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Holst is often cited as a one-hit wonder being famous for The Planets, but he was a prolific
composer and wrote some 200 pieces for a great variety of forces. The very great majority of string
players will know his St Paul's suite well and some choirs will have had the pleasure of performing
the Hymn of Jesus and the Choral Fantasia. His is one of the two famous settings for In the Bleak
Winter (Cranham), the other being by Darke; the tunes are easily confused because the first bar of
the melody of each is identical. Slightly more obscure are his Four Songs for voice and violin, a
combination also used by his life-long friend Vaughan Williams. Other notable works are his suites
for Military Band, the Brook Green Suite, A Fugal Concerto for flute, oboe and strings, the Terzetto
for flute, oboe and viola (where each part is in a different key), a woodwind quintet and the two
pieces on tonight’s programme.
Despite his Germanic-sounding name, Holst was born in Cheltenham, and although his paternal
family came from Baltic stock the family was known as von Holst in the days prior to the First
World War. A frail child, he learned the piano and violin from a young age and added the
trombone later because his father thought that that would help cure him of asthma. Perhaps this
worked because he was a keen rambler as an adult, walking in many European countries, and he
also undertook a cycling tour of Algerian Sahara. Holst studied at the Royal College of Music
under Charles Villiers Stanford. It was here that he met Vaughan Williams and the two became
lifelong friends and critics of each other’s compositions even when they were works in progress.
He and Vaughan Williams also shared a strong interest in maintaining the English vocal and choral
tradition, particularly as represented by folk songs, madrigals and the Tudor composers.
Ballet Music from The Perfect Fool
Holst wrote the comic opera, The Perfect Fool, soon after the end of the First World War when
sentiment was moving away from music of German origins and there was a hunger for new English
music. The music itself pokes fun at Debussy, Verdi and Wagner's Parsifal, and its first
performance was in May 1923 in Covent Garden. The libretto was written by Holst himself but is
deemed not to be of high quality. The opera turned out not to be a success, partly because of the
confusing libretto. There appears to be no recording available for the full opera, although Youtube
hosts one performance in a sequence of videos. The more adventurous amateur operatic societies
continue to produce the opera occasionally, Bristol Opera’s 2009 performance being one example.
The Ballet Music from The Perfect Fool which opens tonight's concert forms the first ten minutes of
the opera. In contrast to the opera the ballet music is performed frequently, sometimes even by
youth orchestras, and numerous recordings exist.
The Ballet Music is split into four sections:
Andante (invocation)
Dance of Spirits of Earth (Moderato. Andante)
Dance of Spirits of Water (Allegro)
Dance of Spirits of Fire (Allegro moderato . Andante)
Holst's music is often characterized by bitonality and unusual time signatures, both of which feature
extensively here. Most of the Dance of the Spirits of Earth section is in 7/8 time, but his clever use
of syncopation in the main melody is almost completely successful in hiding the presence of the
time signature.
Double Concerto for Two Violins Op 49.
This contrapuntal and bitonal concerto was written in 1929, five years before Holst's death, and was
written for the sisters Adila Fachiri and Jelly d'Aranyi, who were grand nieces of the famous
Hungarian violinist and composer, Joseph Joachim. The sisters gave the first performance of the
concerto the following year under the baton of Oskar Fried in the Queen's Hall, after which Holst
received the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Holst himself conducted the work at
that year's Promenade Concerts.
While some regarded the concerto as being ‘highly
intellectualized’ it was generally well-received, the Daily Telegraph stating that it had ‘some
outstanding qualities’ and ‘some moments of rare beauty’ in the slow movement.
There are three movements:
I. Scherzo: Allegro
II. Lament: Andante
III. Variations on a Ground: Allegro
The scherzo begins with a rising two note theme which develops into a dancing 6/8 melody. Holst
re-shapes the motive into a second subject that is less broken in rhythm, while the dancing character
of the movement becomes more fluid. A trio-like section sees the soloists engage in two different
flowing melodies, one in 2/4, the other in 6/8, one in D major, the other in F. Some of this section
borrows ideas from the above-mentioned Terzetto. The movement ends with an adagio cadenza for
the first violin, foreshadowing the thematic material of the second movement.
The soloists are unaccompanied for most of the Lament, which is entirely in 5/4 time. A gentle
fugal opening gradually becomes slightly more animated and rises to a climax before a change to
new motifs. Once more the soloists play in different keys to beautiful effect.
The final movement begins with almost no break from the second and has been described as
‘quirky, inventive and appealing....containing a plethora of cross-rhythms and tonal confusion’.
The Ground is introduced quietly by the first violin in 2/2 time but repeated forte by the second
violin in 3/4 time. The subsequent variations continue the alternation in time signature with the
accompaniments becoming increasingly complex until the full orchestra is eventually employed.
When the time signature switches to 5/4, the Ground transfers briefly to the lower strings displaying
a modified rhythm which then spreads to the rest of the orchestra including the soloists and, at one
point, the tympani. A brief three-bar section in 7/4 sees the soloists provide rapid triplet responses
to short declarations of the new rhythm for the Ground. The movement draws to a close via short
meditative reprises of material from both the Lament and the preceding Scherzo, concluding finally
in a triumphant triple forte passage.