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Category Archives: Holst-Gustav

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was a British composer and teacher.  After studying composition at London’s Royal College of Music, he spent the early part of his career playing trombone in an opera orchestra.  It was not until the early 1900s that his career as a composer began to take off.  Around this same time he acquired positions at both St. Paul’s Girls’ School and Morley College that he would hold until retirement, despite his rising star as a composer.  His music was influenced by his interest in English folk songs and Hindu mysticism, late-Romantic era composers like Strauss and Delius, and avante-garde composers of his time like Stravinsky and Schoenberg.  He is perhaps best known for composing The Planets, a massive orchestral suite that depicts the astrological character of each known planet.  His works for wind band (two suites and a tone poem, Hammersmith) are foundational to the modern wind literature.

Hammersmith, op. 52, is Holst’s only late-period work for wind band, and the only one intended for professional musicians.  Although it was commissioned by the BBC military band in 1930, it received its premiere on April 17, 1932 by the United States Marine Band, conducted by Captain Taylor Branson, at the American Bandmasters Association convention in Washington, D.C.  This performance was not repeated, and the piece was forgotten for two decades, to the extent that Boosey & Hawkes, which published Holst’s 1931 orchestral transcription, had no record of the band version at all.  It remained unknown until 1954 , when Richard Cantrick, the band director at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), unearthed the band version, which existed only as a manuscript in the possession of Holst’s daughter (also his biographer), Imogen.  He conducted the second performance with their Kiltie Band on April 12 of that year, after which Boosey & Hawkes finally published the piece.  Imogen Holst provides program notes in the score:

Hammersmith is a Prelude and Scherzo which was commissioned by the BBC military band in 1930.  Holst afterwards rewrote it for full orchestra.

Those who knew nothing of this forty-year-old affection for the Hammersmith district of London were puzzled at the title.  The work is not program music.  Its mood is the outcome of long years of familiarity with the changing crowds and the changing river [Thames]: those Saturday night crowds, who were always good-natured even when they were being pushed of the pavement into the middle of the traffic, and the stall-holders in that narrow lane behind the Broadway, with their unexpected assortment of goods lit up by brilliant flares, and the large woman at the fruit shop who always called him “dearie” when he bought oranges for his Sunday picnics.  As for the river, he had known it since he was a student, when he paced up and down outside William Morris‘s house, discussing Ibsen with earnest young socialists.  During all the years since then, his favorite London walk had been along the river-path to Chiswick.

In Hammersmith the river is the background to the crowd: it is a river that goes on its way unnoticed and unconcerned.

from Gustav Holst, A Biography by Imogen Holst

A wind group from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra plays the original (band) version of Hammersmith:

Hammersmith has generated a lot of scholarship and general chatter.  Will Rapp includes a chapter on it in his book The Wind Masterworks of Holst, Vaughan Williams, and Grainger  (click for a Google Books preview of the Hammersmith chapter).  It figures prominently in this internet biography of Holst and his final years.  It shows up on the Wind Repertory Project, which includes a useful errata list.  You can read Robert Cantrick’s fascinating account of re-discovering the piece on JSTOR (or at least a preview of it if you do not have access through a school or otherwise).  Understand that he wrote it believing that his performance was the actual premiere, demonstrating the extent to which the US Marine Band performance was forgotten.  Finally, visit Gustavholst.info, a major web resource for information on the composer.

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Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was a British composer and teacher.  After studying composition at London’s Royal College of Music, he spent the early part of his career playing trombone in an opera orchestra.  It was not until the early 1900s that his career as a composer began to take off.  Around this same time he acquired positions at both St. Paul’s Girls’ School and Morley College that he would hold until retirement, despite his rising star as a composer.  His music was influenced by his interest in English folk songs and Hindu mysticism, late-Romantic era composers like Strauss and Delius, and avante-garde composers of his time like Stravinsky and Schoenberg.  He is perhaps best known for composing The Planets, a massive orchestral suite that depicts the astrological character of each known planet.  His works for wind band (two suites and a tone poem, Hammersmith) are foundational to the modern wind literature.

