgh, 1975
(© Nigel Luckhurst, 1975, Image provided by the Britten–Pears Foundation (, Ref: HOL/2/11/10/7)

  • BORN 12 April 1907, Richmond, Surrey
  • DIED 9 March 1984, Aldeburgh, Suffolk
  • WORKED Eothen School, Caterham; Roedean School, Sussex; Dartington Hall, Devon; Aldeburgh, Suffolk
  • HONOURS Royal College of Music’s Cobbett Prize, Morley Scholarship and Octavia Travelling Scholarship, 1928-1930; Fellow of the Royal College of Music, 1966; Honorary doctorates from the universities of Essex (1968), Exeter (1969) and Leeds (1983); Honorary membership of the Royal Academy of Music, 1970; CBE for services to music, 1975
  • MINERVA SCIENTIFICA PROJECT Echoes from Essex 2020

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Entry by Judith Ratcliffe, Archivist, Britten Pears Arts, with additional information by Thaxted researcher Michael Goatcher


Podcast 9 from the Women of Science & Music: 30 Celebrations series, explores Imogen Holst’s life and work with, Judith Ratcliffe, Archivist at Britten Pears Arts in Aldeburgh, and Peter Donovan, Chairman of Thaxted Festival. We are grateful also to Thaxted researcher Michael Goatcher whose work has greatly informed this podcast. For more Minerva Scientifica podcasts click here.


Holst was a keen ethnomusicologist. She was passionate about the preservation and spread of our folksong and dance heritage and arranged many traditional folk tunes for amateurs and professionals to play and sing. She was a key member of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Her life-long fascination for folk music was not however confined to English traditions. Typical of her wide interests was the two months she spent, in 1950-51, at Santiniketan University in West Bengal studying Indian music.


Title: Set me as a seal upon thine heart
Scientist/Science: ELIZABETH TOLLET
Words: extracts from Song of Songs 8: 6&7, Old Testament Bible
Written in: August 1946
For: Female Voices (3 treble, 2 alto)
Performed by: Frances M Lynch, Alice Privett (Sops); Simone Ibbett-Brown, Margaret Cameron (Mezzos); David Sheppard (Counter-Tenor)
Published by: unpublished
First Performed by: Students at Dartington Hall, Devon 1946

This is one of the “Four Canons for Winsome” Holst wrote while she was teaching at Dartington Summer School that year. They were dedicated to a fellow teacher Winsome Bartlett, one of Holst’s closest friends, who was teaching craft skills and folk dancing to the music students.

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart,
as a seal upon thine arm:
for love is strong as death;
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can the floods drown it:”

Title: A Sweet Country Life
Words: Folk song from Gloucestershire
Arranged: 1937
For: SATB unaccompanied
Performed by: Frances M Lynch (soprano), David Sheppard (counter-tenor), Julian Stocker (tenor), Gwion Thomas (baritone)
Published by: Published Novello, 1937 (Novello’s Part Song Book, no. 1497)
First Performed: unknown

This song was one of many collected by Cecil J. Sharp, founder of the English Folk Dance Society. In 1924 Imogen had filled the house in Town Street, Thaxted with country dance tune books, in arrangements by Cecil Sharp. This gave her father the idea for his opera At the Boar’s Head.

“A sweet country life is most pleasant and charming,
All for to walk abroad on a fine summer’s morning,
Bright Pheobus did ashine and the hills was adorning
As Molly she sat a-milking on a fair summer’s morning.
No fiddle nor flute nor hautboy nor spinet
Is not to be compared to the lark nor the linnet.
Down as I did lie all among those green rushes,
‘Twas then I did hear the charms of the blackbirds and thrushes.”

Title: May Day Carol: The hedges and fields
Original Song: from the Journal of the Folk-Song Society and was collected by Lucy E Broadwood in 1898 from Mr Faircloth, carpenter of Fowlmere, Cambridgeshire.
Arranged by: Imogen Holst
For: three unaccompanied equal voices
Performed by: electric voice theatre singers Jenny Miller, Margaret Cameron & Frances M Lynch
Published by: unknown
First Performed: unknown

This evocative arrangement, a fusion of Pagan and Christian rites, echoes the life of Mycologist Gulielma Lister, particularly as a young girl, spending days with her family out of doors, collecting, sketching and observing the flora and fauna around Lyme Regis.

The hedges and fields are cloth’d in green
As green as the early leaf
Our Heav’nly Father waters them
With his morning dew so sweet.

Now we’ve been rambling all the night
And some part of the day
And as we’re returning back again
We’ve brought you a bunch of May.

A bunch of May we’ve brought you here
And at your door it shall stand
It is but a sprout, but it’s well budded out
By the works of our dear Lord’s hand.

My song it is sung, and we must be gone
No longer can we stay
God bless you all both great and small,
And we wish you a joyful May.

Title: Round
Scientist/Science: (tbc)
Words: Cheng Hao (translated from the Chinese)
Written in: Feb 1926
For: equal voices (4 part round)
Performed by: Frances M Lynch, Alice Privett (Sops); Simone Ibbett-Brown, Margaret Cameron (Mezzos); David Sheppard (Counter-Tenor); Julian Stocker (Tenor); Gwion Thomas (Baritone)
Published by: unpublished
First Performed: unknown

This is one of two Four-part Rounds for equal voices written after Holst had left St Paul’s Girls’ School before she started studying at the Royal College of Music.

