31 January 2022

A Somerset Rhapsody


I have always been a fan of Holst's Op. 21, A Somerset Rhapsody, ever since discovering it on a CD with music by other English "Pastoralist School" composers back when I was a high school teacher. There is something about those haunting old English folk songs, and the way Holst orchestrates everything to work together is an ongoing testament to his skill as an orchestrator. No, it is not as complex as The Planets, or Fugal Overture, or as tonally adventurous as Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda or Hammersmith. But what it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in charm and beauty. It wasn't until I got to Cal State Long Beach that I discovered the transcription by Clare Grundman, and eagerly programmed it. I have programmed it again, ten years later, with the ISU Wind Symphony, and have been enjoying jumping back into the score, learning more about the work, and making different decisions about its performance this time around. 


Gustav Holst was born on 21 September 1874, in Gloucestershire, England. He learned piano and violin from an early age, but a nerve ailment in his right hand eventually caused him to settle on trombone as his principal instrument. He attended the Royal Conservatory of Music, where he met fellow composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, becoming lifelong friends who often critiqued each other’s work without rancor or enmity. In 1905 he was appointed Director of Music at the St. Paul’s Girls’ School, and in 1907 he was appointed Director of Music at Morley College, both of which he would retain for the rest of his life (eventually writing the St. Paul’s Suite for that school’s string orchestra). He is best known in orchestral circles for his tone poem suite, The Planets, and for various smaller works. In the wind band world he is best known for his two suites for military band (No. 1 in E-flat Major and No. 2 in F Major) and for his Hammersmith Prelude and Scherzo; all three considered cornerstone works in the wind band’s repertory.


A Somerset Rhapsody, Op. 21, was composed in 1906, and was dedicated to Cecil Sharp, the renowned collector of English folksong music. It began as a work called A New Selection of Songs of Somerset, making use of songs from the collections of Sharp. Originally containing ten folk tunes, Holst rewrote the work to include only four: The Sheep-Shearing Song (also known as It’s a Rosebud in June), invokes idyllic pastoral settings and is played at the beginning by the oboe d’amore (English Horn in the wind band version). High Germany, is a song about marching off to war, and is also used by Holst’s colleague, Ralph Vaughan Williams, in his own Folk Song Suite. True Love’s Farewell, is a song about lovers saying goodbye, and is sometimes also known as Ten Thousand Miles. The final tune used is The Cuckoo. Curiously, The Cuckoo does not seem to be recognised as one of the folk tunes used in this piece...the program note in the transcription refers only to the three other folk melodies, and several program notes found online omit any reference to The Cuckoo

This new version was premiered at Queens Hall by conductor Edward Mason in April of 1910. Holst believed this performance to be the first real success of his career. It was received favourably by the critics of the day, with the Daily Telegraph stating “no more distinguished a piece has issued from a British pen for many a day.” The Morning Post offered “This is the work for which lovers of folk song have been waiting [...] the best disquisition on a folk-song that has been issued, and its successors will be awaited with interest.” His own daughter, however, kept a more reserved view of the work, stating that the Rhapsody was “a mixture of good and bad writing […] though it has moments of great beauty. Though not a programmatic work, the composer once divulged to a colleague that the Rhapsody told a story: 

“Into a quiet country scene comes the sound of approaching soldiers. A youth who is courting a girl is persuaded to enlist and go to war. The soldiers march into the distance and the pastoral quietness returns. The girl is left alone.”

The transcription for winds was completed by Clare Grundman in 1980. It differs from the original orchestral work in a few important areas:

• The band transcription is written up a half step from the orchestral score.
• The opening and closing solos are written for English Horn instead of Oboe or Oboe d’Amore.
• The original has Rehearsal Letters, the transcription has Rehearsal Numbers.
• Various instruments are displaced from their original roles, even if they are present in both bands and orchestras (example: The trombone solo at m. 256 is instead given to the Euphonium, the closing solo is originally a Bb Soprano Clarinet, not English Horn).
• Vibraphone is added to the beginning to help emulate the sound of the first violins. As this has proven not to be an effective substitute, it is suggested that the vibraphone be bowed instead of struck with mallets. Adding bowed crotales might also be useful.

The original orchestral work is written for:

-Flute I-II
-Oboe I-II
-Bassoon I-II
-Clarinet in A I-II
-Horn in F I-II-III-IV
-Trumpet in A I-II
-Trombone I-II
-Percussion (tamburo, bass drum, cymbals)
-Violin I-II

A score video recording for the orchestral version can be found here:

The transcription is written for:

-Flute I-II (though it seems to be assumed there will be 3 players at least)
-Oboe I-II
-English Horn
-Bassoon I-II
-E-flat Soprano Clarinet
-B-flat Soprano Clarinet I-II-III
-E-flat Alto Clarinet
-B-flat Bass Clarinet
-B-flat Contrabass Clarinet
-E-flat Alto Sax I-II
-B-flat Tenor Sax
-E-flat Baritone Sax
-B-flat Cornet I-II-III
-B-flat Trumpet I-II
-Horn in F I-II-III-IV
-Trumpet in A I-II
-Trombone I-II-III
-String Bass
-Percussion (snare drum, bass drum, cymbals)


The following terms can be found in the Grundman transcription:

•Affretando – hurrying; rushed; pressing on
• Allargando – (becoming) broad; slowing down
• Allegro – A fast, lively tempo; faster than Allegretto, but slower than Presto
• Animato - animated
• Come 1o – like the first time
• L’istesso – at the same tempo (or style)
• Lunga – long (as in a long rest, or a long fermata)
• Meno mosso – less motion
• Moderato - moderately
• Morendo – dying away
• Pesante – heavily; weightily; ponderous
• Poco – little, a bit, gradually
• Rall(entando) – becoming slower
• Sempre – always; continually; throughout
• Tempo I – Tempo Primo, directive to perform the original tempo after a diversion from it.
• Tenuto – indication to perform a note or chord longer than its full duration


Note: Timings used in this section correspond to a recording by the University of North Texas Wind Symphony. A link is provided below. There are also many other fine recordings to be found on YouTube (some of which cannot be embedded here due to link restrictions). The score I am using is the Boosey & Hawkes original printing from 1980. For easier use, I suggest opening the link in a separate page or tab, rather than scrolling back and forth to this spot on the page. 

A Somerset Rhapsody begins with a treble continuo (originally in the Violin II part, here presented by flute, clarinet, and vibraphone) based on C, over which is written the first theme, Sheep Shearing Song, [Figure 1, m. 3, 0:07] given to the English Horn (Oboe in the original). The theme is in F Dorian [Pitch Set: F-G-Ab-Bb-C-D-Eb]. A note in the orchestral score indicates that whenever possible, this solo should be played by an Oboe d’Amore, which is a version of the oboe pitched in A, giving it a more serene, less assertive tone, and the ability to play lower notes than the regular oboe.In the version for winds, there are cues for the solo in the Oboe and Alto Sax parts, to be used at the discretion of the conductor (the oboe part would have a low C, which is a difficult note to get to speak at the required dynamic level). 

