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Welcome to the first of Discovering Music’s monthly newsletters.
Discovering Music explores pieces of music in detail, providing a unique insight into the inner workings of a millennium of musical history. Programmes are either based around a featured work or cover a group of related pieces. The two main presenters are Stephen Johnson and Charles Hazlewood.
Each month we’ll be identifying a work or a style of music from one of the programmes and providing informative listening notes that bring out some of the music’s interesting features, focusing on the musical elements of melody, rhythm, harmony, texture, timbre, pitch and structure.
These notes will not necessarily repeat what the presenter says in the programme. They are designed to enhance the listening experience by focusing in more detail on a particular work or genre that is featured in the programme.
The Listening Notes are prepared by John Arkell. The views expressed are his and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC.
Work in Focus: Gustav Holst's St Paul's Suite
Suite for String Orchestra
This suite (collection of pieces) of four movements has its origins in the Baroque Dance Suites. Each of the four movements features dance rhythms and forms.
The Jig (an old English dance) of the first movement is a lively 6/8 (alternating 9/8) piece.
The Presto (fast) Ostinato second movement has a relentless one-in-a-bar feel.
The Intermezzo third movement contrasts slow and fast sections, somewhat reminiscent of the structure of a Brahms Hungarian Dance in its peasant gypsy folk idiom.
The Finale movement, subtitled 'The Dargason' is, in effect, another lively two-in-a bar Jig!
This work was written in 1913 shortly after Holst had taken up the post of Director of Music at St. Paul's Girls' School in Hammersmith, London. It was written for performance by the girls of the school string orchestra. (Holst later added wind parts to include the entire orchestra).
From this period of creativity too came Holst’s famous suite, The Planets.
Notes on the Music
The key feature of the melodic writing in all four movements is the use of folk melodies (such as ‘The Dargason’ and ‘Greensleeves’). Holst and Vaughan Williams were serious collectors of traditional British Folk melodies and they feature heavily in the music of both composers.
Folk melodies are often modal. The modes were the precursors of the modern major and minor tonal systems. There are seven different named modes each using the white keys on the piano in tones and semitones (eg. D to D, A to A etc but with no black notes).The mode in ‘Jig’ (movement 1), is the Aeolian (the notes A to A but here transposed up a fourth to start on D).
Dance rhythms prevail in each movement. In the 6/8 movements (1 and 4) the common two-in-a-bar feel features patterns of crotchet-quaver and three quaver groupings.
‘Ostinato’ (movement 2) in a fast 3 beats (essentially one-in-a-bar) uses straight crotchets, minims and dotted minim rhythms. The rhythmic drive in the movement is achieved through the oscillating quaver ostinato heard almost incessantly in violin 2!
The fast sections of the ‘Intermezzo’ in simple duple time sound a little like a frenetic English ‘square dance’ using the two semiquaver-quaver and quaver-two semiquaver rhythms over a rocking quaver bass to propel the music forward. The string technique of double stopping (two notes played together as a chord) on open strings adds to this rustic feel.
Towards the end of the last movement, Holst uses duple rhythms against triple rhythms. This is called hemiola or hemiolaic rhythms.
The harmony is mostly diatonic (chords in the key of the music).
However, each of the four movements also features sections that use chromatic harmony. This adds a feeling of increased tension in the music. A good example of this is towards the end of the first movement as the strings climb chromatically in pitch heralding the repeat of the folk melody.
Holst also often embellishes chords with added notes such as 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, 13ths etc. (chords associated with romantic harmony)
Textural contrast adds variety to the overall sound. As the movements here feature repeating folk melodies, Holst scores the music with a variety of common musical textures, namely:
Monophonic - one line e.g. the opening 12 bars of the Jig (mov 1) with all instruments playing in unison (literally ‘uni’ = one and ‘son’= sound) playing at the same pitch and the first eight bars of the Finale (mov. 4) as first violins.
Homophonic - parts moving together (i.e. tune and accompaniment). This is the most common texture of all! Melody dominated homophony can be heard in many places in the work. For example, in the Jig, following the opening 12 bars, the music is in five part harmony with the melody in the first violins. In the second movement ('Ostinato') following the first four bars (monophonic) we have ‘tune with accompaniment’ homophony.
Polyphonic - this is a texture in which two or more parts have melodic parts together. This can be clearly heard in the Finale, where Holst cleverly combines both the opening ‘Dargason’ folk tune with ‘Greensleeves’.
This means ‘tone colour’ and describes the different sounds achieved through the combination of orchestral instruments in the scoring.
As this work is scored for strings alone, different string timbres are achieved through the use of tremolo (rapid repetitions of a note in semiquavers as in movement 1), use of the mutes con sordini (with mutes, as in movement 2), open strings with double stopping (and triple, quadruple stopping = two, three of four notes played together as a chord) and pizzicato (plucking), features in all of the four movements.
Holst achieves a reasonable pitch range in the music exploiting the capabilities of the string instruments. However, excessively high and low notes are avoided (perhaps as the music was to be played by young performers with developing playing techniques). Most of the music sits comfortably ‘mid range’ with high pitches reserved for climatic moments and endings.
The structure of each movement is quite simple: this comprises repetitions of the folk tunes with different scorings, textures etc. ‘The Dargason’ for example is one long continuous melody (in a round) from start to finish with the melody passed through all five string parts! Holst also cleverly weaves in the ‘Greensleeves’ tune too into the texture
Movement 1: has two repeating sections one in 6/8 time and the other in 9/8 time giving A-B-A-B etc.
Movement 2: has a similar pattern, this time contrasting fast 3/4 and 2/4 sections
Movement 3: ‘Andante’ and ‘Vivace’ sections contrast in key (modal – major respectively) and tempo in the pattern A-B-A-B-A.
5 part string orchestra