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date: 16 December 2019

At the Boar’s Headlocked

  • Michael Kennedy


Musical interlude in one act by Gustav Holst to a libretto based on the tavern scenes from William Shakespeare ’s King Henry IV Parts I and II (with two of Shakespeare’s sonnets and some traditional songs); Manchester, Opera House, 3 April 1925.

Holst composed At the Boar’s Head in 1924 at Thaxted, Essex, while convalescing from the effects of a fall from the rostrum while conducting. He noticed, after reading Shakespeare’s Henry IV, that the words fitted some of the tunes in Playford’s English Dancing Master (1651). ‘Immediately’, Imogen Holst relates in her biography, ‘he succumbed to the fascinating task of seeing how many other tunes he could find that would “fit” the rest of the words. And then he settled down to enjoy himself’.

Something like 40 traditional tunes, taken mainly from collections by Chappell and Cecil Sharp, were pressed into service. Holst himself supplied only three original tunes. The results might have been thought to sound artificial and contrived, but Holst’s astonishing feat was to compose a score that flows easily and smoothly, one tune succeeding another without any suggestion of being forced into a mould. Yet when the work was new, it was strongly criticized for being a mere exercise in ingenuity and for slowing down the action of Shakespeare’s comedy. It took almost 50 years for the score to be recognized as an exhilarating and brilliant creation. Its many felicities were fully revealed in its first recording (...

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