Sheep Shearing Tune
Figure 1: The Sheep Shearing Song

The key changes at m. 27 [01:33] in the original score for orchestra, but Grundman has chosen to forego the use of key signatures in his transcription, so there is no key change here. The melody is restated with different accompaniment (shifting chords) in m. 27-44, this time by the Flute and E-flat Clarinet, joined by the Piccolo and Oboe intermittently. However, the melody has now shifted to D Dorian [Pitch Set: D-E-F-G-A-B-C]. Although the work is not a fugue, there is a stretto-like section where the Horns enter with a melodic fragment (m. 46-47, 02:25), followed in succession by the Bassoons, Alto Clarinet, Alto Sax I, and Euphonium (m. 47-48), then most of the soprano voices (Upper WWs, Alto Sax II, Trumpets) in m. 48-49.

A transitional section follows, begun by the timpani foreshadowing the ostinato that is to follow [02:39], while the trumpets sound a fanfare figure motive in fifths (Figure 2). This occurs alongside a return to the treble continuo and the first theme. More foreshadowing of the ostinato is revealed, this time in quarter notes by the String Bass and low reeds (cello and bass in the original). Fragments of the first theme serve to shift the tonality to A Dorian [Pitch Set: A-B-C-D-E-F#-G-A].

Fanfare Motive
Figure 2: Fanfare Motive

The fanfare figure is repeated (m. 63-74) in different voices while an ostinato is intoned by low voices, starting on A Dorian at first, but then shifting back to F Dorian. As much as possible, this ostinato should sound like pizzicato celli and bass. 

Ostinato Motive
Figure 3: Ostinato Motive

The transition leads directly into the second theme, High Germany, (Figure 4, m. 75, 03:22) in C minor [Pitch Set: C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb]. This is orchestrated in the Alto Clarinet, Bassoon, and Euphonium, sometimes reinforced by other voices (Tenor Sax and Horn). In the original, this melody is given to the Bassoons and full Cello section. The theme is repeated twice, the second time with added treble/soprano voices using the same pitch set.

High Germany
Figure 4: High Germany

The theme ends abruptly at m. 106, and the third theme, True Love’s Farewell, (Figure 5, m. 108, 03:57) is presented in C Dorian [Pitch Set: C-D-Eb-F-G-A-Bb] by the Horns, with the Clarinet II and Bassoon in sixths. The theme consists of three sections of 8+12+12 (ab1b2). Tenor Sax and Clarinet I are added during the second section, and the Piccolo/Flute and Clarinet I take over during the third section, at which point the brass have dropped out of the texture. During the final four measures, the Trumpet and Horn enter on a fragment of the High Germany theme, and the ostinato winds up again. 

True Love's Farewell
Figure 5: True Love's Farewell

High Germany and True Love's Farewell are combined as a sort of fantasia, traveling through several key areas, and the ostinato figure travels first through E-flat Dorian, then modulates through repetitions of the High Germany fragment, at one point even cycling through B-flat Phrygian. The fanfare figure (from m. 51) is also brought back here, adding to the unsteady tonal center (m. 140-165), and all the tension is released with a fortissimo B-flat Major chord (with the F in the bass, as part of a V-I figure).

The climax is reached at m. 179, with a full-texture repetition of High Germany, this time in B-flat minor. This full-throated repetition brings us to a B-flat dyad at m. 194, where the low voice ostinato continues in Bb Dorian [Pitch Set: Bb-C-Db-Eb-F-G-Ab] while Holst introduces the fourth and final tune, The Cuckoo, (Figure 6, m. 196, 05:38) in the woodwinds, cornets, and trumpets. A flourish of woodwinds takes us to a repetition of True Love’s Farewell, with some added chromaticism in the form of the Clarinet/Alto Sax I/Cornet 3 moving line. This section begins to diminuendo and rallentando, heading into a new tempo at m. 235.

The Cuckoo
Figure 6: The Cuckoo

Fragments of the Lover’s Farewell theme are presented by the Oboe, then Clarinet I, while the Bassoon and Horn respond with a three-note motive-fragment of Theme One. The flutes eventually take over the meandering and unwinding theme (originally in the Violin I, with mute). The three-note motive eventually leads to a Euphonium (originally, Trombone) augmentation of the Sheep Shearing Song. This melody is taken over by upper woodwinds, while the inexorable ostinato pattern begins to wind up again. 

The Sheep Shearing Song is transformed into a hemiola (3/4, m. 275) that is presented alongside The Cuckoo in the cornet solo. Both themes continue (although the meter shifts back to 3/2 and the hemiola elements are dropped) as does the bass ostinato, only now it grows hesitant and begins to fade away until we arrive at a recapitulation of the opening bars, with the English Horn once again taking the solo lead and a treble continuo on C…almost as if the entire episode has been nothing but a distraction, a series of songs to be sung while working in the field…or maybe while shearing a sheep.  A solo Clarinet takes over the final notes from the English Horn, and the piece ends on a lunga fermata whole note, fading softly away.


• A1 : m. 1-26 : Sheep Shearing Song (English Horn in F Dorian)
• A2 : m. 27-50: Sheep Shearing Song (Flutes/E-flat Clarinet in D Dorian) 
• A3 : m. 51-62 : Sheep Shearing Song (transitional elements, ostinato motive) 
• Transition, m. 63-74 : Fanfare Motive (Motive 1) + Ostinato motive (Motive 2)

    • B1 : m. 75-90 : High Germany (low tenor voices)
    • B2 : m. 91-106 : High Germany (soprano and alto voices)

    • C1 : m. 107-127 : True Love’s Farewell (clarinet, bassoon, and horn)
    • C2 : m. 128-139 : True Love’s Farewell, truncated (Flutes, Piccolo)

    • m. 140-178 : Fantasia and transformation of previous themes
            o Motive 1 and Motive 2
            o High Germany and True Love’s Farewell

    • B3 : m. 179-193 : High Germany (climax, tutti instruments)
    • D1 : m. 194-216 : The Cuckoo + Motive 2
    • C3 : m. 217-234 : True Love’s Farewell with transitional/chromatic elements
    • C4 : m. 235-255 : True Love’s Farewell w/elements of Sheep Shearing Song

    • A4 : m. 256-274 : Sheep Shearing Song augmented (euphonium/ woodwinds)
    • A5 : m. 275-304 :  Sheep Shearing Song + The Cuckoo + Motive 2
    • A6 : m. 305-320 : Coda : Sheep Shearing Song (oboe, as in the beginning)

22 November 2021

March On!

Note: This article is a revision of an earlier article that appeared on the original version of this blog in February of 2010. It has been updated and expanded.

The dictionary defines the word march as "a piece of music composed to accompany marching, or with a rhythmic character suggestive of marching." For all intents and purposes, this is how marches began their musical life. Whether associated with military marching, a celebratory processional, or a funeral march, marches were meant to get the body moving. It is safe to say that the genre evolved from this genesis; composers of marches from the past hundred or so years were not always envisioning a parade or military band when composing a march, but were rather emulating the distinct musical style set by previous composers of marches.

