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Savitri, H96 Op 25

an episode from the Mahabharata
author of text

Although Savitri is rightly considered to be Holst’s first successful opera, its success was only achieved after at least six earlier attempts at the medium: opera clearly obsessed Holst in his early years. He spent much of his time as a student reading and listening to the music of Wagner. In Imogen Holst’s words, ‘He ate and drank Wagner and took in huge draughts of Wagner with every gasp of air he breathed’.

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


Part 01: Savitri! Savitri! I am death
Track 1 on CDH55042 [4'21] Archive Service
Part 02: Greeting to thee, my loving Savitri!
Track 2 on CDH55042 [1'58] Archive Service
Part 03: The forest is to me a mirror wherein I see another world
Track 3 on CDH55042 [1'30] Archive Service
Part 04: Love to the lover
Track 4 on CDH55042 [0'43] Archive Service
Part 05: Once I knew maya
Track 5 on CDH55042 [1'43] Archive Service
Part 06: Savitri, Savitri! Mine arm is pow'rless
Track 6 on CDH55042 [1'13] Archive Service
Part 07: I am with thee; my arms are around thee
Track 7 on CDH55042 [1'50] Archive Service
Part 08: Savitri! Aah! All fades! Death is at my heart!
Track 8 on CDH55042 [0'56] Archive Service
Part 09: Welcome, Lord! Thou art called the Just One
Track 9 on CDH55042 [1'14] Archive Service
Part 10: Thine is the holiness
Track 10 on CDH55042 [1'50] Archive Service
Part 11: Then enter, Lord; dwell with me!
Track 11 on CDH55042 [1'22] Archive Service
Part 12: Stay! Grant me this boon!
Track 12 on CDH55042 [3'58] Archive Service
Part 13: Ah! Death, the Just One
Track 13 on CDH55042 [2'49] Archive Service
Part 14: Loneliness and pain are ended
Track 14 on CDH55042 [0'48] Archive Service
Part 15: Savitri! Is it thou?
Track 15 on CDH55042 [3'04] Archive Service
Part 16: Unto his kingdom Death wendeth alone
Track 16 on CDH55042 [0'52] Archive Service
Part 17: I am with thee, my arms around thee
Track 17 on CDH55042 [1'12] Archive Service

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