Second Suite in F for Military Band, Gustav Holst
By Tom Chester
Two years after his successful First Suite in E♭, Holst set about writing his second substantial band work. The reason for writing is unclear; whether for the grand Festival of the Empire or maybe just a response to the cry for more British band music, none can deny Holst’s clear refinement from his previous work. Influenced by his good friend Ralph Vaughn Williams’ fascination with British folk tunes, the Second Suite uses them exclusively for its melodic material.
Now that Holst had tried his hand at writing for concert band, his instrumentation for the Second Suite was more specific. He no longer wrote the piece for ‘voices’ but instead utilized the instruments’ idiomatic timbre and vast array of tone colour that only a band can provide.
The first movement, March, is compromised of three songs: The Morris dance tune Glorishears, the whimsical sea-faring song Swansea Town and the rolling jig Claudy Banks. After a light opening the melody becomes a sweeping Euphonium solo. The trio sees even more uncharacteristic march-ness with a change of metre to 6/8 and a transition to the far off key of B♭ minor.
Song Without Words, features another nautical themed song. I’ll Love My Love tells of a grieving widow whose lover was lost at sea. The simple melody is shaped beautifully, the solo clarinet sitting on a bed of oboe and horns. The flutes take over on top of a running quaver motif, the epitome of English pastoral writing.
The simple but beautiful melodic phrasing of Song Without Words.
Movement Three, Song of the Blacksmith, tells the tale of a women infatuated with the Blacksmith and the heavy clanging of his hammer. The pesante melody is accompanied by the syncopated, pointillistic brass, reminiscent of Holst’s later works, and finishes on a rather abrupt median chord.
The finale of the Suite is the Fantasia on the Dargason. Dargason being a 16th century reel, usually in a round. (Or an Anglo-Saxon pixie/dwarf)! Holst contests the jig over the popular tune Greensleeves with the use of Hemiolas. The climax sounds both tunes together before the movement ends with a piccolo/tuba duet and a surprise final stab from the band.
The Dargason over Greensleeves.
As with most ‘simple’ pieces, it is extremely difficult to play well. To encapsulate the Englishness of the sound the piece must be played extremely lightly unless otherwise stated. Quoting again the words of English conductor Timothy Reynish; ‘Forte is a light dynamic!”.
This is technically difficult to achieve, especially in the very opening, a moment in which even professional tuba players can struggle. Another concept, which can be tricky to master, is the bounce of the both the Morris Dance and trio section. (I refrain from saying “accents” as it implies a heavier approach). The first tune has a clear dance-like emphasis on beat one, very much like an Allemande until letter A in which the first two bars are noticeably weightier than the rest of that section, the band in rhythmic unison. The trio section also has a lilt on the first beat of the bar whenever it is accompanied by the tied dotted crotchet passages (although I like to keep it rigid when sitting on top of the quavers).
The second movement should be a fantastic opportunity for your solo cornet and clarinet to really show off their musicality and I find letting them embrace their melodies gives them a very personal touch to such a beautiful movement. Balance between the horns and oboe, when done correctly, paints a picture of the rolling British countryside. The scalic figures later in the clarinets reinforce this when played with fluidity. Five bars from the end of the piece let your soloists sing out their quaver figures and be sure to dovetail them exactly, coaxing the 2nd clarinets to relish this solo opportunity.
Song of The Blacksmith is arguably the most problematic movement to play with authenticity. Renowned British wind band conductor Mick Dowrick draws attention to the fact that the movement is about a Blacksmith hitting an anvil and anyone who has ever tried this will know that these hammers aren’t light. This should be reflected in the tempo with a more of a heavy, laborious maestoso. This however can be difficult to achieve when the brass (particularly basses) have a syncopated figure and tend to push the tempo forward. The off-beat pick ups into the melody also prove troublesome for ensembles and I find (after a strong downbeat) it always helps to cue in the left hand. Then there is the taxing issue of the final chord and in all my years of playing and conducting this piece I have never heard it sound convincing. With that said, I prefer to keep it on the short side for damage control.
The fourth and final movement is also used as the finale as Holst’s St. Paul’s Suite for string orchestra. Although premiered later than the Second Suite, it is argued that their writing coincided due to the countless revisions on each manuscript. The Second Suite’s tempo is written as allegro moderato whilst the St. Paul’s is allegro and is played as such. Personally I prefer this faster tempo, which makes it easier to achieve the slight inflection on each first beat of the melody. This way, the climax of the two tunes spliced makes more sense musically.
Holst’s Second Suite is a stalwart in band repertoire for a reason. He took his ideas and voicings from his First Suite and combined them with lively folk tunes and a better comprehension of band orchestration. Holst achieved what is widely regarded as the bible of how to write for band. Simply written, it is accessible for a band of any ability with plenty of challenges for a successful performance. Always a crowd favourite, it deserves to be played (at least!) once a year.