About this Recording
8.570339 - HOLST: Double Concerto / St Paul's Suite / Brook Green Suite
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Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Brook Green Suite • Lyric Movement • Double Concerto
St Paul's Suite • A Song of the Night • A Fugal Concerto

 

The English composer Gustav Holst was the son of a musician and descended from a family of mixed Scandinavian, German and Russian origin that had settled in England in the early nineteenth century. His childhood was spent in Cheltenham, where his father supervised his study of the piano. A later period at the Royal College of Music in London brought a lasting friendship with Ralph Vaughan Williams, an association that was to the advantage of both in their free criticism and discussion of one another's compositions.

It was in part a weakness in health, as well as financial necessity, that prompted Holst for a time to earn his living as a trombonist, touring with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and playing with the Scottish Orchestra. Eventually he decided to devote himself, as far as possible, to composition. Teaching positions, and particularly his long association with St Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith, and his work as director of music for the enthusiastic amateurs at Morley College, allowed him some time, at least in the summer holidays, but the relatively even tenor of his life, which suited his diffident character, was considerably disturbed by the great popular success of The Planets, which had its first complete public performance in 1920. His later music never achieved such a lasting triumph with the public, although his Shakespearian opera At the Boar's Head aroused respectful interest at the time, while other works generally had a mixed critical reception, including his 1927 Egdon Heath, published as a tribute to Thomas Hardy. His St Paul's Suite, written for the well known girls' school in Hammersmith, retains a firm place in string orchestra repertoire, as does the later Brook Green Suite, and the 1917 Hymn of Jesus for choruses and orchestra has an honourable position in English choral music.

Holst's later years brought engagements that overtaxed his strength, not least a stimulating and busy period in the United States, where his music was welcomed and where he conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a series of three concerts of his own works and taught and composed during a short period at Harvard, lecturing on Haydn at the Library of Congress in Washington. He also took the opportunity to visit his younger brother Emil, established in America as an actor under the name of Ernest Cossart. By June the following year, 1932, he was in England again, able to entertain his brother, with whom he visited scenes from their childhood. His time in America had brought a temporary break in hospital, and when he returned to England his health was uncertain, leading to further periods in hospital. He succeeded, however, in completing the Brook Green Suite and the Lyric Movement for viola and orchestra. He died on 25 May 1934, after a major operation, and is buried in Chichester Cathedral, where his music had often been heard, near the grave of his favourite Tudor composer, Thomas Weelkes.

 

Holst wrote his Brook Green Suite during the last year of his life during a period in hospital. It was dedicated to the St Paul's Girls' School Junior Orchestra and scored primarily for strings, with optional additional parts for flute, oboe and clarinet. As so often with Holst there is a prevailing suggestion of English folk-song in each of the three movements, the first of which, Prelude, presents its principal theme over a pattern of descending scales, at first for cello and double bass, and then also for viola. The first violin melody of the Air is accompanied initially by the plucked notes of the other instruments, before the viola takes up the theme. A secondary melody, marked Poco animato, is introduced, before the principal theme is heard again from the cello, followed by the first violins. The viola takes up the Poco animato theme before the brief closing section. The third movement, Dance, is said to be based on a melody heard in Sicily, but is presented in very characteristically English form.

A Song of the Night, for violin and orchestra, was written in 1905. Originally designated Opus 19, it became Opus 19, No. 1, after the composition of Invocation, Op. 19, No. 2, for cello and orchestra, written in 1911 and at first bearing the title A Song of Evening. A Song of the Night was first published fifty years after Holst's death. The work starts with a violin cadenza, with the French horns and lower strings entering in accompaniment before an Andante theme is stated, a melody prefigured in the initial cadenza. The solo violin offers increasingly elaborate material, while the wind instruments of the orchestra, followed by the strings, present their own version of the thematic material from which the whole piece is woven. A more animated passage in octaves for the solo violin moves on with increased urgency, leading to a Maestoso statement from the trumpet, a dramatic climax, and the pianissimo return of the Andante solo violin theme, now in a higher register. The work ends with a reminiscence of the opening cadenza, ascending ethereally to the heights.

Holst completed his St Paul's Suite in 1913, dedicating it to the St Paul's Girls' School Orchestra. The suite starts with a Jig, its opening leading to a contrasting secondary jig theme, first presented by the second violins, and followed by the emphatic return of the main theme. The secondary material is heard again briefly before the movement comes to an end. Ostinato starts with the recurrent pattern that gives the movement its title, the principal melody introduced by a solo violin, later to return in the second violins, while the ostinato continues throughout. A solo violin introduces the principal melody of Intermezzo, an Andante con moto to which a following Vivace provides a contrast of key and mood. The last movement introduces the melody known as The Dargason, used elsewhere by Holst, who here goes on to combine it with Green Sleeves, one providing a skilful counterpoint to the other.

The Lyric Movement for viola and small orchestra also dates from 1933 and was dedicated to Lionel Tertis. It opens with the solo viola, senza misura, followed by the flute, before the entry of the orchestra with material suggested in the opening passage. The senza misura returns, and the viola adds its own embellishment to the muted strings, leading to a Poco adagio passage, a cadenza and a hushed conclusion to a composition described by Imogen Holst as exemplifying her father's desired 'tender austerity'.

After the success of The Planets Holst felt able to return to his predominant interest in counterpoint. In 1922 he wrote his Fugal Overture, intended as an introduction to his opera The Perfect Fool. The following year brought A Fugal Concerto, scored for solo flute and oboe, with strings. The fugal subject is introduced by the strings in unison, followed by the solo entry of the oboe, answered by the flute and then followed by the cellos and double basses, completing the fugal exposition. The subject is heard in inversion and re-appears again in this form, as the strings present the original version of the theme. The flute starts the slow movement, offering a fugal subject answered by the oboe. Contrasting contrapuntal material is introduced before the violas re-introduce the original subject, answered by the oboe and then the flute. The final Allegro has the strings proposing the theme with its uneven rhythm. This is the material of the fugal subject announced by the oboe, answered by the flute. Brief cadenzas follow for each solo instrument, after which the strings offer an increasingly emphatic version of the theme, before the flute introduces the familiar old English dance tune 'If all the world were paper', treated contrapuntally and then combined with the original fugal subject. The final trill of flute and oboe brings a pizzicato rhythmic echo of the subject in a quiet conclusion.

Holst wrote his Double Concerto, for two violins and orchestra, in 1929. It opens with a Scherzo, a molto staccato broken rhythm appearing immediately in cello and bass, before clarinets, bassoons and violas introduce a contrasting thematic element. The entry of the solo first violin, marked by uneven rhythm of the opening, is followed by the second soloist, with the viola providing a third contrapuntal entry, and the cello an incomplete fourth entry. A more familiar lilting rhythm is established, before a shift to bitonality between the two solo instruments, which continues until the return of the principal thematic material. The second solo violin brings back a secondary lilting thematic element, heard earlier from the first violin, which ends the movement with a version of the second violin's earlier excursion into bitonality. The Lament, in 5/4, allows the solo first violin to present a theme, imitated by the second violin, both solo instruments moving into overt bitonality before the entry of the orchestra, with muted strings. Variation on a Ground has the first solo violin present the ground, followed by the second, after which it provides an accompaniment to the plucked notes of the second solo violin, before rôles are reversed. The very uneven ground on which the movement is based provides chances for cross-rhythms and leads at its height to a passage in 7/4 and further explorations of bitonality before the ground is heard in conclusion.

Keith Anderson

 


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