Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Holst 7: After the Fall

After his brief period of popularity following the triumph of The Planets, Holst suffered an emotional blow following the failure of his opera The Perfect Fool. Its unsuccessful première, however, followed something even more serious - a physical blow from which he would never fully recover. A month earlier, in February 1923, he collapsed on a platform while conducting at University College, Reading, hurting the back of his head and suffering what seemed at the time to be only slight concussion. The consequences of his fall, however, were worse than first thought. He retired from teaching as a result. 

There has been considerable speculation about how much the change in Holst's manner immediately following the accident, towards austerity, bleakness, what some see as dryness and others as sterility, was a direct result of his sudden decline in health. Not being a medical expert, I cannot say! There are certainly works from across the maturity of Holst's output where austerity (Savitri) and bleakness (Saturn) can be found prior to 1923. Except for certainly early works, he was never one for Romantic gushing. The late works can - and probably should - be seen as yet another natural progression in his development as a composer, the full release of a natural tendency towards emotional coolness and counterpoint that had always been there within him.  

That the Neo-Classical, contrapuntal bent in Holst's late music didn't come out of nowhere will be obvious to any of you who have listened to the military band suites or to the St. Paul's Suite, or have acquainted yourselves with some of the composer's choral music. As a useful symbol of this, there are two works paired as Op.40 that sit either side of February 1923 - the Fugal Overture of 1922 and the Fugal Concerto of 1923. The Fugal Overture will surely appeal to anybody who loves the suites, as it has the same tuneful robustness and joviality - plus it has sleighbells! There are driving rhythms, contrasts of mood and texture, a catchy tune and some lightly-worn counterpoint. What's not to enjoy? What then of the Fugal Concerto? Well, it's hardly a world away from the Overture, but the scoring, structure and general character of the piece is undoubtably much more Classical-sounding. So, yes, we can count it has being something new, something Neo-Classical. Now, this change could have been the the result of the ever-open ears of Gustav Holst picking up on the Neo-Classical trend emanating from  continental Europe. That is a distinct possibility. (He had admired Stravinsky for some time and accounts quote him praising Stravinsky's anti-'sentiment' stance.) The piece, written for flute, oboe and string orchestra, could hardly be less austere, bleak or dry though. It is adorable. The first movement is full of tuneful energy, while the middle movement is a beautiful, wistful canon between the soloists and a solo viola and the finale is one of Holst's dances, with a genuine English folk song for good measure which the composer's weaves contrapuntally into his main fugue theme. The Fugal Concerto is a great favourite of mine. I hope you'll like it too. I think many more of these late works are just as wonderful. Please see what you think of them.

Having retired from his teaching duties to concentrate on composition, Holst's pace picked up somewhat - despite his health problems. His followed the Fugal Concerto will another opera and a choral symphony. The First Choral Symphony, setting poems by Keats (he never got beyond sketches for a Second Choral Symphony) was even less of a public success than The Perfect Fool and the composer's popularity never recovered from it. Even his friend RVW wasn't keen on it. What was the problem? Well, there is  a coolness to some of the music (mostly appropriately in the second movement, which sets the Ode to a Grecian Urn - "Cold pastoral!"), and it does have passages where the Stravinskyan tastes of Holst show through - and no longer just the public-pleasing Stravinsky of Petrushka or the public-wowing Stravinsky of the Rite of Spring. Some signs of Les noces, for example, can be heard. British audiences of the time would have warmed to neither of these qualities (especially the 'modern' aspects). Nor were they wild about symphonies that end quietly rather than triumphantly. That said, I must admit to being with RVW on this one. I too feel "cold admiration" for the piece - for the most part. The opening of the Prelude to the first movement ('Invocation to Pan') with its quiet, murky (fugal) string writing and hushed, monotone chanting is certainly not crowd-pleasing. It is, however, astonishingly original - and much surely rank as the most 'modern'/daring music yet written in Britain. (It reminds me, oddly, of the opening of Shostakovich's experimental Second Symphony of three years later). When the voices begin to sing, we arrive back on more familiar territory. The first movement proper, Song and Bacchanal, is introduced by a viola solo which plays an obbligato role throughout the solo soprano Song - a beautiful section that reminds me a little of Savitri. The rhythm changes to 7/4 time and the colours of the orchestral brighten considerably for the Bacchanal and the fourths-based melodies and harmonies give the music a Stravinskyan tang. The second movement, that responsive setting of the Ode to a Grecian Urn, makes the fifth its interval of choice - you will hear them often as open fifths. The scherzo (the 'Fancy' chorus) is my favourite movement. It has something of Mercury about it, but with added bitonal bite, and requires some fleet-footed, sure-footed singing!  Its trio ('Folly's Song') brings the spirit of robust folksong into the symphony. Overall, it strikingly anticipates Benjamin Britten. (I bet Imogen liked it!) The closing section will give Stravinsky enthusiasts a few 'aha!' moments. As for the finale, it makes some striking use of piled-up fourths and have several attractive passages but is, I would say - like the symphony as a whole - uneven. 