Most countries have march literature that is distinctly their own, though there has been plenty of cross-cultural borrowing. British marches tend to have a dignified, unhurried air to them, featuring intricate countermelodies, and a more broad, lyrical quality. Kenneth Alford (whose real name was Frederick Joseph Ricketts) is likely the most frequently-performed British march composer (Colonel BogeyArmy of the NileThe Vanished Army)

German marches tend to be more strict, tempo-wise and style-wise. They typically feature a strong polka-like quality (resulting from strong downbeats of the low voices, and alto voices playing off-beats...the standard "oom-pah" style). The final strain of German marches usually features a bombastic but lyrical melody. Carl Teike (Alte Kamaraden) and Hermann Starke (With Sword and Lance) are good examples of this national style.
French marches are a unique form, distinct from other European marches, and emphasizing percussion and brass. Many use a triplet feel, placing a strong emphasis on the first beat of each bar. Musicologists identify three basic types of French march: Defile (used for parading, and characterized by heavy accents on the downbeat of every second measure); Marche (also used for parading, but played by a band alone, often referred to as la musique or harmonie), and the Pas Redouble, intended for concert purposes, and similar to the concert march or symphonic march. Louis Ganne's Marche Lorraine is a popular French march.
Spanish marches are amongst the most popular and fun to perform. Broadly, Spanish marches fall into three different categories: The Marcha, which is the equivalent to the standard military march, the Marcia de Concierto (a concert march), and the Pasodoble, often associated with bullfighting or dancing. Antonio Alvarez (Suspiros de España), Pascual Perez-Chovi (Pepita Greus), Jaime Texidor (Amparito Roca), and Jose Padilla (El Relicario) are good examples of the Spanish style - and this doesn't even take into account composers of other nationalities writing IN a Spanish style.

Italian marches are typically light, with lyrical melodies that remind one of operatic arias. To contrast this, Italian marches also feature sections of fanfare or lightly articulated soprano obbligatos. A typical Italian march (and one of my favourites) is Eduardo Boccalari's "Il Bersagliere." Another style of Italian march is the Marcia Sinfonica, featuring sweeping melodies and development of thematic material. These are not marches for outdoor performance, but rather for a concert setting. The Symphonic Concert March by Giosue Bonelli is a fantastic example of this genre. I realise that there will be some who raise an eyebrow at my exclusion of Delle Cese's "L'Inglesina." Truth be told, it has never been one of my favourite marches, but...well, would you look at that? I found a way to include it.

One cannot discuss American marches without thinking of "The March King" himself, John Philip Sousa. However, there are a few other American march composers of note, including Henry FillmoreKarl King, and C.L. Barnhouse, who have all contributed popular and beloved marches to the lexicon. American marches typically feature contrasting strains, two or more different melodies, and a "trio" section of strains/"repeats" that offers pronounced contrasts in phrasing as well as a new key area.

From the beginning of its musical life, the march has also attracted composers of more "serious" forms. Beethoven, Berlioz, Bernstein, Mahler, Mozart, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky all wrote marches, incorporating them into their musicals, operas, and symphonies. Samuel Barber's Commando March is a well-known gem, but how many people really know Sir Malcolm Arnold's H.R.H. The Duke of Cambridge? How about Eric Coates' Knightsbridge March? We know Prokofiev's March, Op. 99 and Saint-Saens' Orient et Occident, but what about Shostakovich's March of the Soviet Militia...or the even less well-known To the Heroes of the Patriotic War by Khachaturian? In the very recent past, new marches have been written for the wind band by John Mackey (Xerxes), Steven Bryant (MetaMarch), and Donald Grantham (An Uneasy March).

Owing in part to where I grew up and went to school, I have an affinity for marches. In Florida, the FBA (Florida Bandmasters Association) festival process dictates that you must open your program with a march (in addition to two selections of your own choosing from the FBA Music List). In this manner, I was introduced to many, many marches, from the easy (Ted Mesang's Sturdy Men and Little Champ, Walter Finlayson's Storm King) to the difficult (Boccalari's Il Bersagliere, Chovi's Pepita Greus, Sousa's George Washington Bicentennial, Grafulla's Washington Grays).

I came to appreciate, enjoy, and embrace marches. In my opinion, nothing reveals a band's fundamental strengths and weaknesses faster than a march. Sadly, I get the feeling that many of today's band students do not care for marches...and I can only imagine that this feeling is reinforced by the way some band directors feel about them. It is quite possible to go to an entire year's worth of University band concerts and not hear a single march....and this is a shame. The march is one of our heritages. In the process of ignoring the march, we are overlooking a genre that can teach the students much about music.

I loved going to festivals as a high school director in Florida, because nothing could more quickly tell me about the shape a band was in than the march. Can the band articulate cleanly? Do they have good balance and blend? Can they play in tune and adjust the proper pitches in the trio section to be found in many marches? Do they shape the lines? All these questions can be answered by the majority of the march selections to be found for the typical high school band. 

While my high school conducting days are over, I still try to include at least one march each semester. They make great openers, but they also make great encores, especially the old favourites of Sousa. Nothing can get an audience tapping their feet quite like a march can, and I wish more conductors would make a renewed effort to discover marches they may not be aware of. To aid in that endeavour, I present here some of my favourite marches...I hope you will do the same in the Comments section, so that may all learn something new.

Abschied der Slawin (also known as "Farewell, Slava") by Wassily Agapkin
A great Russian march, complete with minor mode melodies, and a daunting key signature. There are a few different editions out there, but the Borgoeois one is probably the best. Fits well with a Russian-themed concert.

Brighton Beach by William Latham
A wonderful little march that was listed amongst the 100 most popular marches by The Instrumentalist four different times between 1960 and 1976. Features plenty of nice melodic writing, and isn't technically demanding for the musicians. Perfect for honor bands and younger ensembles.

British Eighth by Zoe Elliot
One of my favourite marches, a regal and stately march in the British style. Not terribly difficult technique-wise, but contains enough musical material to keep your musicians engaged.

Commando March by Samuel Barber
The only work for winds by Pulitzer Prize-winning Samuel Barber. Not your typical march, and quite difficult but rewarding.

Hoch und Deutschmeister by Dominik Ertl
A great little German march that is not terribly difficult. I've used this march several times for honor bands, as it comes together nicely in a short amount of rehearsal time.

National Emblem by E.E. Bagley.
One of the standards, frequently confused for a Sousa march.  Can be found in several editions.

March, Op. 99 by Sergei Prokofiev
One of my favourite marches from one of my favourite composers. Very quirky, and requires a solid trumpet section (or at least a solid duo).

Symphonic Concert March by Giouse Bonelli
Not really a quick-step march, this concert march is a tad on the long side, and is quite challenging on the woodwind front, but it is full of some very endearing melodies presented in operatic review fashion.

So what say you? What are some of your favourite marches? 

09 November 2020

Music for Winds...but not for "Band"

I've been giving some thought lately to those lovely pieces of music that are often played by high-level college and professional wind ensembles that are written for winds...but were not specifically written for band. In most cases, this means orchestral winds (i.e., no saxes and no euphoniums), but this is not always so.

