St. Paul's Suite, by Gustav Holst
Gustav Holst, in line with Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, was instrumental in resurrecting British composition. Between the death of Henry Purcell and the rise of Elgar, British composition had a 200-year gap where there were no strides being made in the compositional style. Holst stands apart from the Germans, French, and Italians, due to his style of ‘mystical romanticism’. Its soft pastels reminisce of a misty day on the moors, creating a dark atmosphere that hints at secrets beneath the layers and asks the listener to pay close attention. Holst’s works are primarily modal, with some of his works taking a celestial tone, while others are strong in austerity. He also writes walking and marching music with confidence that borders serenity, and sure to give the listener an earworm.
Holst’s musical influence and education began with his father, a pianist and church organist who taught Holst’s mother as well, hoping to make it a family tradition. Holst’s neuritis in his right arm made it difficult to play challenging works for piano, though he did work as a church organist into his teens, giving him experience that influenced his later choral works. At age twelve, influenced by Arthur Sullivan, Holst wrote a plethora of small pieces and songs. At nineteen Holst entered the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Charles Stanford, although largely self-taught. There, he met fellow student Ralph Vaughan Williams and became lifelong friends, often exchanging views and critiques on each other’s writing. After coming into financial trouble, Holst was forced to leave the Royal College of Music. He did work as a church organist and trombonist with the Carl Rosa Opera Company and the Scottish Orchestra. These experiences influenced his methods of orchestration, seen in his larger compositions.
Holst’s first work of note was Cotswold Symphony (1900). In 1904, Holst’s daughter, Imogen Holst, thought her father found his true voice in the regal and dramatic Mystic Trumpeter, a setting of Walk Whitman verses and the work where he first employed a bit of bitonality. After slow progress with little income, Gustav began teaching at St. Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith in 1905 where he worked for the rest of his life, eventually becoming its Director of Music.
St. Paul’s Suite (1913) was written for the school’s string orchestra, celebrating the opening of a new wing. "Jig" contains two ideas, both light-hearted, yet harmonically interesting. "Ostinato" is replete with subtle suggestions of flitting fireflies and a wisplike ending. "Intermezzo" begins as a wistful, Eastern sounding melody over pizzicato, then breaks out in quiet exuberance. After the opening melody returns tutti, quiet solos lead to a coda that combines the two themes. The last movement, "Fantasia on the Dargason," is a rescoring of the finale to Holst’s Suite No. 2 for Military Band in F (1911). The deftly dancing "Dargason" begins the movement and is joined by the lyrical "Greensleeves" in a different time signature, and the two swirl delightfully to the end.
These four movements of this straightforward piece provide insight into Holst’s development as a composer, and clearly reveal several of the influences he found most important to him. The first and last movements, “Jig” and “Dargason”, illustrate the composer’s fascination with British folk music. The second movement, Ostinato, demonstrates his interest in clever musical devices that facilitate the development of material, and the third movement, Intermezzo, undoubtedly the most interesting of the suite, illustrates two characteristics of Holst as a mature composer. The first interest is his lifelong love of the music and religion of the Far East, an influence vividly evoked by the solo violin. The second characteristic is his penchant for combining seemingly unrelated and disparate styles of music. In Intermezzo, Holst is clearly still experimenting with this technique, juxtaposing the solo violin’s mystical sound with the energetic interludes that are evocative of a British barn dance. By the time Holst composed his major piece, The Planets, he had clearly refined and mastered this technique, as the world masterfully combines all of his most important influences.
After the war, Holst became faculty at the University College in Reading, and at his alma mater, the Royal College of Music. At this time, The Planets was catching a lot of attention, making him famous although he spent the rest of his days struggling with his popularity. Holst experienced a major setback in 1923, when he struck his head after falling from the podium while conducting. Although he was cleared to travel, and continued to do so giving lectures, masterclasses, clinics, etc., the fall’s long-term after-effects started his steady decline in health.
Holst was sent to the hospital for surgery, with surgeons giving him a choice between a limited operation leaving him with a restricted lifestyle, or an involved surgery with the promise of a more normal life. After choosing the involved surgery, the procedure put a great deal of strain on his heart, costing him his life only two days later.