Saturday, 7 July 2012

Holst: Beyond the Solar System...

I am a great fan of Gustav Holst (1874-1934), one of the most underestimated geniuses of British music. For many listeners he is the guy who wrote The Planets, but there's a large amount of music beyond The Planets. What lies beyond Neptune

This post - and the ones to follow - will attempt to provide an answer. Today's post will look at the early works - the period before he and Vaughan Williams set to work on the English Hymnal and promoting British folksongs.

To begin though, some generalities. 

The first thing to say about Holst's music is that it is one of the hardest to describe. The reason is that it is so various - and deliberately so. Holst always wanted to do something different. He cannot, therefore, be pigeon-holed. Few of his other pieces sound like The Planets. Few of his pieces sound like many of his other pieces. He really is a composer where you pretty much have to take each piece as it comes, and on its own terms.

There are, however, certain Holstian fingerprints. They are far from being present in all his pieces, but they do tend to stand out as being personal qualities. These include:

- memorable tunes
- chains of fourths in melodies
- strong bass lines 
- descending bass lines
- brilliant orchestration
- individual brass writing
- counterpoint

Onto the music. There's a lot of very early music that no one ever performs, so outlining his first steps as a composer is fairly hard. Standard account tell us that he began sounding like Grieg and Sullivan and read Berlioz on orchestration. He learned at the feet of Stanford, and picked up on Purcell and Bach. Then came Wagner. His progress to individuality, this stand account continues, was signalled by his attempts to free himself from the influence of Wagner. 

The earliest pieces I've come across certainly show that Holst began as a conventional late 19th Century Romantic composer - something worth noting given how original and unconventional he would become. From 1894-1896 come Four Part-songs for unaccompanied mixed chorus ('O Lady, Leave That Silken Thread', 'Soft and Gently through My Soul', 'The Autumn is Old' and 'Winter and the Birds'.) Young Gustav wrote a lot of part-songs and kept on writing them throughout his career. These pieces, though unexceptional, are already expertly crafted.

The Winter Idyll of 1897 was composed, like the part-songs, while Holst was still a student. As such it wears its influences on its sleeve, having several Dvorak-like passages. Dvorak is a composer usually not mentioned in standard accounts but who was highly popular in Britain at the time. The influence then may have been direct but, knowing (and loving) the Stanford symphonies well, it could have come through Stanford's influence. Stanford's symphonies contain some strikingly Dvorak-like passages. Except for the use of bold tunes as themes and the assurance with which Holst handles his orchestra, there's nothing about this piece that anticipates the mature composer. Moving on a couple of years to the Walt Whitman Overture and I would say much the same. The Dvorak/Stanford influence still strongly dominates. Wagner's is marginal at best, despite a couple of bars (as the exciting build-up to the main climax nears its height) sounding like echoes of the Ride of the Valkyries. Both pieces are adequately enjoyable, accomplished pieces. 

In the years 1899-1900 young Gustav wrote a symphony, his Symphony in F major, "The Cotswolds". Opening with a fanfare that might have come out of a pre-Ring Wagner opera, the likeable first movement Allegro con brio pursues the Stanford/Dvorak path again, though this time with an unmistakable additional dash of Stanford's beloved Brahms too, until the opening fanfare is transformed into a jolly English folksong-style tune - a taste of things to come. The Wagnerian influence truly makes itself felt in the second movement, the Elegy (In Memoriam William Morris). This heartfelt and deeply beautiful tribute to a socialist hero of the young composer's again speaks the language of 19th Century Romanticism, with added post-Ring/Tristanesque chromaticism, and does so persuasively. This is bound to be the movement that listeners to the symphony are sure to respond to with the warmest enthusiasm. The remaining movements - the Scherzo and the Finale - return us to the geniality of the opening movement and are just as easy to like. The Scherzo is orchestrated in an especially delightful way, proof that Holst was a brilliant orchestrator from an early stage. (He must have read his Berlioz very closely). I like this symphony. 

In 1900 Holst wrote a piece which when I first heard in on a CD many years ago I thought must have been a misattribution, an error on the record company's part. It sounded (with the exception of a few harmonies) like something from the end of the 16th/start of the 17th centuries. It was some time before I accepted that it was indeed by Gustav Holst. That piece is his breathtakingly lovely Ave Maria for eight-part female chorus. Along with his friend Vaughan Williams, who he first met in 1895, he had already developed an interest in Tudor church music. (RVW would take that interest into such works as his Tallis Fantasia.) That interest, if the Ave Maria is anything to go by, extended into Italian music of the time too (Palestrina, Monteverdi and the like). I love this Ave Maria.

You may be wondering (as I am) at this stage about where all the Wagnerism is. Presumably it's locked up in all the big works that no one bothers performing - like the opera Sita or the symphonic poem Indra, which he was writing in the first years of the 20th century. As I've never heard a note of either I can't tell you whether they really are Wagnerian or not. If they are as Wagnerian as the pieces already reviewed - i.e. not very Wagnerian at all! - then the standard outline of Holst's development needs updating! Their subject matter, however, betokens a subject area that will become of central importance to Holst's middle period output - the spirit of the mystical East (as he saw it).

The next work on the menu is the Wind Quintet in A flat Major, Op.14 of 1903. I can hear a few suggestions of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll in this piece, so that may be evidence of a Wagnerian phase being underway at the time of Sita. The gentle tone of the work, however, is one of relaxed Brahmsian warmth. There are four concise movements -  an Allegro Moderato, a lyrical Adagio, a Minuet in canon form and a Theme and Variations finale on a Renaissance-tinged air.

1903-05 also saw the writing of King Estmere, Op.17, his "Old English Ballad" for chorus and orchestra. There's still plenty of Stanford, Parry and Sullivan about it (no bad thing in my book!), but there is also an attempt to write in a folksong-like style throughout. And sign of Wagner? Perhaps at the climaxes, where there is something of the choruses from the final opera of the Ring about the music - though I wouldn't overstate that. There are too many catchy tunes for the mild faults of King Estmere to allowed to get in the way of a listener's enjoyment of it.

King Estmere marks the end of the first period of Gustav Holst's development and the beginning of the second. Folksong was about to become The Big Idea. All together now, "As I walked out one morning/In the spring time of the year..."!

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