The Second Suite in F was written in 1911, but not performed until 1922.  Each of its four movements uses one or more folk songs as its melodic material.

An unnamed band performs each movement of the suite, each in separate videos.  First, the “March”:

“Song without Words”:

The devilish “Song of the Blacksmith”:

Finally, “Fantasia on the Dargason” at a good, healthy tempo (I like this one fast!):

Holst largely repeated this movement in his St. Paul’s Suite for orchestra:

Holst also wrote a chorale version of the “Song of the Blacksmith”:

There is also a choral version of “Song without Words”, titled “I Love My Love”:

Great program note on Second Suite from the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra.

Second Suite on wikipedia (a rather poorly-researched article, I’m afraid!)

For those interested in singing along with some Holst, many of the folk songs used in the Second Suite have their lyrics published on the internet:

From the “March”: “Morris Dance” is an instrumental dance; “Swansea Town” starts with the euphonium solo; “Claudy Banks” is the 6/8 section. That link leaves out the chorus, which you can find in Bob Garofalo’s great resource book, Folk Songs and Dances in Second Suite.

“Song without Words” is actually “I Love My Love”

“Song of the Blacksmith”

“Fantasia on the Dargason”: The Dargason itself is an instrumental dance tune, related to popular melodies like “The Irish Washerwoman”.  This movement also includes “Greensleeves”, usually a sad-sounding song, as a rather joyous interlude and a powerful climax.

Gustavholst.info – a major web resource for information on the composer.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was a British composer and teacher.  After studying composition at London’s Royal College of Music, he spent the early part of his career playing trombone in an opera orchestra.  It was not until the early 1900s that his career as a composer began to take off.  Around this same time he acquired positions at both St. Paul’s Girls’ School and Morley College that he would hold until retirement, despite his rising star as a composer.  His music was influenced by his interest in English folk songs and Hindu mysticism, late-Romantic era composers like Strauss and Delius, and avante-garde composers of his time like Stravinsky and Schoenberg.  He is perhaps best known for composing The Planets, a massive orchestral suite that depicts the astrological character of each known planet.  His works for wind band (two suites and a tone poem, Hammersmith) are foundational to the modern wind literature.

The First Suite is particularly important to the later development of artistic music for wind band.  Holst wrote it in 1909 for an ensemble that came to define the instrumentation that bands would use for at least the next century and beyond.  Oddly, it was not performed until 1920, and published a year later.  Since then, the First Suite has left an indelible mark on band musicians and audiences around the world.  Its appeal is in its simplicity and its artistry.  While there are difficult passages and exposed solo work in many instruments, it places few extreme demands on the players, and it uses a straightforward and easily-identifiable theme throughout its 3 movements.  Yet this theme is turned and pulled into many different forms, and put on an emotional roller-coaster of doubts, sweet reveries, ecstatic joy, and triumph.  Truly, the impact that the First Suite still makes on those who hear it is impossible to put into words.  It is a classic piece of art music that has helped to define the development of a century of wind band music.

The US Marine Band performing the complete Suite on Youtube.  Not much to look at, but GREAT listening!

Detailed historical discussion of First Suite on Earfloss.com.

First Suite on Wikipedia.

First Suite program notes on philharmonicwinds.org (Singapore).

Gustavholst.info – a major web resource for information on the composer.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was a British composer and teacher.  After studying composition at London’s Royal College of Music, he spent the early part of his career playing trombone in an opera orchestra.  It was not until the early 1900s that his career as a composer began to take off.  Around this same time he acquired positions at both St. Paul’s Girls’ School and Morley College that he would hold until retirement, despite his rising star as a composer.  His music was influenced by his interest in English folk songs and Hindu mysticism, late-Romantic era composers like Strauss and Delius, and avante-garde composers of his time like Stravinsky and Schoenberg.  He is perhaps best known for composing The Planets, a massive orchestral suite that depicts the astrological character of each known planet.  His works for wind band (two suites and a tone poem, Hammersmith) are foundational to the modern wind literature.

