Thursday, 12 July 2012

Holst 8: The Wandering Composer

“A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor” 
(Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native)

The bleak, imaginary landscape of Hardy's great, gloomy novel inspired Gustav Holst to write one of his greatest and most atmospheric pieces - the orchestral tone poem of 1927, Egdon Heath

Holst wrote another quotation from the novel on his score which will give you a strong sense of what his piece is seeking to convey:

"A place perfectly accordant with man's nature—neither ghastly, hateful nor ugly; neither commonplace, unmeaning nor tame; but like man, slighted and enduring; and withal singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony."

Egdon Heath may exhibit much of the restraint of late Holst, but it is full of evocative power. Double basses quietly introduce the first of its themes - a mysterious, gloomy, meandering melody - and the other strings echo and then develop it contrapuntally, slowly, just as quietly, while winds interject  remote-sounding chords made up of thirds meeting in contrary motion. The melody is eventually harmonised bleakly in a way which reminds me a little of the cold, quiet, menacing opening of Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony of 1957. A vast expanse of loneliness is being evoked. Approaching three minutes in and a warmer idea (which sounds a little like a chorale when the brass first take it up) rises through the sections of the orchestra like a figure seen approaching from the distance. It is immediately followed by restless string figuration and an agitated oboe theme. All three themes then combine for a short climax before the music sinks back gloomily onto the first three notes of the opening, meandering theme. The chorale-like brass theme return, now walking closely to us, confidently yet not without a wistful air - as if striding through the desolate heathland lost in its own world of thought. The figure walks on to a classic Holstian bass line. A new string melody flows in around it - a more lyrical phrase - but the section pauses on a dissonance and woodwinds takes up the vision of bleakness against quiet, austere chords whose tonality is ambiguous to say the least. The desolation is all around and the walking figure is but a speck of humanity on the face of it. A strange, disembodied dance passes like the ghost of a folksong, but the mysterious, meandering music of the opening rises again and we are left alone with the furze of Egdon Heath, the figure (the brass chorale) glimpsed receding into the distance. The piece ends very quietly in darkness.

Holst himself held Egdon Heath to be his greatest piece. I would not wish to demote the Hymn of Jesus by agreeing, but this austere, impressionistic rhapsody is a piece of deep beauty and is to be ranked a close second. As my previous post hopefully showed, Gustav Holst (despite his failing health) was still functioning at the top of his game. Egdon Heath is Exhibit A in proving that point.

A further example is A Moorside Suite from 1928, which saw the composer returning to the spirit of the earlier suites for amateurs. This time he was writing for brass band. (The work started out as a competition piece for the BBC and the National Brass Band Festival Committee.) It was the first work to be written for brass band by a significant British composer. The folksy Scherzo begins with a jaunty jig-like tune on cornet and has a tonal simplicity unusual in the later pieces. The beautiful trio section switches to the major and has a fine hymn-like melody which Holst surrounds with fanfares and rich harmonies. The beautiful central Nocturne is full of warmth, a solo cornet announcing its lovely but melancholy melody, with melting horn echoes. The key changes and the pace slows for the glowing hymn-like central passage which proceeds at a slow walking pace over one of the composer's characteristic bass lines. Part of the euphonious feel of this movement comes from its use of 'Romantic' thirds and sixths rather than 'Modern' fourths and fifths. The entertaining final March is typically jaunty, bracing and full of catchy tunes, though there are slower, noble passages too. This is the movement where the percussion make the greatest contribution - from the snare-drum near the start to the crashing cymbals at the end. A Moorside Suite is a delight.

And so is the Double Concerto for two violins and orchestra, another late masterpiece. There are several features in this work that are often associated with Holst's final period - Neo-Classical forms, clarity of texture, an emphasis on counterpoint, a thoroughgoing use of polytonality - but with these 'modern' elements go achingly lovely melodies and others with the sharp tang of English folksong. Everything hangs together convincingly though. It was written for two of the composers friends, the sisters Adila Fachiri and Jelly d'Aranyi (pictured below), for whom Bartok also wrote important pieces. There are three movement (appropriate for a Neo-Classical 'Back to Bach' concerto) - Scherzo, Lament and Variations on a Ground. If you listened to the Terzetto, Holst's first thoroughgoing essay in polytonality, you might recognise the reference to it made during the Scherzo. The movement also features a jolly folktune-style melody that seems to take us back to the world of Jupiter, Bringer of Jollity. The Lament begins a soulful communing between the two soloists before giving us a melancholy folk-like tune. The Variations on a Ground puts Holst's trademark ostinatos to fine use and is full of bold orchestral gestures. 

Alas, I'm unable to link to the 12 Songs of Humbert Wolfe of 1929, and especially to one of my favourite songs, the remarkable Betelgeuse. If you ever get a chance to hear it, please do. The play of triads a semitone apart in that song create a moving, magical effect. [Ah, and hear it you can here!]

Instead, it's time for another Holst opera - a short, sardonic one-acter called The Wandering Scholar, which (as so often) shows how various and unpredictable the composer was at all stages of his career, but at this late one in particular. (The Chaucerian plot can be read here.) It's an entertaining piece and has a Britten-like naturalness to its vocal lines which makes it easy for English language-speaking listeners to follow the story. Many of the melodies have the character of folksong, which Holst could write in at the drop of a hat. Unsurprisingly (but unusually) the opera was a success with the public at the time but, like so many Holst scores, soon fell into unjust obscurity. 

