Chamber opera in 1 act
Composer & librettist: Gustav Holst
First performed: Wellington Hall, London, 5 December 1916 (amateur performance)
First professional performance: Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London, 23 June 1921, conducted by Arthur Bliss
- SĀVITRI (soprano): Dorothy Silk
- SATYAVĀN, her husband (tenor): Steuart Wilson
- DEATH (bass): Clive Carey
Sāvitri is the story of the loyal wife who tricks death to save her husband’s life. 
The story is based on an episode from the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit equivalent of the Iliad.
 See also Euripides’ Alcestis (the model for Gluck’s opera), and – with an unhappier ending – Orpheus and Eurydice.
Every year, at the festival of Savitri Brata (Vat Purnima in the west), Indian wives fast to pray for long life and health for their husbands.
I first came across the legend in Madhur Jaffrey’s Seasons of Splendour, Indian folktales and myths retold for children.
Yama (Death) comes to claim the soul of the woodman Satyāvan. Sāvitri charms Death into granting any boon – except sparing her husband.
“Give me life,” Sāvitri answers. “Life is all I ask of thee. ‘Tis a song I fain would be singing. Thy song, O Death, is a murmur of rest, Mine should be of the joy of striving. Where disease hath spread her mantle, Where defeat and despair are reigning, There shall my song , like a trumpet in battle resound and triumph.
“Life is a path I would travel Wherein flowers should spring up around me, Stalwart sons whom I would send where fighting is fiercest. Bright-eyed daughters following my path, Carrying life on thro’ the ages.”
Death grants her this boon.
“He giveth me life,” Sāvitri rejoices, “The life of woman, of wife, of mother, So hath he granted that which alone fulfils his word. If Satyāvan die, my voice is mute, my feet may never travel the path. Then I were but a dream, an image, floating on the waters of memory. Satyāvan only can teach me the song, can open the gate to my path of flowers – The path of a woman’s life.”
Satyāvan is restored to life. “Without thee,” Sāvitri tells him, “I am as the dead, A word without meaning, Fire without warmth, a starless night. Thou makest me real. Thou givest me life.”
Indian religion and literature fascinated Gustav Holst. Finding Victorian translations inadequate, he studied Sanskrit at University College, London, from 1909, and translated portions of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the poems of Kālidāsa.
Many of these became the basis for music: the three-act opera Sita (1899-1906); the symphonic poem Indra (1903); hymns from the Rig Veda, the Hindu scriptures (1908-14); and Two Eastern Pictures (1909-10) and The Cloud Messenger (1914).
The score is Wagnerian, a through-composed myth drama in miniature, with text and music by the same hand.
Sita, Holst’s earlier Indian opera, was derivative Wagnerism, imitating the orchestral bombast of the Ring.
Sāvitri is the Wagner of Parsifal: austere yet beautiful. It is a chamber opera: only half-an-hour long; calls for three singers, a female chorus, and an orchestra of twelve; and has no orchestral accompaniment until page three of the score.
The finest passages include Sāvitri’s premonition of Death coming for her husband; Satyāvan’s description of the world as Māyā; and Sāvitri’s greeting to Death.
The opera works on two levels, as a simple story of wifely devotion and cleverness, and a mystical tale of a woman unfettered by Māyā (illusion).
“Unto his kingdom Death wendeth alone. One hath conquered him, One knowing life, One free from Māyā. Māyā who reigns where men dream they are living, Whose pow’r extends to that other world where men dream that they are dead. For even death is Māyā.”