Sunday, 8 July 2012

Holst 2: Back on Earth

The year 1906 saw the publication of the English Hymnal, that collection of the best English language hymns edited by Vaughan Williams and Percy Dearmer. Gustav Holst was involved too, organising and contributing some new tunes of his own. His best-known hymn, setting the words of Christina Rossetti, is the Christmas carol In the Bleak Mid-winter. Holst's take on the lady's poem has always been the one that the public took to heart, though some choirs prefer the lovely setting by Harold Darke. I'll let you decide for yourselves.

This collecting process was part of a major undertaking by RVW to rescue as many English folksongs and carols as he could, before they went extinct. Many of those tunes ended up in both composers' works and inspiring them to compose new tunes in the same vein. Holst's art began changing direction as a result.

Of course, other currents flowed in the composer's rarely-predictable development and the impact of folksong didn't stop them at their source. I know that the British folk-song 'school' of composers - the pastoralists - aren't everyone's cup of tea (especially beyond our shores) but Holst is not a typical member of that 'school', or really or any school at all; indeed, the bulk of his output is folksong-free. So please don't give up on Gustav here!

Before I get to these folk-based pieces, the composer continued writing his final works in the old Romantic style at this very time, including the attractive Songs from "The Princess" (including a rather striking The Splendour Fallsand the lovely A Song of the Night for violin and orchestra from 1905. The latter begins with a dreamy cadenza before the orchestra steal in rather beautifully and the sweet main melody is fully stated. Those with a taste for lush post-Bruch lyrical slow movements will enjoy this piece. It will also proof a useful point of comparison with the Somerset Rhapsody from just one year later, when the effect of folksong on Holst's music began to show through in his orchestral works. 

The Somerset Rhapsody takes four English folk songs -  The Cuckoo , Sheep Shearing Song, The True Lover's Farewell and High Germany - and whirls them into what might be thought a contradiction in terms - a tightly-organised rhapsody. The opening, where a solo oboe (the composer particularly wanted an oboe d'amore here) dreams in improvisatory fashion on the Sheep Shearing Song over a shimmer of second violins, is a classic of the misty landscape style of writing also found in pieces such as Vaughan Williams's contemporary Norfolk Rhapsody No.1, which seems to have been the Somerset Rhapsody's model. I suspect that both composers found their inspiration for such passages in that small-but-amazing-influential masterpiece of Russian music, Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia. High Germany provides the necessary contrast of a bustling military march. (If it sounds familiar you might be remembering the finale of RVW's English Folk Song Suite, Folk Songs from Somerset). The rising trumpet figures heard before we first meet High Germany are a first taste of The Planets and the counterpointing of the tunes is another sign of things to come. There are lingering elements of the composer's Romantic roots, though little that could be justifiably called 'Wagnerian'. 

(As I wrote in my last post, the Wagnerism imputed to early Holst, particularly by his fiercely protective and fiercely opinionated daughter Imogen, must be there surely. It is probably found in the works on a grand scale, such as the operas Sita and The Youth's Choice, or in Ornulf's Drapa. As I've never heard a note of any of them I really cannot say.)

As well as  complex works like the Somerset Rhapsody, Holst was often content to simple arrange folk tunes in a way amateur performers could handle. I've always had a soft spot for his Seven Scottish Airs, a piece school orchestras can make a fine stab at. Holst had started working as a schoolmaster in 1904 and became Head of Music at St. Paul's School in Hammersmith the following year, soon also beginning to teach adults at Morley College, London. Both jobs continued throughout his life and are important in the birth of a lot of his pieces. The tune of the final Scottish Air will be familiar to all of you! You might also like to try some of his settings of old English carols, such as Jesu, Thou the Virgin BornA Babe Is BornNow Let Us Sing The Saviour of the World Is Born, or his 1910 choral fantasy Christmas Day (where you will hear Good Christian Men Rejoice, God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, Come Ye Lofty, Come Ye Lowly & The First Nowell).