I'm not thinking about works that are written for chamber winds or Harmonie, as there is a huge body of literature that concerns those types of works, but rather music written for a large ensemble of orchestral winds. Three works immediately jump to mind because -while written for orchestral winds- they are most frequently performed by wind bands: Joseph Schwantner's "...and the mountains rising nowhere", "From a Dark Millennium", and "In evening's stillness..."(His other original works for winds, "Recoil," and "Luminosity" include parts for saxophones and euphoniums).

A few other works that are often played by wind bands (though not technically written for band) include:

Then there are some works that don't seem to be performed by bands very often, but are tackled by the wind sections of symphony orchestras from time to time, such as:

What say you? What else is out there that is of interest to you, written for winds though not specifically for band?

22 April 2020

Wind Band Madness: Take the Challenge...

Feel like challenging yourself during this pandemic? Try one of our three extremely difficult "drop the needle" quizzes and stay sharp!

03 November 2019

Huntingtower, Ballad for Band

I have been a band director of one stripe or another for over twenty years, and have been involved with wind bands for over thirty...and still, I have - until now- had very little experience with Ottorino Respighi's one and only work for winds, the Huntingtower, Ballad for Band. I do not believe I ever performed this work throughout high school or college, although it probably made its way to my consciousness as a "one-off" work by a primarily orchestral composer. At some point during my graduate degrees I must have listened to it, since I own no less than three different digital recordings of the work, but...I admit, at the time, it made no lasting impression on me.

I have been spending more time with the work and the score, as I prepare to conduct it for the first time with the Indiana State University Wind Orchestra, and frankly, I am surprised that I did not know it better already, because it is a wonderful work and right up my alley. As I have done in the past, this blog post serves as a "consolidation" of my thoughts and study of the work as I prepare it for performance. I hope it will be useful to you if you are unfamiliar with it, or if you yourself are putting it together for a performance (or thinking about it - it is well worth it!)

Ottorino Respighi was born on 9 July 1879, in Bologna, Italy. He was taught piano and violin in Bologna by his father, later enrolling at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, where he studied violin and viola with Federico Sarti, composition with Giuseppe Martucci, and historical studies with Luigi Torchi, a scholar of early music.

A year after receiving his diploma in violin in 1899, Respighi went to Russia to be the principal violist in the orchestra of the Russian Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg during its season of Italian opera. While there, he studied composition for five months with Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1932, Respighi was elected to the Royal Academy of Italy.

Composing numerous chamber, vocal, and orchestral works, as well as operas and ballets, he was an enthusiastic scholar of Italian music of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Preferring to keep clear of musical traits of the Classical Period, Respighi combined pre-classical melodic styles and musical forms, such as dance suites, with typical late-19th-century romantic harmonies and textures. He is best known for his “Roman Trilogy” of orchestral music: Fountains of Rome (1916), Pines of Rome (1924), and Roman Festivals (1928). Respighi died on 18 April 1936 of blood poisoning resulting from transfusions  administered to combat endocarditis. He was 56 years old.

Huntingtower is the only work Respighi composed specifically for winds. It was commissioned by Edwin Franko Goldman and the American Bandmasters Association for a tribute concert to John Philip Sousa, who had passed away earlier that year. Respighi had recently visited Huntingtower Castle, a 15th – century Scottish castle once known as Ruthven Castle, with a fascinating history of betrayal, kidnapping, treason, and attempted regicide.

Huntingtower was premiered in Washington, D.C., at the same ABA convention where Gustav Holst’s Hammersmith was premiered. The original publication, by G. Ricordi (an Italian publishing house) is unfortunately out of print. Containing numerous errors, there have been several other versions published over the years, including a 1989 arrangement by Franco Cesarini (which takes some creative freedom with the original), an edition by Suzuki which strives to fix many of the original’s errors (but also introduces new ones along the way), and an edition by Malcolm Binney which may be the most faithful reproduction of the original.

Huntingtower is written for:

-Flute I-II
-Oboe I-II
-English Horn
-Bassoon I-II
-E-flat Soprano Clarinet
-B-flat Soprano Clarinet I-II-III
-E-flat Alto Clarinet
-B-flat Bass Clarinet
-B-flat Soprano Saxophone
-E-flat Alto Saxophone
-B-flat Tenor Saxophone
-E-flat Baritone Saxophone
-B-flat Bass Saxophone
-B-flat Cornet I-II
-B-flat Trumpet I-II
-Horn in F I-II-III-IV
-Trombone I-II-III
-Baritone (in treble clef, NOT the same as the euphonium part)
-String Bass
-Percussion (2-3 players, bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam tam and triangle)

The following terms are used in this work:
  • A tempo: a directive to return to the original tempo after a deliberate deviation.
  • Allegro: a quick tempo between allegretto and vivace, between 120-156 bpm.
  • Andante: a moderate tempo, between largo and moderato, between 76-108 bpm.
  • Animando: growing more animated, spirited.
  • Crescendo: growing louder.
  • Dolce: sweetly, softly, or with tender emotion.
  • Diminuendo: smoothly decreasing the volume. Same as decrescendo.
  • Espressivo: expressive, with expression.
  • Largamente: broadly, in a broad tempo or manner.
  • Lento: slowly, between 44-60 bpm.
  • Perdendosi: dying away, gradually diminishing to nothing, possibly slowing as well.
  • Piu: “more,” often used in conjunction with other terms ("piu forte," "piu mosso") 
  • Poco a poco: “little by little.” Denotes gradual transformation.
  • Rallentando: gradually slowing.
  • Sempre: Italian term for “always.”
  • Stringendo: pressing forward or accelerating.
  • Tempo I or Tempo Primo: perform in the original tempo, usually after a diversion.

From the outset we are confronted with a daunting key: E-flat minor (6 flats). The tempo, Andante lento, has been interpreted myriad ways by myriad conductors (see Appendix I below). If we take lento to mean 44-60 bpm and Andante to be 76-108 bpm, then naturally we should be in a tempo somewhere between 60 and 76 bpm. It is also important to choose a tempo that will allow the opening statement (A Section) to sound mysterious yet somehow frail and unstable, while allowing for the metrical modulation between measures 52 and 54 to make sense. More on this later.

The music begins with bass instruments (string bass, tuba, bass saxophone, and bassoon) asking a “question”:

Figure 1 - Motive 1
To which the tenor/baritone instruments (baritone, baritone saxophone, bassoons, alto clarinet, clarinet 3) “answer” in kind:

Figure 2 - Motive 2

This first conversation is brief, and ends quickly in the first moment of “impasse,” ending in m. 4 on an A-flat diminished seven chord, with the D-natural serving as the E-double flat.

We try again, with Motive 1 instruments once more intoning a question, but in a slightly different tone of voice (using different pitches). This appears to have a “calming” effect on the response, which has been altered rhythmically and harmonically, ending in a harmonically ambiguous dyad: B-double flat + D-flat. This ambiguity is resolved after a moment of tension, leading us to the trombones and saxophones in a variation of Motive 2. Although this motive travels through some quite interesting key areas, it resolves most harmlessly in that favourite of wind band chords: B-flat major.

Figure 3 - Harmonic transformation of Motive 2

This resolution is short lived, as almost immediately, the tuba and string bass present a slight variation of the Motive 1 question, ending downward, almost as if they’ve answered their own question. Emboldened, the answer is given by more voices this time, adding alto to the tenor/baritone. The back-and-forth becomes more heated through the subsequent measures, growing louder and more animated until a climactic arrival when everything “snaps” back into place at Tempo I. 

