Best of the British Isles: Gustav Holst February 26 2014, 0 Comments

In the third installment our Best of the British Isles series, we bring our focus to the great Gustav Holst.


Gustav Holst was born on September 21, 1874, in Gloucestershire, England. Although he is known today mostly for his compositions, he was also a very talented trombonist and conductor. On top of his professional trombone playing, he spent a good deal of time teaching music in order to supplement the little income he made from his compositions. He was good friends with Ralph Vaughan Williams, a fellow English composer and champion of folk songs.

Holst’s most famous work is his orchestral suite The Planets, a huge symphonic work for orchestra, rooted in astrology and strange harmonies. However, to me, The Planets is an outlier of Holst’s compositional style. He is often credited for writing some of the first non-march music for the military band. His First Suite in E-flat for Military Band was written in 1909, and continues to be a cornerstone of wind band literature today. Before the suite was written, the bulk of wind band repertoire was a combination of marches, fanfares, and transcriptions of orchestral works, mainly operas. The First Suite in E-flat for Military Band marks the beginning of a still-growing trend of original music for the wind band.

Two years after his first suite, Holst wrote the Second Suite in F for Military Band. Here, Holst shows his interest in English folk song (the first suite was based entirely on original materials). It is also interesting to note that Holst may have forgotten about the work shortly after its completion, only to remember about its existence over a decade later when asked to write again for wind band. A few of the movements in this suite were also transcribed for choir by Holst himself.

The suite is written in four movements, each with a distinct style. It opens with a hearty English march, which moves between folk tunes Swansea Town and Cloudy Banks in the more lyric sections. The second movement is more melancholy, based entirely on the song Song Without Words, “I’ll Love my Love”. It is followed by Song of the Blacksmith, a very upbeat and disjointed movement which features an anvil and changing time signatures. The final movement, Fanfare on the Dargason, caps the suite with a constantly repeating motive, The Dargason, and Greensleeves interwoven throughout.

While Holst’s involvement in the English folk song movement was not as involved as Percy Grainger or Ralph Vaughan Williams, in the world of wind band music, you cannot mention England without mentioning his work. His two suites for military band are monuments to both the history and future of the genre. In particular, the Second Suite in F for Military Band not only expertly intertwines folk songs, but has stood the test of time as a staple of the literature

Don’t forget to check out for all of your favorite military band music, including the United States Air Force Band album Evolution, where you can find a great recording of Holst’s second suite. Also, on March 4th, you can download Best of the British Isles, a new Altissimo! release focused on English folk songs and marches.


- Brian R. Denu