GUSTAV HOLST (1874-1934) St Paul’s Suite, op 29 (1912)

i.  Jig
ii.  Ostinato
iii.  Intermezzo
iv.  Finale (The Dargason)

Holst was born into a musical family of German origin in Cheltenham and his father saw to it that he had every musical advantage; he began composing at an early age, citing Richard Wagner and Arthur Sullivan as surprisingly disparate influences. Stud) at the Royal College came at the right time for Holst, for the Germanic influences which Vaughan Williams found in his training with Stanford were now beginning to be diluted, as the two main pillars of musical establishment, Stanford and Parry, began increasingly to value British musical tradition. Holst met Vaughan Williams in 1895 and the two became the greatest of friends, even appraising each other’s compositions — indeed RVW professed that Holst was a great influence on his own work. Whilst Holst was never quite as passionate about the folk tradition as RVW was, he too valued the work of the father of the English folksong revival, Cecil Sharp (1859-
1924), who had travelled the country collecting folksongs, and it was Sharp who was to inspire Holst’s Somerset Rhapsody.

Holst’s talents ran wide; he spent some time as a professional trombonist, playing under Richard Strauss and Hans Richter, but also taught music for nearly thirty years at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London. His interest in astrology inspired the composition of his most famous work, The Planets (1918), a work of the highest quality. The St Paul’s Suite, one of a number of works written for the girls of the school, immediately found its place in the timeline of great 20th century British works for strings, which began with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Vaughan Williams’s Tallis Fantasia and Warlock’s Capriol Suite, and continued later with Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra. Holst’s work is in four movements, each strongly influenced by the folk tradition.

The opening movement is a pair of jigs, at first full-blooded but later pared down to give each section the limelight, and towards the end heralding a quickening of the tempo with a glorious upward scale sequence.

The second movement, Ostinato (a repeating accompaniment figure), sees second violins sharing the ongoing rippling figure which accompanies a folk-like melody initially introduced by a solo violin.

The Intermezzo begins desolately, introducing a melancholy, folk-based violin solo which leads into a cry of desperation in the whole orchestra. The violin solo continues, echoed by a solo viola. A rhythmic faster section dispels the gloom, but the movement eventually ends once again in sadness with a solo string quartet.

The finale is arranged from the last movement of Holst’s Second Suite for Military Band and is based on two dances from Playford’s manual of folk-dance from 1651. The main theme is known as The Dargason, an exciting jig, which is suddenly juxtaposed cleverly with Greensleeves. Eventually the texture fragments and the soloviolin ushers in the final chord.

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