Holst St Paul’s Suite: A Guide to String Writing (Part 4)

This final movement of the ‘St Paul’s Suite for string orchestra’ is a reworking of Holst’s Second Suite in F for military band. The tune which appears throughout the movement is the folk tune ‘Dargason’, a 16th Century English dance tune included in Playford’s famous publication entitled ‘The Dancing Master’. A ‘dargason’ is defined as a country dance or ballad tune which consists of an 8-bar circular tune and this is exactly what the last movement of the ‘St. Paul’s Suite’ is. What is of interest to composers and string arrangers is the way the composer skillfully weaves this melody throughout the entire movement without it becoming tiring to the ear. At times it is prominent, whilst at others it is hidden within layers of melody or as an ostinato underneath the tune ‘Greensleeves’. It is a model approach in these days of ‘copy-and-paste’, where lazy arrangers/composers repeat identical swathes of music at the click of a button.

The tune is first stated by the first violins on their own, before being passed onto the second violins (whilst the firsts play a repeated figure that sounds a little like an inverted mordent). Soon a tonic and dominant pedal is alternated between the violas and cellos (with pizzicato and bowed chords), before an attractive pizzicato figure grabs the attention. This soon passes through a number of sequences, and this harmonic change (juxtaposed with the melody in the tonic) brings about a surprising harmonic effect.

Bars 41 – 48 are well worth studying from a string arranging point of view, as violins 1 and 2 generally move in the same direction, whereas the viola and cello parts undulate in arpeggios. This contrast gives the sound its fullness, as the arpeggios lead the ear to perceive more sounds than there really are. Soon, both the ‘Dargason’ and ‘Greensleeves’ are happening simultaneously – another technique which occupies the listener fully. This soon dies down before a sudden change of mood and the direction ‘pesante’ (meaning ‘heavily’). The accompaniment to the melody is mainly homophonic here, before being stated above a jaunty tonic-dominant pedal. Trills in the first violins help build up the tension further, as do the upward duplet scales and guitar-like spread chords.

In any composition that is written around a repeated figure, the composer/arranger has to continually invent new ways to embellish the subject, as well as making it appear interesting. This must be done whilst keeping a coherent whole, and in bar 136 Holst finds that now the music has peaked, it must build up once more. This is achieved by writing tremolandos to keep the tension going, over a rising chromatic scale. This leads to a magnificently dissonant section at bar 153, before return to a more tonic-based approach. Finally, ‘Greensleeves’ returns triumphantly at bar 186 before fading away to a short coda, consisting of fragments of the ‘Dargason’. A final upward scale from a solo violin heralds the end of this inventive work.

Note that the tune remains in the tonic key, never modulating throughout the entire movement. This is why Holst has to find ways of ‘spicing up’ the movement through interweaving interesting harmonies. A harmonic analysis of bars 137 – 168 would be a very good way of exploring different tonalities whilst dealing with a melody that stays the same. The whole piece is a model in varied string writing, which explains why, after 100 years, it is still immensely popular.