Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Holst 6: Before the Fall

Walt Whitman always meant a lot to Gustav Holst. From the early overture (1899) that bears the poet's name, through The Mystic Trumpeter (1904, a work I've never heard) and A Dirge for Two Veterans 1914), settings of his verses had punctuated the composer's output and as the First World War ended it was to Whitman that Holst turned again for his Ode to Death, setting his Lovely and Soothing Death from Leaves of Grass. Holst "was much possessed by death" (to paraphrase T.S. Eliot), dwelling on it in several of his finest works - including Savitri, A Dirge for Two Veterans and Saturn - and the Ode to Death is another of these fine works. The opening of the piece ("Come lovely and soothing Death") has something of the ethereal strangeness of Neptune as quiet wind chords (flecked by the harp) fall over a barely audible drone and female voices sing "Come". I can't say I find the icy serenity of the music "soothing" (it gives me butterflies in the stomach) but it is certainly very beautiful and mystical. The whole first paragraph of the piece is Holst operating at the peak of his powers. Suddenly the spell is shattered and a loud cry of praise to "the fathomless universe" is heard. The short "For life and joy" section doesn't strike me as being on the same elevated level but the following section, beginning "Dark Mother, always gliding near, with soft feet", puts the Ode back on track with its five-note ground bass and its 5/4 march tread. The poetry talks of chanting, and there is a hint of plainchant in some of the chorus's phrases here. The opening music returns midway through the Ode and its consoling final female chorus, and also at the end ("I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee, O Death!"), where the winds and harp are joined by Holst's beloved celesta. 

Whitman's poem was a memorial to the assassinated Lincoln, Holst's Ode was composed in memory of "Cecil Coles and the others." Coles, a friend of Holst's, was a fine Scottish composer killed by sniper fire on the battlefields of France. His Behind the Lines contains a haunting Cortège. Among Coles's other works are Fra Giacomo, a passionate and powerful post-Wagnerian scena for baritone and orchestra which you really ought to give a listen to, the skilful A Comedy of Errors overture (the opening figure of which any Wagnerians out there will surely recognise the provenance of!) and the Four Verlaine Songs for soprano and orchestra (full of Wagnerian sweep). Coles was just thirty when he died on the Somme.

The next three years involved a lot of work on opera and ballet. The short ballet The Lure will lighten your mood after the Ode to DeathThe scenario of the ballet is about a (female) moth and a (male) candle who is in love with her but (killer of other moths that he is) ends up by getting snuffed by a greater power. Ho-hum! Appropriate to this flimsy story, the music is in the lighter vein we found in the first movement of Beni Mora and throughout the Japanese Suite. It is a wholly delightful score, lasting a mere ten minutes, full of ear-grabbing tunes and colourful orchestration. The motor rhythms of the opening and the 'exotic' dance they launch are exciting and the touches of Stravinsky's Petrushka that follow are irresistible. There's also an entertaining folksong-based section (just over four minutes) that might well remind you of the jovial parts of The Planets

The more famous ballet of this period is that from his opera The Perfect Fool. The opera soon sank without trace but the ballet (which Holst wrote first) became one of Holst's more performed (and recorded) pieces. The ballet is another piece for those listeners seeking something rather like The Planets. It opens with the music associated in the opera with the Wizard, music that bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Uranus the Magician. The fanfare on trombones (and tuba) is also the one which opens the opera. This leads straight into the Dance of the Spirits of Earth, which contains plenty of Jupiter-like writing. Its 7/8 time signature explains the movement's somewhat lopsided character. This section rises up from the lower regions of the orchestra, with the bassoons and a wooden stick setting the underlying rhythm going and the cellos and double basses beginning the tune, and grows in energy before switching into 3/8 time (you'll spot that moment as the timpani very firmly establish the new rhythm) for an exciting exciting.  A solo viola summons the Dance of the Spirits of the Water - a dance strongly recalling the delicate sounds of Venus. The viola is answered by wind chords of cool beauty and by an ostinato from the celesta, which accompanies the tasters for the melody to come on solo horn. The Dance itself uses high woodwinds (including piccolo) accompanied by harp and celesta to present the tune. It is a lovely section, with a tune that might have come from the Japanese Suite. The Dance of the Spirits of Fire - vivid Uranus-like music (complete with xylophone) - is the third and final dance and makes for a suitably fiery climax. 

What of the opera itself? Well, the title The Perfect Fool rather gives the game away if you know your Wagner - it's meant as a parody of Wagner's Parsifal. The opera sends up Wagner, most obviously in the scene with the Traveller (alluding to Wotan as the Wanderer in the Ring), as well as Verdi in the scene with the Troubadour (4.10 into the link, obviously alluding to Il Trovatore). Listening to it reminds me that Holst loved Sullivan - of Gilbert and Sullivan fame - as a young man. His opera is very much in that line. (You can hear the whole opera, bit by bit, by following these links in order: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). 

Maggie Teyte, Holst's 'Princess'

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