Holst wrote A Moorside Suite for a brass band competition in 1927. Fellow British composer Gordon Jacob arranged the suite for orchestra in 1952 and wind band in 1960.  Of the 3 original movements, the March continues to receive the most attention.

An anonymous band plays Moorside March:

Now the original brass band version:

Gustav Holst’s family website – a major source of information on the composer’s life and works.

Gustav Holst on Wikipedia.

Program note on the Moorside Suite.

Ron Nahass will conduct this piece at the 2011 Columbia Festival of Winds.  I have also conducted it with Columbia Summer Winds in 2008.

Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is a figure of monumental importance in wind band circles.  His First and Second Suites for Military Band are two of the foundational pieces of the wind band genre.  But they did not make him famous in the wider world.  That distinction belongs to his massive orchestral suite, The Planets.  Written between 1914 and 1916 (during World War I), the suite depicts the astrological character of each planet.  It leaves out both Earth, which is not in our sky and thus has no astrological significance, and Pluto, which had not been discovered at the time and has since been relegated to dwarf-planet status.  The movements proceed as follows:

Mars, the Bringer of War
Venus, the Bringer of Peace
Mercury, the Winged Messenger
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age
Uranus, the Magician
Neptune, the Mystic

Clearly, these are not in actual planet order.  There are several possible explanations for this, including that the characters of the first four movements made for a better symphony-like form in that order, or that Holst went in order of proximity to Earth, or that he went in order of their astrological significance.

The Planets was such a hit that it took Holst by surprise, and he felt that its overshadowed the rest of his music.  He never again wrote a large-scale piece for orchestra.

The Columbia Wind Ensemble has played “Mars” and “Jupiter”, so the resources here will focus on those movements.

The quantity of web literature on this piece fits its blockbuster status.  Below is just a sampling of what’s available.  It’s all highly informative, so definitely read!

Wikipedia article

Preview of the full orchestral score on Google Books.

Gustavholst.info – a major web resource for information on the composer.

Program notes on The Planets from Gustavholst.info.

Article on The Planets at Suite101.com, on online writers’ community.

A video interpretation of The Planets from Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.

An article tracing the musical influences and origins of The Planets.

A blog post that compares The Planets to other pieces, including Star Wars.  Also has audio excerpts of each movement.  Very informative!

Another informative article at BestStuff.com.

Now some videos:

Digital simulation of the Mars Rover’s journey with Holst’s “Mars” as the backdrop (not my favorite recording, for the record):

My favorite recording of Jupiter by Charles Duthoit and the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal, with montage!

Another recording of Jupiter, this one LIVE by the Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra.  A thrill to watch – I can’t recommend this highly enough!  Linked, because they don’t allow embedding.

What planet Jupiter REALLY sounds like (or, that is, what it’s electromagnetic waves sound like when converted into sound by NASA’s Voyager):

Now, the bonus stuff: info on the planets Mars and Jupiter themselves.  It sometimes amazes me to think that we live in a solar system so vast that our two next-door neighbors take months and years to reach.  The countless stars we see in the sky, none of which we have any hope of reach in one human lifetime, all belong to our same galaxy.  And we are just one of untold billions of galaxies out there, all so vast but so distant as to be nearly invisible from Earth.  Despite our wretched smallness and insignificance in the universe, music like The Planets exists as a testament to a small measure of our greatness.  And we are lucky enough to be able to experience it from the inside.

These movements were picked as 2009 Senior Choices by hornist and percussionist Jeff Petriello and hornist Margot Schloss.  “Mars” was clarinetist Liz Portnoy’s pick in 2004.