As for Holst's 1924 Falstaff opera At the Boar's Head, I am (alas) unable to comment. It is said to be a light piece absolutely crammed with folksongs - which sounds fun! A world away from that is the motet for mezzo, tenor and unaccompanied mixed choir The Evening-Watch: Dialogue between Body and Soul, a setting of the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan. The soloists sing the words of the 'Body' while the chorus sings those of the 'Soul'. This is a beautiful piece, cool and rather remote. The harmonies have an unusual and interesting flavour, many being built on piled-up fourths which sometimes move in parallel. Holst wanted the music to remain as quiet and possible until the closing bars, when the chorus swells to a glowing climax to illustrate the words, "Yet, this take with thee; the last gasp of time is thy first breath, and man's eternal prime". 

That Holst was pursuing ever more radical paths can be heard in his two-movement Terzetto for flute, oboe and violin (or clarinet) of 1925. The piece is a study in polytonality (the simultaneous use of several keys) - with the flute playing in A major, the oboe in A flat major and the viola (clarinet) in C major. As you will hopefully now be well aware, bitonality (the simultaneous use of two keys) had been a much-used part of Holst's armoury for many years. This only took the step one stage on - and Holst was to use polytonality again. The result in fine performances doesn't remotely sound like an experiment; indeed, it sounds perfectly natural and beguiling. If anything, Holst sounds as breezy as a Milhaud in this piece.

Few listeners will deny the beauty, the warmth and the sheer quality of the Seven Part-songs, Op.44 (all settings of Robert Bridges) for solo soprano, 3-part women's chorus and string orchestra. This is one of my favourite Holst works - and one that deserves to be much better known. If you try no other pieces in this post, please try this one. A viola drone accompanies the attractive melody at the start of the first song, "Say who is this?", an introspective number that ends with the entry of the solo soprano. The soprano engages in dialogue-like exchanges with the chorus in the second song, "O Love, I complain", a particularly beautiful song with some especially warm harmonies. The tonal radiance of this number at its climax is something very special. The third song, "Angel spirits of sleep", begins in deep peacefulness, though "the spirits of sleep" are soon dancing to a folksong-like phrase before the song seems to nod off (simply stopping). "When we first met", the fourth song, takes the form of a canon, initially between solo singers and solo violins. This is, like the second song, something very special. Falling and rising scale fragments act like ostinatos in the accompaniment to "Sorrow and joy", the fifth song. "Love on my heart from Heaven fell" has a perfectly sculpted lyrical melody for the soprano to begin with, accompanied by the strings who then fall silent for the central choral episode before returning to accompany the melody again, this time sung by sopranos in unison. The final song, "Assemble all ye maidens", is the longest and most complex of the set by some way, being particularly harmonically intriguing, with modal writing over drones (including open fifth drones) and chromatic ostinato patterns. 

As ever, Holst is the soul of unpredictability: Neo-classical concertos, ambitious choral symphonies, serious-minded motets, experimental chamber pieces and lyrical part-songs...and then the endearing choral ballet The Golden Goose of 1926. This cheerful charmer, written for amateurs, has folksy tunes, clean textures and bags of orchestral colour. The plot is a Grimm fairy tale about the princess who never laughed. Of course, she's laughing by the end and everyone lives happily ever after. I feel happy after hearing it. A second choral ballet followed, The Morning of the Year (apparently the first work to be commissioned by the BBC.) It is a more serious piece than the delightful The Golden Goose (representing "the mating ordained by Nature to happen in the spring of each year") and contains passages of great beauty - such as its opening (whose horn fanfare has more than a little of The Hymn of Jesus about it) - and others that generate mystery or excitement. There's polytonality and rich counterpoint too, as befits this period of Holst's development but - as so often if these late pieces - that nothing to fear, any more than the bitonality of Mercury and Neptune or the counterpoint of the Chaconne from the First Suite for Military Band are things to fear. You will also hear dances in 5/4 and 7/4 time. The Morning of the Year is a treat from start to finish, with plenty of tunes to enjoy along the way. 

What followed next was another of Holst's greatest works...but that will do for the next post.

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