The first "big" moment, emerging from the heated back and forth of the previous section, occurs at bar 25. There is no time to enjoy the moment: more voices have now added to Motive 1, as if all the arguing has served to convince some that they too have questions. The tam tam at bar 28 serves to change the conversation’s tone, with a more faithful rendition to Motive 1 intoning a question once again.  The tonality shifts to G-flat minor, with only Horn 3 giving the C-sharp. This time, the response is transformed into a triplet figure in the bassoon, baritone, and euphonium, later joined by trombone 1-2 as well. A more traditional response follows (m. 34), while the Motive 1 fragments dissipate, transformed instead into a sort of “echo” of the Motive 2 theme.

Motive 2 takes on an interesting harmonic transformation, creating a yearning melody over a sustained bed of low brass chords (the chords themselves outlining a macro e-flat minor: G-flat major, B-flat minor, E-flat minor. Another moment of questioning everything (m. 45), then a seeming “coming together” (or undoing?) of both motives as the A section comes to a close, propelling us to the next section by way of a "galloping" rhythmic transformation (m. 52, Figure 4). 

Figure 4 - Motive 3 "Galop"

This is the beginning of the B Section, in a new tempo (Allegro). The rhythmic transformation should deposit us neatly into the new tempo and new feel. The ostinato pulse should not be allowed to rush or become clipped. Out of the ostinato pulse emerges a new melody (Figure 5) that bears some thematic resemblance to Motive 2, while a low C-flat drones on in the bass voices and the tenor/baritone voices continue the E-flat ostinato.

Figure 5 - New melodic theme, m. 56

The new melody waxes and wanes, joined by other voices in harmony at m. 70. At this point, the drone begins to alternate between several tones, while the ostinato pulse continues in E-flat and the tempo and volume begin to pick up.

We are suddenly back in 3/4 time with a few different things going on: the ostinato pulse motive from the previous section continues to intone E-flat during the 12 bars of this transition section, while we get a restatement of both Motive 1 and Motive 2 from the A section (at a much faster tempo than previously stated). This leads us neatly to the C Section

An abrupt change occurs here, with the cornets and trumpets presenting a “Scottish” melody (Figure 6) transformed into a heroic, sweeping line, backed by woodwind trills, triangle roll, while the E-flat ostinato pulse from the previous section has been transformed into a B-flat ostinato pulse. 

Figure 6 - "Scottish" Melody

The horns join the trumpets/cornets in the heroic melody, then take over the line completely as it begins to dissipate, handing it off to the trombones. Melody fragments are then passed around several instruments as the tempo and volume begin to die away.

The D section begins at m. 141. A new melody emerges in the woodwinds (Figure 7) in B-flat Mixolydian mode [Bb-C-D-Eb-F-G-Ab-Bb], accompanied by descending quarter notes that also outline the Mixolydian in bass clarinet, tenor sax, and horns. The opening of this new melody is drawn from the ending measures of the heroic melody fragment in m. 130-138.

Curiously, the descending quarter note line adds the D-flat in m. 146, and the bass pedal switches from B-flat to E-flat, dispelling the Mixolydian feel in the accompaniment, while the melody itself continues in the B-flat Mixolydian. One could make the argument that this section is now in E-flat Mixolydian…except for the melody, which continues to stubbornly use the D-natural. However, the D-natural returns in the accompaniment at m.148, which all serves to make the harmonic center quite ambiguous.

Figure 7: D Section melody

At m. 149, the accompaniment appears to re-affirm the B-flat Mixolydian, however, the melody in the clarinets is now employing B-natural, lending to even more harmonic confusion. At m. 151 the pattern of descending quarters is reversed for two measures, with a rising pattern that would appear to be a harmonized B-flat Mixolydian once again, though the final note of the bass line switches from A-flat to A-natural, creating one more instance of harmonic unrest and confusion leading into the next section.

A slight variant on the D section is presented at m. 153 by clarinets, and joined by flutes at m. 157. The B-flat Mixolydian feel is still present via the pedal B-flat and a descending scale. As before, the D-flat is introduced in the descending pattern, but this time the pedal does not shift to E-flat, remaining B-flat as the section grows in volume, heading to the finale.

The return of the A section comes at m. 161, with a largamente presentation of Motive 2 in the brass, while the woodwinds trill an E-flat and the basses present Motive 1. The overall chord here, however, is an A-flat minor in second inversion.  The tam tam at m. 166 serves to return us to E-flat minor. This section serves as a de facto Coda, with the return of both motives, and the final, ringing endorsements of the E-flat minor.

The overall form of the Huntingtower Ballad is as follows (with room for interpretation):

A1 - harmonically ambiguous, first presentation of Motives 1 and 2, m. 1-53
B - E-flat minor (sometimes with the raised 6th), galloping motive, m. 54-85
A2 - return of the A section, in a faster tempo, m. 86-97
C - B-flat Mixolydian, Heroic/Scottish melody, m. 98-140
D - B-flat Mixolydian, new melody derived from Motive 2, m. 141-160
A3 - E-flat minor, Recapitulation and Coda, m. 161-181

This errata list applies to the original, G. Ricordi published version of Huntingtower. Later editions have fixed some of these errors, and unfortunately also introduced others.

  • Bb Clarinet III, m. 20: The C-flat should be a B-flat in both score and part.
  • Bass Clarinet, m. 4: The E-flat should be an E-Natural in both score and part.
  • Bassoon II, m. 7-8: A tie is missing in the part (correct in the score).
  • Horn IV, m. 28: The C-natural should be a C-sharp in both score and part.
  • Bb Trumpet II, m. 86: The D-flat should be a D-natural in both score and part.
  • Euphonium m. 20. The B-double flat should be an A-flat in both score and part.

Proper tempo plays an important role in performances of Huntingtower. Too slow a tempo at the beginning will require an accelerando to make the Allegro section work, and too fast a tempo will simply create rhythmic problems and make the Allegro section sound frazzled. The following tempi are garnered from available recordings of the work:
  • United States Air Force Band (Lowell Graham, conductor):  beginning tempo c. 56; Allegro tempo c. 160 - transition measure was at 60ish, Graham accelerated through the first phrase of the allegro; D section c. 70-72) [Source: https://youtu.be/gRxWbW0RheU]
  • Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra (Unknown conductor): beginning tempo c. 56; Allegro c. 148-152; D section c. 52-54). [Source: https://youtu.be/y1HHvSOM2PM]
  • United States Marine Band (Jason Fettig, conductor): beginning tempo c. 56; Allegro c. 136 - disciplined!; D section c. 64). [Source: https://youtu.be/w7zBfUGgmow]
  • Rovetto Wind Orchestra (Andrea Loss, conductor): beginning tempo c. 50-52; Allegro c. 130-132, D section c. 50 - this felt entirely too slow). [Source: https://youtu.be/k2_9IcuEBHc]
  • Ferenc Liszt Academy (Lazslo Marosi, conductor): beginning tempo c. 48-50; Allegro c. 160, Marosi immediately changed tempo two bars before the Allegro; D section c. 56.
  • University of Southern Mississippi Wind Ensemble (Fulvio Creux, conductor): beginning tempo c. 52; Allegro c. 148 (took some time to get to that mark); D section c. 70.  [Source:  https://youtu.be/Og0p28zx02g]

30 January 2019

First Suite in E-flat

This post was originally published in 2014, and is being updated and expanded in preparation for an upcoming performance by the Indiana State University Wind Symphony.