Another favourite of mine from these years is the tone poem Hammersmith from 1930, originally written for military band. The piece comes in two sections, Prelude and Scherzo. The haunting and gravely beautiful Prelude depicts the River Thames flowing through that part of London. Given how dirty the river was in those days, the dour, murky sound of the opening of Holst's depiction seems remarkably appropriate! (How unlike Richard Strauss's Danube or Wagner's Rhine!) This wonderful grey, grim sonority is achieved by the slow ground-like bass line set up by the tuba and euphonium. The initial austerity of the part-writing soon begin to glow with dark warmth. The whole section gives the impressions of inexorable movement. The Scherzo depicts the people of Hammersmith. Reviving (to very different effect) the strategy used in the finale of Beni Mora, Holst superimposes various musical lines to depict the busy crowds, the traders (etc) as they mill about on the streets cheerfully. The river theme provides one of those lines. After reaching a final wild climax, the crowds begin to disperse and, in time, the music of the Prelude returns, as if everyone has gone home to sleep, and the piece ends as peacefully as it began with the quiet, slow flowing of  the Thames. 

Another major work from this date is the ambitious A Choral Fantasia, a work scored for solo soprano, chorus, brass, strings, percussion and organ (i.e. no woodwinds). The piece sets the Ode to Music by the poet laureate Robert Bridges (the composer's friend whose verse was also set in the First Choral Symphony). Brace yourselves for the opening - a tremendous burst of dissonant organ sound.  The organ is the lead player in the piece. The soprano sings enters and sings "Man born of desire, cometh out of the night" with quiet organ accompaniment. Fanfares sound and drums thunder out, leaving in their wake a dour march rhythm. A very quiet fugato follows on organ, full of chromatic daring. It crescendos slowly until brass and drums blast into the climax, pounding out a 5/4 rhythm that is, if anything, even fiercer than that in Mars. After a quiet aftermath, the chorus make their quiet, consoling entry in 7/4 singing "Rejoice, ye dead where ere your spirits dwell" to a warm accompaniment. This passage is more akin to a trio section in a massive scherzo that to a development section in a symphonic movement. The opening organ music returns after this, beginning what is in effect a recapitulation. All the familiar landmarks leading up to that 'trio section' are revisited, albeit with many a tweak of colour, texture and harmony along the way. After a rather beautiful passage for the strings, the solo soprano finally returns and, as so often with Holst's death-possessed pieces, the work ends in a spirit of resignation.

Even as late at 1930, Holst was still arranging folksongs. One of his Welsh folksong arrangements, My Sweetheart's Like Venus, shows how beautifully he could do it. 

One area of music that has been conspicuous by its rarity in Holst's output, though, is solo piano music. He did write some pieces though, including the late Nocturne and Jig. The characteristic tang of the Nocturne arises from its use of open fifths in the left-hand melody set against perfect fourths in the right-hand accompaniment. There is something of a rain-soaked Debussy Image about this piece. The Jig is contrapuntal, with a folk-flavoured melody shining through its chromatic/bitonal figuration. I wouldn't place them among his fine achievements, but they are worth a few airings at recitals.

Being ever-open-to-new-things, Holst wrote a film score (The Bells) in 1931. What that sounds like I cannot say. He also wrote a piece for an American jazz-band Piece (Mr. Shilkret's Maggot. Imogen Holst (below) took hold of it, revised it and released it as his Capriccio. It is a truly delightful piece, with an extremely catchy march tune at its heart, introduced by three trumpets. It doesn't sound jazzy, however, any more than his Japanese Suite sounds Japanese. The piece opens with a lovely viola solo playing a slow variant of this chirpy theme and making it into something dreamy and folksong-like. 

We're nearing the end of my series on Gustav Holst and have arrived at his final suite for amateur forces, the Brook Green Suite of 1933 - a piece that takes us back to the days of the St. Paul's Suite and was indeed written for the school's junior orchestra. It's not quite as good as the St. Paul's Suite, but it is a likeable work nonetheless.The Prelude takes Holst's trademark falling bass-lines one step forwards, using one that consists of a falling major-key scales. Over it he sets a charming tune of Classical shapeliness. The central Air has two fine tunes, the first sounding rather Renaissance-y, the other more folksy. I would say that Warlock's Capriol Suite is not too in spirit from the Brook Green Suite here. The closing Dance is, as all the closing movements of the amateur suites have been, fast, tuneful and fun.

Imogen reckoned that the Lyric Movement for viola and chamber orchestra, one of his last works, was one of her father's best pieces. I'm inclined to agree with her. The movement is, indeed, lyrical and though there is a touch of Hindemith-like angularity to its melodies and the work certainly has a measure of austerity about it, the warmth and depth of Holst's invention comes through strongly; indeed, it feels like a deeply personal piece. The expressive use of dissonance in this piece is particularly telling. 

And finally...

Holst was composing a symphony in the year leading up to his death in 1934. Only one movement from it survives, a Scherzo. This is an extraordinary piece. Its main section seems to be living on its nerves part of the time and erupting into anger the next - in other words, part-Mercury, part-Mars. The harmonic language, as with the Lyric Movement, is certainly that of a composer who has moved some way beyond The Planets - at least in parts of the piece. The middle section brings in more lyrical material, over characteristic oscillating chords - albeit chords that change colour as frequently as a hyperactive chameleon. 

And that brings to a close my fairly exhaustive but (for me) not remotely exhausting survey of the music of Gustav Holst. I hope you've discovered some great music along the way and that much of it will stay with you. I certainly have enjoyed meeting some wonderful pieces I didn't know, along with catching up with a lot of old friends. 

And birth they do not use
nor death on Betelgeuse,
and the God, of whom we are
infinite dust, is there
a single leaf of those
  gold leaves on Betelgeuse

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