Arachnophonia: Gustav Holst – “Beni Mora”

Editor’s note: Welcome to the first “Arachnophonia” column of the 2017-2018 academic year. Arachnophonia is a regular feature on our blog where members of the UR community can share their thoughts about items in the Parsons Music Library‘s collection. All links included in these posts will take you to either the library catalog record for the item in question or to additional relevant information from around the web.

As your friendly neighborhood blog editor/Music Library Associate, I thought I would kick things off for this academic year with a post in honor of British composer Gustav Holst‘s 143rd birthday.

Gustav Holst

“Beni Mora” (Op. 29, No. 1 1909-1910)

Today (September 21st) marks the 143rd birthday of British composer Gustav Holst. Holst was born in Cheltenham, England on this day in 1874. Today he is probably best known for his orchestral suite The Planets but he wrote many other works for orchestra as well as works for concert band, choral works, chamber music, operas and stage works. So, I thought I’d focus on one of my favorite pieces of his that is not quite as well known, “Beni Mora“. This piece is available as streaming audio in the library collections and is available for UR students, faculty and staff to access on campus.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

Beni Mora” was inspired by a vacation trip Holst made to Algeria in 1908. In letters home to his wife, he called Algeria a mix of East and West where mosques and hijab wearing women were juxtaposed with advertisements for American cinematography (source: He even went so far as to go bicycling in the Algerian portion of the Sahara desert — quite a vacation!

Photo (postcard?) Algeria circa 1908

A photo of an Algerian street scene circa 1908

There was a fascination with “the orient” as a broad concept (literally broad stretching from North Africa to India to Japan) in Europe and America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which led to a bit of an artistic fad for “Orientalsm” across various artistic media with varying success.

Orientalism in Action

I’m not sure how someone actually from Algeria would feel about this “cigar box” type portrayal from the early 20th century

The work premiered in 1912 and definitely reflects a mixture of East and West there is definitely a westernized sense of the “Oriental” evident, but not in a way that feels disrespectful of the culture that inspired it.

Working manuscript in Holst's handwriting from "Beni Mora"

A snippet of a working manuscript in Holst’s handwriting.

Beni Mora” consists of three movements – two dances and a finale subtitled “In the Street of Ouled Nails”.
The first dance starts off with a languid, almost cinematic feel — winds blowing across lonesome sand dunes are definitely evoked to my Western ear and builds to a louder, bigger feeling section that sounds to me like a lost outtake from the soundtrack to Lawrence Of Arabia (which of course was written much later!).
The second movement starts with an interesting syncopated percussion motif and makes use of orchestral tone color, having various melodic lines thread through different sections of the orchestra and groupings of instruments.
The third movement was directly inspired by a repetitive flute tune that Holst overhead during his Algerian travels. This 8 note flute melody becomes the hypnotic basis for this movement and is repeated many times while other harmonies, instruments and musical themes swirl in and amongst and around the repeating flute motif in a manner that suggests the changing scene as people come and go on their daily business on an Algerian street and also help keep the motif interesting. Some music critics have even referred to this movement as “proto” minimalist because of the 163 plus repetitions of that flute motif.

Frederick Arthur Bridgman - "A Street Scene In Algeria"

Frederick Arthur Bridgman (American, 1847-1928), “A Street Scene in Algeria”, oil on canvas

I first discovered “Beni Mora” in 2003 when I was living in Cheltenham while working at the Holst Birthplace Museum and fell in love with its blend of exoticism and romanticism that causes it to sound like a miniature film score. This feels like something that really would fit right in on a film soundtrack from a 1930s or 40s serial (or an Indiana Jones movie), which also appeals to me. I admire Holst’s curiosity about other cultures as evidenced in his incorporation of his Algerian vacation experience and musical style (as he perceived it) into this musical travelogue.

(Fun fact: Holst was also fascinated by the culture of the Indian subcontinent and wrote choral works and chamber operas exploring myths and legends of India, even going so far as to teach himself Sanskrit so he could read Hindu texts in their original language! Yay cultural curiosity!)

