The small scale of Holst’s earliest works for the stage—several unadventurous, though competent, operettas after the Sullivan model—soon gave way to more ambitious plans. The culmination was Sita (1900–06), whose three acts are in the grandest, most extravagant style, and whose musical language is, for the most part, saturated with Wagnerisms.
Yet by 1908, when Sita was eventually awarded Third Prize in the Ricordi competition for which he had entered it (the work was never performed), Holst had composed Savitri, and with it he completely turned his back on the whole Wagnerian apparatus. The opera is in one act with no overture; no curtain is required; there are only three characters; the plot is of the utmost simplicity; and the orchestra consists of no more than twelve musicians.
This revolution in Holst’s approach to opera can partly be explained by the subject. In Sita he had turned to the great Hindu epic, the Ramayana, and had tried to enter into its world of spirits and demons, gods and mortals—a world not far removed from Wagner’s ‘Ring’. In choosing Savitri, an episode from another great classic of Sanskrit literature, the Mahabharata, Holst found a subject that was still epic in its scope—the triumph of love over death—but whose setting was simple and homely. He responded with music of equal simplicity. Although in the final scene of Sita Holst had already begun to find his own voice and had shown that he was capable of expressing emotion with a telling economy of means, this new directness of Savitri is a remarkable achievement.
The opening of the work is like no other opera. The voice of Death is heard in the distance, summoning Satyavan, the husband of Savitri. Savitri herself joins Death in counterpoint (not dialogue), and their voices remain unaccompanied for fully three minutes.
When Satyavan sings of maya—illusion—his voice is set against the remote sound of a wordless female chorus. Their voices symbolize the divine world interacting with the mortal; they are heard again when Death reappears to claim Satyavan. They join too with Savitri as she rejoices in her victory over Death, who has yielded to Savitri’s plea that her life cannot be complete without Satyavan. And the opera ends as it began, with the voices of Death and Savitri, the one returning to his kingdom, the other—the ‘glorious woman’ as Death calls her—singing in quiet ecstasy of her love for her husband.
from notes by Colin Matthews © 2000