“I wander north, I wander south, I rest me where I please.
See how the riverbanks are nipt beneath the autumn breeze!
Yet what care I if autumn’s blasts the river-banks lay bare?
The loss of hue to the river-banks is the river-banks’ affair.”

We are grateful to the Holst Foundation for their permission to record these works and to Britten Pears Arts for providing the unpublished scores.

Holst’s bookplate reflecting her enduring passion for folk music and dance (Image provided by the Britten–Pears Foundation (, Ref: HOL/2/20/1/81)


At the age of five Holst went to the Froebel Institute in Hammersmith, London, whilst summers were spent at the Holst’s country cottage near Thaxted, Essex.

She wrote her first compositions whilst boarding at Eothen School for Girls in Caterham from 1917 to 1920. Her teacher there was composer Jane Joseph who in turn had been a pupil of her father, Gustav Holst. She nurtured Imogen’s early composing but died tragically young so would not have seen her fulfil her full potential.

Imogen then attended St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith where her father was director of music. Here she won the junior and senior Alice Lupton piano prizes and founded a Folk Dance Society.

1922 saw an important, if informal, addition to her education – she discovered folk dancing! There was country dancing on the vicarage lawn in Thaxted three evenings a week in August. This was the beginning her lifelong interest in folk dancing.

She entered the Royal College of Music in 1926 studying piano, composition and conducting. She increasingly focused on composition winning the Cobbett Prize for her Phantasy Quartet.


Throughout her life Holst used her talents as composer, arranger, conductor, public speaker, teacher, writer and organiser to earn a living and to inspire enthusiasm for music in others. For instance;

Holst with her choir (1950s, Image provided by the Britten–Pears Foundation (, Ref: HOL/2/11/6/36)

  • Holst taught at Dartington Hall from 1942 to 1950 setting up a music department that was way ahead of its time.
  • She moved to Aldeburgh in 1952 and worked as composer Benjamin Britten’s music assistant until 1964, very much as her teacher Jane Joseph had been assistant to Gustav Holst, helping arrange and copy music and organise festivals, notably those in Thaxted. In 1953 Imogen arranged for the Thaxted Morris Men to give a display at the Aldeburgh Festival. Britten particularly liked the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance which is still performed regularly in Thaxted.
  • Holst formed a professional choir, the Purcell Singers, and in 1956 she conducted them in the first performance of A Rose for Lidice by Alan Rawsthorne in Thaxted Church. She also regularly conducted the Aldeburgh Music Club and the Aldeburgh Festival Choir and her book Conducting a Choir set out a wealth of practical information for the amateur conductor.
  • She edited and promoted the music of her father, publishing many books on his life and work, the first of which Gustav Holst: A biography was published just four years after his death in 1938.
  • Holst was artistic director of the Aldeburgh Festival from 1956 to 1977. In 1964 she is noted as being Patron and conductor at the ‘Thaxted Festival of Music’ given in the church by Morley College Choir and Orchestra.  Another festival, referred to as the Thaxted Festival in 1975, records her as the Festival President who opened the ‘Medieval Town Fair’.

Holst conducting a military band (© Nicholas Horne, 1948, Image provided by the Britten–Pears Foundation (, Ref: HOL/2/11/4/6)


In 1933 Imogen took part in a Gustav Holst Concert held in Carlisle which featured first performances of new works by both father and daughter. Imogen conducted her composition, a suite for brass band entitled The Unfortunate Traveller, herself. This was the first time an original brass band work by a woman composer had been publicly performed and also the first time a woman had conducted a brass band at a public concert. Imogen was a pioneer breaking down cultural and social barriers.


  • Holst’s enthusiasm and gift for working with amateurs led her to work, from 1940 to 1942, under CEMA, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, a forerunner of the Arts Council, as a ‘music traveller’ to boost home morale during the war by encouraging musical activities in rural communities. Holst was allocated the south west of the country and travelled the wartime countryside, often cycling or walking between villages, to keep people singing, dancing and playing while the bombs fell.

Imogen Holst with Sir Adrian Boult at the Town House in Thaxted for the unveiling of a plaque to her father Gustav on her birthday in 1963 (Image by Thaxted resident John Bull, provided by Thaxted Festival via Michael Goatcher)

  • Imogen was a keen supporter of the Pipers’ Guild which was formed in 1932 to encourage people to make and play their own pipes. Holst taught people how to make and play their bamboo pipe, similar to a recorder, and arranged old English airs as well as wrote original tunes for the instrument. The pipes which she made and decorated for herself are held in the archive at Britten Pears Arts
  • She had a lifelong association with Thaxted in Essex, having begun visiting there with her parents for holidays. She retained a home there for many years, developed her lifelong passion for folk music and dance from the local residents and is woven into the fabric of festivals, alongside her father, which culminated in the unique musical experience that is today’s Thaxted Festival.


Holst was influential in the development of music education and community music-making in England in the twentieth century. She spent her life and career dedicated to the task of encouraging amateur music-making, energetically and generously writing for and working with amateur singers and players. Holst was a pioneer, composing throughout her career for instruments such as brass band, pipes, recorders and hand bells, bringing these instruments into the art music or cultivated music worlds. She was one of the first women to establish herself as a conductor.

Holst conducting the Snape Maltings Training Orchestra (© Nigel Luckhurst, 1977, Image provided by the Britten–Pears Foundation (, Ref: HOL/2/11/10/12)