I am somewhat hesitant to write this blog post on the First Suite in E-flat. For one, like Holst's Hammersmith, First Suite is rightly considered one of the masterworks of our field. However, whereas there are relatively few articles on Hammersmith to be found, there are myriad writings on the Suite in E-flat that can be found with relative ease. Secondly, the Suite in E-flat is one of those works that conductors in our field have very strong opinions about. I recall all too well the warning given to me by an older band director when I was still a pup teaching high school in South Florida (paraphrased):

"I would never do a piece like the Holst Suites, or Lincolnshire, or Korean Folk Song." "Why not? Those are wonderful pieces!" "Every judge comes to Festival with his or her interpretation of it set, and if you do anything slightly different, you won't get a superior."

While I (stubbornly) found that not to be true, it does seem that a great many people have fixed opinions on how some of the cornerstones of our repertoire are to be performed, and are quick to critique those that don't follow the established routine. Which is, of course, why I ultimately decided to go ahead and write this post after all. There is, of course, still room for interpretation in the "warhorses" of our field...indeed, there will need to be new interpretations, lest we fall into the trap of conducting everything the way Revelli, Fennell, or Begian did. So, in trying to look at Holst's First Suite in E-flat with a set of new eyes and ears, I felt it would be helpful to write down and consolidate my thoughts. Naturally, this blog helps with that process.

First Suite in E-flat will be featured on the next Indiana State University Wind Symphony performance, and it has been fun to work with my students on this, all the while trying to hear and see things differently than the three or four previous times I have conducted this work. The challenges are subtle but many, and the students have risen to the challenge. I am looking forward to a wonderful performance on 28 February 2019. If you are in the area, I hope you will be able to join us.

Gustav Holst (born 21 September 1874, in Gloucestershire, UK; died 25 May 1934, in London) was an English composer and educator. He learned the piano and the violin at an early age, but was stricken with a nerve condition that affected the movement of his right hand, forcing him to give them up in favour of the trombone.

Holst received degrees from The Royal College of Music in London, where he studied composition with Charles Villiers Stanford, and where he met fellow composer (and lifelong friend) Ralph Vaughan Williams. While at RCM, Holst also became interested in Hindu mysticism and spirituality, interests that would later shape the course of his compositional output.

In 1901 Holst married Isobel Harrison, who would remain with him the remainder of his life. Holst's compositions for wind band, although only a small portion of his total output, have made him a cornerstone of the genre. He is perhaps best-known for his monumental tone poem, The Planets, and for his two suites for military band.

First Suite in E-flat was completed in 1909, but did not receive its premiere until 1920, at the Royal Military School of Music. We know it was completed in 1909 from Holst’s own pen, for he kept a notebook of his compositions beginning in 1895, and an entry for 1909 reads “1st Suite for Military Band*, Op. 28A.” Curiously, Holst wrote “1st Suite” even though the Second Suite would not be written for another two years. Even more curious(er), the manuscript was originally entitled simply “Suite in E-flat.”

*It should be noted here that the term "Military Band" does not suggest a parade ensemble, or a similar-type marching band unit, or even an ensemble like our current American military bands (The President's Own United States Marine Band, for example). The term originally encompassed instruments from the woodwind, brass, and percussion families, as those were the instruments that made up the original "bands," which were of military origin. It was used in the time of Holst to distinguish between one such unit, and the more common symphony orchestras or brass bands.

There may have been performances of the work prior to 1920, but any such performance has been lost to the pages of history, as there are no records of it. There is evidence that the parts were copied out sometime prior to 1918, which would suggest a performance, but no “smoking gun” until 1920. Imogen Holst, the composer's daughter, wrote:

"I have not been able to find the date of the first performance… there are manuscript (non-autograph) parts with the name ‘Gustav von Holst’ on the title page, proving that it was in the repertoire before September 1918. There may have been a performance in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the summer of 1917… The work was probably written for some special occasion, and this may have been the Festival at the people’s Palace, Mile End, London in May, 1909.”

This strange turn of events would later also befall the Second Suite, written in 1911 but not performed until 1922. Additionally, it is unknown if Holst wrote the First Suite on a commission, or for what specific ensemble/organization it was intended. All we know for certain is that it was the first composition Holst wrote for the so-called "military band," which we of course have come to know as concert band, symphonic band, wind ensemble, or any of a number of variants.

In 1921, Boosey & Company issued a publication of the First Suite in E-flat with a set of parts and a condensed score. Unfortunately, the publication was full of errors, many of which could not be corrected due to the lack of a full score, which would not be published until 1948. The original manuscript included the following parts, many of them ad lib in an effort to make the Suite playable by as wide an array of ensembles as possible, a necessity given the lack of standard instrumentation amongst Britain's numerous military bands:

-D-flat Flute and Piccolo (more common instruments at the time)
-2 Clarinets in E-flat (second one is ad lib)
-2 Oboes (ad lib)
-2 Bassoons (second one is ad lib)
-Solo Clarinet in B-flat
-1st Clarinets in B-flat
-2nd Clarinets in B-flat
-3rd Clarinets in B-flat
-Bass Clarinet in B-flat (ad lib)
-Alto Saxophone in E-flat (ad lib)
-Tenor Saxophone in B-flat (ad lib)
-1st Cornets in B-flat
-2nd Cornets in B-flat
-2 Trumpets in E-flat (ad lib)
-2 Trumpets in B-flat (ad lib)
-2 Horns in F
-2 Horns in E-flat (ad lib)
-2 Tenor Trombones (second is ad lib)
-Bass Trombone
-Baritone in B-flat (ad lib)
-Bombardons (a bass brass instrument)
-String Bass (ad lib)
-Timpani (ad lib)
-Bass Drum
-Side Drum

As you can see, it is possible to play the original version of the First Suite in E-flat with as few as 19 performers (1 piccolo, 1 flute, 1 bassoon, 1 Eb clarinet, 1 Solo clarinet, 3 Bb clarinets, 3 cornets, 2 horns, 1 tenor trombone, 1 bass trombone, 1 euphonium, 1 bombardon, and 2 percussionists). Also note the lack of baritone saxophone in the original manuscript, an instrument that would again be absent in Hammersmith.

