Holst, St. Paul’s Suite – an exceptional example of string writing.

Gustav Holst was one of England’s most eminent composers in the first half of the twentieth century. From 1905 until his premature death in 1934, Holst held the post of Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith and he wrote many pieces of music for pupils to play during his tenure. None is better known than his St Paul’s Suite for strings (later enlarged to allow wind players to participate) which is now celebrating its centenary, having been written in 1912. Its beginnings were humble enough, Holst writing it in gratitude for the soundproofing which the school added to his studio! It is now one of the best loved works in the English string orchestra repertoire and the next four blogs (one dedicated to each movement) will explore precisely why it is so well written for strings and such a good model for string arranging.

The first movement is a Jig and is given the tempo marking Vivace (meaning lively) with a time signature alternating between 6 and 9 quavers in a bar. The movement introduces the main theme in unison, with all the instruments playing exactly the same notes simultaneously. This is an effective beginning as it opens up contrast when all four instrumental sections inevitably go their own way (the tune itself is a combination of slurred and staccato notes which has an inherent contrast of its own). This eventually happens in bar 13 and his writing here is well worth studying as it is an excellent display of four part counterpoint (although in reality it is homophonic in nature). Holst uses contrary motion in the top and bottom parts with the middle two filling out the chords.

At bar 25, the double basses join in for the first fortissimo of the movement. Holst employs open strings to give a more resonant, ringing sound which is characteristic of the English folk idiom and in bar 33 uses double stops to extend the range of harmony to nine simultaneous notes.

Throughout the movement, Holst continually uses contrast to create musical interest and prevent us from tiring of the simple Jig. Apart from the different string techniques of slurring, staccato and double stopping he has also used the differing pulse (changing from 6 to 9 beats in a bar) to give the piece a jaunty quality. So far he has remained harmonically rooted in the tonic key of D minor, but all that is about to change. In bar 40 he starts to unsettle this by introducing B flat major, which oscillates with a C major 7th chord before entering into a passage of tonal transition (amidst a fragmentation of the main theme). This eventually leads us into a second subject (at bar 60), which, despite being in A major (due to the presence of two sharps) is clearly modal in nature, with an ambivalent fluctuation between the chords of A and G. In the whole of the passage from bar 60 to bar 103 most of the accompaniment is made up of shortened homophonic chords which give the music an insistent feeling, as if marching onwards. Again, Holst effectively makes use of three open strings to allow the sound to ring out and when this piece is played in an arrangement for string quartet, people often comment that it sounds as if a whole orchestra is playing it!

In bar 89 Holst allows the melody to be played in simultaneous octaves. This gives it a yearning, soulful quality and the same effect can be heard in many pieces including Beethoven string quartets and Dvorak’s Serenade for strings. It allows the music to float onto a higher level and is followed by a soaring theme which is interspersed with a subito (or sudden) softly answering phrase.

At bar 116 Holst introduces duplets to give a less rounded rhythmical variant of bar 3. This sets up the subito pianissimo tremolando which builds in tension (and volume) above a pedal A flat note in the bass and bursts into the most climactic rendition of the main theme so far. One can appreciate the range of instrumental as well as harmonic techniques employed in order to pace the music, allowing it to simmer at times and at others, bringing it up to the boil.

Inevitably, a folk tune or original melody in that idiom will run out of steam as there are only so many repetitions and variants that can be sustained. So at bar 152 Holst gives us the most forceful rendition of bar 3, in preparation for bar 170 when an upward surge of triplet quavers (above a duplet bass reinstatement of the second subject in F sharp major) leads the music unexpectedly into C major, a key associated with clarity. After all the struggles, we have reached the final key destination and all that is left is a rousing Piu Mosso to see us home. Home however, isn’t the tonic key of D minor, but nonetheless leaves us with a feeling of resolution at the end of an uplifting movement.

In the next blog I’ll explore the second movement to seek more insights into Holst’s exquisite string writing.

So, what can a string arranger or indeed any composer writing for strings learn from this first movement? Here are some of the techniques used in summary:

• Irregular time signatures
• The contrast between unison and full harmony
• The contrast of homophony with polyphonic writing
• Staccato and legato (often slurred) bowing
• ‘Full’ writing (with all five sections involved) and sparser writing for fewer sections
• Double stopping and open strings to create a ‘ringing’ sound
• Interesting modulations and key changes (starting in D minor yet ending in C major)
• Modal melodies
• Sudden changes in dynamics from loud to soft (and vice versa)
• The use of tremolando