Dance of the Spirits of Fire

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Gustav Holst

Gustav Holst (trans. Dale Harpham)

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Subtitle: From the Ballet The Perfect Fool

General Info

Year: 1918 / 1923 / 1971
Duration: c. 3:15
Difficulty: (see Ratings for explanation)
Original Medium: Orchestra
Publisher: Belwin
Cost: Score and Parts – Out of print.

For availability information, see Discussion tab, above.


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None discovered thus far.

Program Notes

The Perfect Fool is an opera in one act with music and libretto by the English composer Gustav Holst. Holst composed the work over the period of 1918 to 1922. The opera received its premiere at the Covent Garden Theatre, London on 14 May 1923.

In the score, Holst pokes fun at the works of Verdi, Wagner's Parsifal and Debussy. In the opera, the part of the Fool consists of only one word. One interpretation of the possible symbolism of the opera, from Donald Tovey, is that the Princess symbolises the world of opera and the Fool represents the British public.

The opera was not a success, as audiences had found the story confusing.

- Program Note from Wikipedia

Gustav Holst wrote his comic opera The Perfect Fool between 1918 and 1922, immediately after composing The Planets, during the period that the suite was experiencing its long and protracted birth. He had conceived the idea for the opera as early as 1908, but did not create a libretto until a decade later, while he was serving as the music supervisor for demobilized troops in the Middle East during World War I. The music of the opera is consistent with some of the composer’s finest efforts, but the libretto—clumsy, incoherent, and not nearly as funny to general audiences as it was to the composer—proved to be an impediment to the work’s acceptance. Holst had intended to lampoon many of the traditions and conventions of Germanic and Italian opera, but most of his references and allusions were too obscure to be understood by a general audience. The critics were hardly more impressed, and the opera quickly closed. The only music to survive is the twelve-minute ballet sequence that begins the opera, The Dance of the Spirits.

The curtain opens upon a wizard who is busily concocting a potion in his workshop, a brew that requires the Spirits of Earth, Water, and Fire. The very first notes of the score, played by Holst’s beloved trombones, represent the wizard’s impassioned invocation of the Spirits of Earth, who respond immediately with a good-natured jig that is appropriately coarse and infectious. To summon the more timid Spirits of Water, who will provide the essence of love, the wizard offers a gentler, more alluring invocation, musically represented by the alto saxophone. This enchanting dance reveals Holst’s fascination with the cultures of the Far East as well as his affinity for Impressionist techniques. The second dance concludes with a somnolent statement of the invocation theme in the bassoon, which proves to be insufficient to rouse the Spirits of Fire. The horns are only too happy to provide the missing potency, however, eliciting a gurgling reply from the bass instruments like an eruption of molten lava. As the music of this dance sizzles, swells, and erupts, it is easy to envision the leaping flames and brilliant explosions that are evident in the workshop of any accomplished wizard.

After the ballet sequence concludes, the audience learns that the potion is an elixir of love, which the wizard intends to take in order to win over the kingdom’s princess. This plan is dashed by the eponymous fool, or more specifically, the fool’s mother, who absconds with the potion and administers it to her son. In addition to the wizard and the fool, the hand of the princess is sought by two other suitors, and much of the opera focuses on the amorous advances of these four characters. In spite of the wizard’s best efforts to overcome the princess’s devotion to the fool, her love will not be denied. The fool’s destiny to become her husband and king, however, is not nearly as strong as his preordination to be an idiot. Indeed, he is such a “perfect” fool that he obliviously falls asleep just as he is about to be crowned, and it is the sight of him dozing on his throne that brings to a close one of the quirkiest operas in the repertoire.

- Program Note from liner notes for Marine Band CD Flourishes and Meditations


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State Ratings

None discovered thus far.


To submit a performance please join The Wind Repertory Project

  • Texas Christian University (Fort Worth) Wind Symphony (Bobby Francis, conductor) - 17 November 2022
  • University of Arizona (Tucson) Wind Ensemble (Yudai Ueda, conductor) – 26 April 2019

Works for Winds by This Composer

Adaptable Music

All Wind Music


  • Holst, G.; Harpham, D. Dance of the Spirits of Fire, from the Ballet The Perfect Fool, op. 39 [score]. Novello: [New York?]
  • The Perfect Fool, Wikipedia Accessed 5 January 2018