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Gustav Holst: "First Suite in E-flat"

Although we have posted on Gustav Holst's Hammersmith, Prelude and Scherzo in June, the blog has yet to post blog items on Holst's First and Second Suites for Military Band. These are two of the most iconic pieces in the wind repertoire and the next two posts will be dedicated to these hugely important works.

Completed in 1909, but not premiered until 1920, Holst's First Suite in E-flat for Military Band was written two years before the Second Suite in F and over twenty years before Holst's masterpiece for winds Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo. Since its composition, it has become arguably the most popular of the works for winds to be considered "band music" and is certainly the only piece for concert band (as opposed to just simply a work for winds) that one is likely to hear on a classical music radio station. The piece is constructed in three movements and is especially notable for Holst's orchestrational style. Rather than simply composing a piece with no strings which was the norm, Holst makes a point of composing a piece specifically for winds and his wind writing is second to none.

Gustav Holst, First Suite in E-flat

I. Chaconne

II. Intermezzo

III. March

"The President's Own" United States Marine Band, Frederick Fennell, conductor

The program notes below are by Esmail Khalili and can be found on the Wind Repertory Project.

2009 marks the 100th anniversary of the First Suite in Eb by Gustav Holst, now considered one of the masterworks and cornerstones of the band literature. Although completed in 1909, the suite didn't receive its official premiere until 11 years later on June 23rd, 1920, by an ensemble of 165 musicians at the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall. However, the work was originally conceived to be performed by ensembles significantly smaller than the one at Kneller Hall. During this time period there was no standardized instrumentation among the hundreds of British military bands of the day, and as a result no significant literature had been previously written for the band medium; most British bands up to then performed arrangements of popular orchestral pieces. In order to ensure the suite would be accessible to as many bands as possible, Holst ingeniously scored the work so that it could be played by a minimum of 19 musicians, with 16 additional parts that could be added or removed without compromising the integrity of the work.

There are three movements in the suite: Chaconne, Intermezzo, and March. Holst writes, “As each movement is founded on the same phrase, it is requested that the suite be played right through without a break.” Indeed, the first three notes of the Chaconne are Eb, F and C, and the first three notes of the melody when it first appears in the Intermezzo are Eb, F, and C. In the third movement, March, Holst inverts the motive: The first note heard in the brilliant opening brass medley is an Eb, but instead of rising, it descends to a D, and then a G; the exact opposite of the first two movements.

The Chaconne begins with a ground bass reminiscent of those written by Henry Purcell or William Byrd. It is performed by tuba, euphonium and string bass and is repeated throughout the ensemble sixteen full times as varying instrumental textures and variations of the theme are layered within it. Following a delicately scored chamber setting of the theme, the music steadily builds to a brilliant Eb Major chord that concludes the movement.

The Intermezzo is light and brisk and features soloistic passages for the cornet, oboe and clarinet. Holst prominently displays the agility and sensitivity of the wind band through transparent textures and passages where the melody and accompaniment are woven into a variety of instrumental settings.

The March begins suddenly. It consists of two themes, the first of which, performed by brass choir and percussion, is a march light in character. The second theme is dominated by the woodwinds and is composed of a long, lyrical line reminiscent of the original Chaconne melody. The movement concludes with both themes intertwining as the band crescendos to a climax.

Gustav Holst, of Scandinavian ancestry on his father's side, was born in the English spa town of Cheltenham in 1874 and studied music at the Royal College in London. A formidable trombonist, he spent time performing with the Scottish Symphony and various seaside bands. He later became director of music at St. Paul's Girls' School, retaining this connection until the end of his life. Holst wrote a number of works for the theatre, their subjects reflecting his varied interests, from Hindu mythology to Shakespeare and the medieval world of the Wandering Scholar. He also composed a considerable amount of choral music, accompanied and unaccompanied, including arrangements of folk songs, and a smaller number of solo songs. His most famous instrumental work is The Planets, but he is also fondly remembered for his St. Paul’s Suite for string orchestra, the two suites for military band, and Hammersmith, based on the district of London bearing the work's name.

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