Holst: St. Paul’s Suite (3rd movement)

In the first two blogs in this four-part series, I took an analytical look at the ‘Jig’ and ‘Ostinato’ movements of Gustav Holst’s ‘St Paul’s Suite for string orchestra’ from the perspective of analyzing the string writing and techniques used.

Now, focusing on the third movement, entitled ‘Intermezzo’, further interesting and useful examples of good string are found. An instrumental intermezzo is a movement which fits in between other movements or is a character piece in its own right. Some composers (such as Mendelssohn and Brahms) used it as a middle movement in their chamber works and the character became lyrical and melodic. Holst’s intermezzo is in 3 time, with the composer instructing it to be performed in three bar phrases. He starts with an effective string orchestra sonority: namely, homophonic chords played by the use of soft pizzicato with rests in between. This provides a sense of stillness which helps to bring out the poignancy of the solo violin melody. As we have seen in the first two movements, it is the contrast that Holst achieves that is key in creating a special atmosphere. It is also harmonically effective, in that it is again modal in nature (being in A minor yet possessing an F#). In bar 19 all of the strings (with the exception of the first violins) are suddenly asked to strike their strings with forte pizzicatos, some being asked to pluck three notes simultaneously (two of which are open strings). As in the first movement, this allows the instruments to ‘ring’ and creates a striking effect.

It is not too long before the mood changes and a lively vivace section breaks the spell. Here, the cellos and double basses have a repetitive quaver figure with the double basses being written an octave lower than the cellos. Holst maintains clarity in the texture by not allowing the bass notes to go too low. Again, the violas and cellos are asked to play four notes simultaneously to create a resonant sound. This sets up the reintroduction of the opening melody, as it now returns in a full-bodied triple fortissimo. This is followed by a particularly beautiful passage where one solo violin soars high above the other strings, who return to the soft pizzicato motif of the opening (albeit with changed harmonies).

No further original material is introduced in this movement. The vivace section is given another brief outing, before the opening melody reappears in a fragmented form. Bars 101 to the end are also worth studying, both from a harmonic point of view as well as a string writing perspective. Holst uses downward chromatic harmony to great effect, giving the opening theme a totally different sheen. The close harmony writing has the violins and cellos descending in major 6ths to give a peculiar yet haunting atmosphere; the whole movement dropping away to nothing with a final pizzicato.