Subsequent editions of the Suite introduced many inconsistencies, not the least of which was the required instrumentation. The 1948 version included a full score, created from the 1921 published parts. At the urging of Albert Austin Harding, it also included instruments that had become popular in the American band tradition, but that were most definitely not in the original manuscript. That 1948 edition included the following parts (added instrument parts are bolded):

-C Flute and Piccolo
-D-flat Flute and Piccolo
-Bassoon 1-2
-E-flat Clarinet
-Solo & 1st Clarinet
-2nd Clarinet
-3rd Clarinet
-E-flat Alto Clarinet
-B-flat Bass Clarinet
-B-flat Contrabass Clarinet
-E-flat Alto Saxophone
-B-flat Tenor Saxophone
-E-flat Baritone Saxophone
-B-flat Bass Saxophone
-1st Cornet
-2nd Cornet
-B-flat Trumpets
-1st & 2nd E-flat Horns
-3rd & 4th E-flat Horns
-1st & 2nd Trombones
-3rd Trombone
-Snare Drums
-Bass Drums

In addition, the second pair of trumpets (in E-flat), the string bass, and the baritone part were eliminated altogether (with the baritone melded into the euphonium part), the F horn parts were consolidated into E-flat horns, and new parts for C piccolo and flute were fashioned since the D-flat versions had already begun falling out of favour.

A third edition in wide use, edited by Colin Matthews and published in 1984, fixed many errors in the parts and score, but unfortunately introduced a few others, and includes the following parts:

-Concert Flute and Piccolo
-1st & 2nd Oboe
-1st & 2nd Bassoon
-E-flat Clarinet
-Solo B-flat Clarinet
-1st B-flat Clarinet
-2nd B-flat Clarinet
-3rd B-flat Clarinet
-B-flat Bass Clarinet
-E-flat Alto Saxophone
-B-flat Tenor Saxophone
-E-flat Baritone Saxophone
-B-flat Bass Saxophone
-1st B-flat Cornet
-2nd B-flat Cornet
-1st B-flat Trumpet
-2nd B-flat Trumpet
-Horn in F (1, 2, 3, 4)
-1st Trombone
-2nd Trombone
-3rd Trombone
-Baritone (actually, Euphonium)
-String Bass

The Solo Clarinet has been split back into a separate part from the 1st, the Euphonium part has been renamed "Baritone BC" (though curiously it is still listed as "Euphonium" and "Euph" in the score itself), and the various percussion instruments have been melded into one part.

Numerous inconsistencies in the parts and the score still abound today, and many (but likely not all) of these errata can be found here. Some of the more egregious examples include a very prominent wrong note in the Euphonium solo of the Intermezzo, as well as the (inadvertent?) removal of an important triangle part. I will discuss those errors in the course of the Summary.

There is now also a 4th edition that has become popular in recent years, edited by Frederick Fennel and published by Ludwig. I have not yet had a chance to study that score nor perform from this edition, so I cannot speak as to its effectiveness...it is only mentioned here for the sake of a complete picture of where we stand, from a publishing perspective, with the First Suite in E-flat.

Note: Timings used in this section correspond to a recording by the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra. A link is provided below. There are also many other fine recordings to be found on YouTube (some of which cannot be embedded here due to link restrictions). The score being used is the 1984 Colin Matthews edition. For easier use, I suggest opening the link in a separate page or tab, rather than scrolling back and forth to this spot on the page.

Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra (Unknown conductor)

First Suite in E-flat begins with a somber chaconne (Figure 1, 0:00), introduced by the euphonium, tuba, and string bass. This chaconne melody will be used as the basis for the entire first movement. Originally, Holst had written the opening melody to include bassoon, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, and baritone, but obviously changed his mind as he taped over the original manuscript with a blank sheet music (quite noticeable in looking at the manuscript).

A minor point, but something to consider, is the topic of whether or not to break (as in, take a breath) in the fourth measure. A number of strongly-held opinions have been articulated to me over the years, but I personally go with a break - this makes the job of the low brass much easier if you plan to take a slower tempo, and feels "natural" to me now. One day I may experiment with no break.

Figure 1 : Chaconne Motive

Note: All figures may be clicked on for a larger view.

The second statement introduces the cornets and trombones (m. 9, 0:17). Note that the chaconne melody is now being played only by the 2nd and 3rd trombone, while the 1st trombone and cornets introduce harmonic material (material which will be reprised near the end of the movement). This statement is more probing and cautious, somewhat bittersweet compared to the first statement, and ends on a B-flat major chord (a half-cadence, essentially), as if asking a question at the very end that remains unresolved.

The third statement (m. 17, 0:34) introduces woodwinds for the first time, alongside the string bass. The chaconne motive is passed to the bass clarinet, bassoons, tenor sax, and string bass, while the soprano clarinets present an innocent pianissimo melody marked legato, a bloom of wild flowers rushing to break soil and turn toward the sun. The oboe and second clarinet intone momentary fragments of resistance and tension (m. 16-18) before joining the bloom, which dissolves into a series of upwardly climbing 16th notes (0:48). It has been my experience that this two bar introduction into the next statement tends to slow slightly. There are many reasons this might happen; my personal opinion is that often, when the initial statement is taken too fast, this is the place where conductors (and ensembles) "recalibrate" the tempo. In order to not let that happen, the opening tempo must be chosen with care (see Appendix I, "Tempo" below). In the short run, the best way to keep tempo going is to start thinking 8th notes in the bar immediately preceding the figure (easy enough, since the  melody winds down using 8th-8th-quarter)

The fourth statement of the chaconne motive (m. 25, 0:51) is performed by its initial purveyors (euphonium, tubas, string bass) with reinforcement from the baritone and bass saxophone. Keep in mind that these two instruments were not originally included in Holst's conception of the First Suite, and should therefore be used cautiously. The 16th-8th note figure continues, rising steadily, while a solo cornet and trombone present a counter-argument. Although not marked in the score, the trombone's entrance (m. 26) should be marked "solo" (this has been corrected in newer printings). Additionally, the bass clarinet's notes in m. 27 should be written F, not written D.

In contrast with the tendency to drag found in the two bars preceding this statement, the two bars preceding the 5th statement tend to rush in anticipation (and likely because of the crescendo), and must be carefully monitored. The fifth statement (m. 33, 1:06) has a more "martial" feel to it, the chaconne motive presented by low brass and reeds as well as string bass. The 16th note motive from the previous statement has been transformed slightly, and the addition of the snare drum cements the feel of marching, pomp, and authority. Care should be taken to not allow the final 8th note of each measure to be rushed or clipped short - it should be the same length as the other 8ths in the measure. Do note, however, that unlike the previous section, this one is not marked staccato, leaving us to come up with a style choice on our own - should the transformed motive continue staccato? The addition of the snare drum is a compelling clue. As before, be careful not to rush the last two measures of the statement heading into Rehearsal Letter B.

The 6th statement (m. 41, 1:22) is marked "Brillante," and that is exactly what it is: A burst of brilliant 16th notes, fluttering over the first rhythmic transformation of the chaconne motive (short, unaccented 8th notes, presented by all the brass, the baritone and bass saxophones, and the string bass, rhythmically doubled by percussion). The clarinets are the only ones to have the 16th notes throughout the entire statement; other woodwind instruments join or leave the undulating figure throughout its course, with the most problematic entrance usually being the 16th note pickup from the flutes into m. 45. Speaking of flutes, one small error can be found in their part at m. 41: the last 16th note of beat two should be an F, not a G.