CD streaming

Of course, one should also listen to “The Planets” (it’s very famous and beloved for a reason), but I think “Beni Mora” provides a great way to delve further into the output of an early 20th century composer whose total output is well worth exploring! (Especially since the Music Library has a version that can be streamed — access is a wonderful thing!)

Holst Statue

Statue honoring Gustav Holst in his hometown of Cheltenham, England

It was 50 years ago today …

The BeatlesSgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was released on June 1, 1967 in the UK and on June 2, 1967 in the US. It became the soundtrack for the fabled “Summer of Love” both influencing and reflecting the flower powered youth culture of the time, but its appeal has proven to be timeless.

Beatles - Sgt. Pepper album cover

The Beatles stopped touring in August of 1966, and took some time off. The group reconvened in November of that year and spent over 400 hours in the studio between November 1966 and April 1967 completing the album. (This was a far cry from their first foray into EMI Studios to record their first album in 1963 — that entire album was recorded in less than 24 hours!) This studio time led to all sorts of interesting musical experimentation and since the group had decided they were done with touring, there was no need to worry about whether the songs could be produced live on stage. The album as a whole is a fascinating almalgamation of harmonium, harpsichord, brass band, fairground noises, harp, psychedelia, Leslie speaker tweaking, multi-tracking, tape loops, full orchestra, crashing apocalyptic piano chords, dog whistles and more. The Beatles’ musical ideas required lots of technical innovation from producer George Martin and studio engineers.

Sgt. Pepper gatefold

The eclectic mix of songs was loosely held together by the “concept” of a fictional Edwardian alter-ego Sgt. Pepper Band and the songs are wonderfully joyful. From the psychedelic marching band music that introduces us to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to the psychedelic imagery of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” ( title inspired by a drawing by John Lennon’s young son, Julian), to the music hall whimsy of McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four”, to the spiritual tone of Harrison’s sitar-laced “Within You Without You”, to the amazing shifting tones, full orchestral crescendo and avant garde surrealism of “A Day In The Life” (one of the greatest ever Lennon/McCartney collaborations in this author’s opinion), there is much to enjoy, right through to the startling tape loop ending inserted into the run-out groove of the original LPs (and included on CD reissues if you wait for it). The Beatles drew inspiration from varied sources like an 1843 circus poster (“Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”), a TV cornflakes commercial (“Good Morning, Good Morning”), news stories about runaway teens (“She’s Leaving Home”) or car accidents (“A Day in the Life”).

An alternate take from the Sgt. Pepper cover photo session

An alternate take from the Sgt. Pepper cover photo session

There is just as much to enjoy in a perusal of the album art itself. The cover features a pop art inspired collage of various folks (famous and not so famous) that the Beatles chose as inspirational to them, elaborate gatefold sleeve packaging (with bonus cardboard mustaches and pseudo-military insignia in early pressings) and includes the lyrics to all of the songs printed on the back cover, something that had never been done before with a pop album.

Sgt. Pepper back cover with lyrics

Sgt. Pepper signaled that pop & rock music could also be considered high art or even progressive social expression and more than just disposable entertainment. Musicologists cite Sgt. Pepper as continuing the musical maturation of the Beatles as a group that began with Revolver and Rubber Soul. It was also extremely influential on the development of progressive rock with its emphasis on studio experimentation, elaborate instrumentation and insistence on pushing the boundaries beyond conventional subject matter and track lengths. The album has been an influence on countless others since its release in 1967.

Here’s a sampling of a few of (many) parody takeoffs on the iconic cover:

Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It For The Money

Frank Zappa & The Mother's Of Invention

The SimpsonsThe Yellow Album

Simpsons - "The Yellow Album"

The RutlesSgt. Rutter’s Only Darts Club BandRutles - Sgt. Rutter

Golden Throats – a compilation of critically lambasted cover songs

Golden Throats

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band consistently ranks in critics and fans listings of best albums of all time. Among numerous accolades and awards, it is ranked # 1 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It’s included in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry and is one of the best-selling albums of all time.

Whether Sgt. Pepper is an old favorite or if it’s brand new to you, this classic album / cultural touchstone is well worth a listen!

Sgt. Pepper cut outs insert

Sgt. Pepper cut outs insert