First Suite in E♭ for Military Band, Gustav Holst – by Tom Chester
When discovering concert band literature, there’s no better place to start than the cornerstone of modern day repertoire. The year is 1909 and military bands for every regiment spatter the British Empire; each of varying sizes and instrumentation. Playing mainly marches, waltzes, and parlour music (as well as orchestral transcriptions if the band master was talented enough), the wind band was rarely considered an idiom of ‘serious’ music. That is, until Gustav Holst; trombonist, teacher, and composer began work on his suite in E♭ for military band.
Due to the lack of standardisation of instruments per band it was notoriously difficult to score without having a specific ensemble in mind. To overcome this, Holst scored the work for only nineteen voices with the option of many ‘ad lib’ parts doubling on various instruments. This meant the work could be played by smaller ensembles without compromising the integrity of the piece.
Although loosely based on folk songs the themes used are original to Holst. A three note rhythmic motif of Eb-F-C is introduced and developed throughout all three movements.
Movement one, Chaconne, features a ground bass reminiscent of Purcell or Byrd, sounding sixteen times throughout the piece, the first three notes: E♭–F-C.
With each repetition Holst showcases the palette of the concert band; thickening the textures with lively syncopated rhythms in the woodwind followed by a chorale in the upper brass over a pesante running bass.
The layers peel away as the composer inverts the theme for two repetitions. This creates a dark funeral march feel that is emphasised in the hemiolas from the basses and bass drum, before a growing Maestoso takes us to the end of the movement.
The Intermezzo showcases the agility and sensitivity of the medium with solos from the oboe, clarinet, and cornet. The first three notes of the piece again are: Eb-F-C.
The final movement, a brisk march, juxtaposes two melodies. A brass chorale, reminiscent of the earlier Chaconne, and a lighter woodwind tune. A simultaneous recapitulation hears both themes together to close the suite. Interestingly, it begins with the three-note theme inverted.
The modern concert band has changed drastically since the days of Holst. The work has been re-scored twice since the original manuscript to evolve to the scoring of bands today. This however leads to a few issues that cannot be overlooked when performing.
Stylistically the piece must be played with the lightness of British chamber winds. In the words of English conductor Timothy Reynish; ‘Forte is a light dynamic!” and this is especially true when the finale of the piece is marked a whopping ffff.
The American influence on concert bands has somewhat expanded the flute section from the two/three to much greater numbers. This can mask the intended timbres in the higher woodwind, such as the oboe and Eb clarinet, who both provide the English reediness. It is also common for English concert band pieces to be scored for a section of cornets as well as two independent trumpet parts. This should not be overlooked as the cornet provides warmth of sound to the section whilst the brassy fanfares are specifically written in the trumpet lines. This is highlighted perfectly in the Chaconne as the cornets take the inverted ground bass at the bottom end of their register, which is often spoilt with the lack of depth and increased edginess of tone on trumpet.
A final issue when performing is that of tempo. The first movement is marked Allegro Moderato but is usually performed slightly slower. It is generally agreed that the ground bass should be of constant tempi, with even the most experienced of bands wanting to slow in the more tender and exposed passages. The second movement should be performed as brisk as the ensemble can comfortably play it without sounding rushed. The third and final movement, contrastingly, is played faster than the traditional marching tempo of the English. This stops the first exposures of the themes sounding laborious and generally saves your brass sections’ faces.
Whilst writing this article I happened to enter a rather heated debate about the piece with a colleague of mine, who deemed the piece dull. Politely correcting him on his obvious misuse of the word, the debate began to spur rather passionate feelings with numerous musicians. Although nowhere Holst’s masterwork (his Second Suite undeniably better constructed); the piece is elegantly simple and indisputably beautiful. It is often one of the first major works we ever play in our young musical life and evokes a fierce nostalgia of our early concert band days. Love it or hate it, Holst demonstrated that the concert band was a serious medium; paving the way for many other composers to write for our chosen ensemble.