While composing such pieces based on the tunes of others (including many settings with piano accompaniment), Holst was also writing his own tunes in folk style and feeding them into his compositions. The earliest example of this comes with his excellent Two Songs Without Words, Op.22. The first, Country Song, has something of the same character as A Somerset Rhapsody (plus some fine original tunes) while the second, Marching Song, sounds like the 'true' Holst - a jaunty, irreverent-sounding march of the kind that was soon to find itself a place in the composer's many delightful suites for amateurs (with a warm trio tune). 

Talking about Holst's delightful suites for amateurs...

The years leading up to The Planets saw the composition of three of them - the two suites for military band and the St. Paul's Suite. As these are among my favourite pieces of classical music, I'll take them in turn here.

The First Suite in E flat was, astonishingly, the composer's first piece for military band and yet it is one of the finest pieces ever written in that form (along with its companion), bringing out all the potential colours of a wind band.  Following a score of it brings out the sheer brilliance of Holst's writing - and all of it within reach of non-professional performers. There are three movements. The first is a Chaconne - a harbinger of the neo-Classical side of late Holst). The chaconne's ground is an 8-bar theme...

...over which Holst unfolds a series of ingenious and satisfying variations. The changing colours, the contrasts in mood, the dramatic pacing and the overall tunefulness place this movement high on my 'Delightful Movements' list. As the title suggests, the following Intermezzo is a lighter piece, with a perky folkish main theme and a beautiful second theme (the folksong I'll Love My Loveof considerable warmth, introduced by the clarinet. The closing march (which I do like taken at a brisk pace), following the pattern set by the Marching Song from the Two Songs Without Words, also has two wonderful tunes - the first one of music's great toe-tappers (jaunty, strongly coloured by percussion), the second broader and more lyrical. It is a very gratifying moment when both tunes are combined. This movement joins the Chaconne on my list!

The Second Suite in F is in no way inferior to its predecessor, though it is far more of a folksong-based suite; indeed, the tunes of three out of its four movements are genuine English folksongs. It places its jaunty March first, though it follows much the same pattern as its equivalent movement, structurally-speaking and has three tunes. Prepare to have either your toes or fingers tapping at some stage during this movement. The second-placed Song Without Words uses one of the most beautiful of all folk tunes, I'll Love My Love, as its theme and truly does it justice. An abrupt switch of mood and it's the Song of the Blacksmith - a spirited scherzo-like piece that uses an anvil...for reasons I won't insult your intelligence by explaining! It's in movements like this (and the Chaconne from the First Suite) where the voice of late  Holst is heard, almost fully-formed - as can be said of the remarkable Fantasia on the Dargason which concludes the suite - a dancing, contrapuntally-driven movement setting two 16th century tunes - one a dance tune (the 'Dargason') and the other 'Greensleeves'. 

I have to say that I once laboured under the impression that nearly everything Holst wrote ended with 'Greensleeves'. That's because this suite is broadcast regularly on the radio - as is the St. Paul's Suite. The St. Paul's Suite ends with an arrangement of this very movement for string orchestra. So, I was hearing two pieces that end with the same music. There are no others! What of the St. Paul's Suite itself, composed in 1913 for the children of Holst's school? It's another masterpiece. The other movements are new, beginning with a dizzying Jig, whose catchy tune is set to a tempo which constantly switches between 6/8 and 9/8. This is followed by a movement entitled Ostinato, where Holst's scoring gives his music a Classical delicacy. The movement is well-named as a figure introduced at the very start whirls its way through the music. The other movement, the Intermezzo, has a soulful main theme, introduced by a solo violin over a pizzicato accompaniment. The melody has a vaguely North African feel, summoning us the spirit Holst had so successfully conjured in Beni Mora - about which more in the next post. 

As we approach The Planets, chronologically, the next post will run back over the same period as this one and cover the strand in Holst's development that my survey so far hasn't touched, but which was as vital as folksong in making Gustav Holst the original composer he was, maybe even more so - his Eastern-influenced, mystically-inclined works. 

Before doing so though, just one more non-Eastern, pre-Planets work - the yearning Invocation for cello and orchestra, a work where something of the old Romantic style still lingers, mingled with fleeting suggestions of Eastern promise and glimpses of Richard Strauss. It has its beautiful passages, plus there are faint foretastes of Venus from The Planets

(The paintings in this post have all been by Gustav's great-uncle Theodor von Holst (1810-44). Gustav's middle name was Theodor).

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