The 7th statement (m. 49, 1:38), one of my favourite moments in music due to being a reformed euphonium player, is the first time the chaconne motive is given to a soprano voice (trumpets and cornets). Freed from the constraints of presenting the chaconne once again, the low reeds and low brass are given a lumbering pesante figure that must nonetheless not be allowed to get too heavy, and certainly should not be played short or separated. This figure often presents challenges to inexperienced euphonium players who don't frequently use the 4th valve (and is impossible to perform without one). The contribution of the horns should not be overlooked here. While they are not "front and center" in this statement, the harmonic structure they provide is important and should not be merely background. Also note the moving quarter notes in the second cornet part at bar 50...it is one of those little hidden gems I like to bring out. The first cornet part splits here (hence the need for at least two players on the part - there is minor debate about this, but Holst did indeed label the part "cornets," implying he expected more than one).

The 8th statement (m. 57, 1:53) is a much more subdued affair, and the chaconne motive is passed to a solo Horn, accompanied by the 3rd Clarinet. The Solo and 1st/2nd clarinets present a lovely, flowing, delicate melody. Pay special attention to the 2nd clarinet at m. 63, where there is motion against static parts, and the feeling of hemiola (feel of three half notes against two dotted halves, m. 63-64). This will be used again in this movement.

The 9th statement (m. 65, 2:09) is a wonderfully expressive, chamber-like variation, presented by solo flute and solo oboe, with harmonic contributions by the E-flat clarinet and horn 1, while a solo alto saxophone presents the chaconne motive, the most "transparent" of the presentations. This section often reminds me of the middle section of Holst's other masterwork for winds, Hammersmith. It is essentially chamber music, and should be treated as such, with great care to keep the voices subdued, yearning. It has become common practice to gently ritard the tempo as the statement is winding down, the thinking being that it helps highlight the inversion of the motive in the next statement.

The 10th statement presents the chaconne motive in diatonic inversion and in a different tonal center (Figure 2, C minor, m. 73, 2:25), a wonderfully surprising moment in the piece that can be highlighted by the tempo modification discussed in the previous paragraph. The inverted theme is played by 1st and 3rd clarinet, alto saxophone, and horn. This foreboding statement is accompanied by flute, oboe, and solo clarinet. Note the entrance of the bassoon in m. 77, which is marked piano.

Figure 2: Inverted chaconne motive

The 11th statement (m. 81, 2:43) skulks along with the help of an inverted hemiola, the feel of two against the pulse of three, presented in the bassoon, bass saxophone, tubas, and string bass, with an assist from the bass drum. Cleverly, Holst gives us an augmented version of this skulking march, in the 3rd clarinet, bass clarinet, and tenor sax (m. 81-84), before settling back into a normal hemiola for the remainder of the statement. The theme, still inverted, is played by the cornets and the euphonium.

As abruptly as it began, the inversion dissipates with the next statement (m. 89, 3:00), leaving us with a noble-sounding statement by the trombones, the chaconne motive shifted up a diatonic third, trying to emerge from the shadow of the skulking  march, as if rising against deep odds. To further highlight this, Holst has marked them pesante, as if they are struggling against the weight of what must be done.

The 13th statement (m. 97, 3:00) returns us to E-flat, the hopeful chaconne motive played by solo cornet and solo euphonium over a sea of sustained B-flats. Pay close attention to the weaving quarter note lines emanating from the second cornet, through the alto saxophone, second clarinet, and into the third clarinet and first trombone. Keep the timpani and snare drum at a barely audible level and do not allow this statement to crescendo.

The 14th statement (m. 105, 3:32) rises, aided by 8th notes in the lower clarinets and alto/tenor saxophones. These 8th notes must be allowed to grow in intensity at a gradual pace. Note measures 111 and 112, which were earlier foreshadowed (m. 63-64). This statement includes an elongation of the phrase in order to build intensity and lead us to the triumphant Maestoso. There is an error in the bass clarinet part, at m. 111: The fourth 8th note should be a written F, not a written E.

The 15th statement (m. 114, Letter F, 3:51) is majestic and soaring, the chaconne motive presented by low brass and low reeds, while the upper voices reprise the counter melodic material initially found in the second statement, all the way back at m. 9. Give some attention to the suspension (tension-relief) found at m. 120-121 in the flute and first cornet part.

The final statement (m. 122, 4:10) shifts the chaconne motive up a diatonic fifth, presented by first and second cornets and first and second trombones, over an E-flat pedal, reinforcing the principal tonal area of the suite, broken up only in the final five measures by a series of heavily articulated pulses (aided by bass drum and timpani), before we arrive at the final, glorious E-flat chord (presented without bass voices for brilliant transparency). The second clarinet and the lower first cornet part are the only instruments that contain the third of the chord: balance on this final chord will need to be constantly emphasized.

Holst's desire to have the three movements played without break are indicated by his own pen:

“As each movement is founded on the same phrase it is requested that the Suite shall be played right through without a break.” 

Despite this admonition, and owing to some publisher-induced awkward page turns, many performances include large pauses between the movements. Wherever possible, this should be avoided.

MOVEMENT TWO: Intermezzo
The second movement begins with a soft 8th note "thud," gone in an instant, and replaced by a duet of pulsing E-flat soprano clarinets (the second part is cued in the 1st B-flat soprano clarinet part, and indeed this is how it is often performed). Our first theme of the second movement is presented by muted cornet, solo clarinet, and oboes (figure 3, m. 3, 4:42). Consisting of two 8-bar phrases (a, b), it should sound familiar: The first three notes of this motive are the same first three notes of the chaconne motive, a point that Holst hammers home with the use of accented notes (and reinforcement from the tambourine).

Figure 3: Intermezzo, Theme I

More instruments join the theme, but only the first half (a) of it is presented before a new theme arrives (figure 4, m. 27, 5:03), riding on a rhythmic ostinato of low voices and timpani. The new theme is presented in single-reed instruments exclusively, but is joined by flutes later in the phrase. As this new theme is marked piano, take care to not allow the accompaniment instruments get too loud and overbalance the phrase. While many performances treat the second 8th note as a culmination of the theme, I believe it serves as an anacrusis into the next figure, a point I am sure Holst was highlighting with the use of the tambourine, once again. This will also help keep the tempo moving briskly.

Figure 4: Intermezzo, Theme II

A flourish of 16th notes over the top of the insistent 8th note ostinato leads us to Letter B, and the return of Theme I, this time presented in full (a, b). A quirky descending motive breaks up the repetition - this motive must not be allowed to get too heavy or thick, it should be performed almost as a pizzicato in stringed instruments. The whole woodwind section gets involved in a repetition of Theme I (a) before we abruptly transform the mood, arriving at Letter C.

If the tempo has been chosen carefully, there will be no need to slow or speed the new melody at Letter C (Figure 5, m. 67, 5:38). Indeed, this section is marked L'istesso.

Figure 5: Intermezzo, Theme III

This third theme is a beauty of simplicity in its construction. As it is led only by the solo clarinet, the accompaniment must not be allowed to overshadow it (the one exception may be the bass clarinet/clarinet 1 "flourish" in bar. 71). The flute joins for the second half of the theme, sweetening the phrase but bringing intonation issues if attention is not paid.

Shortly after Rehearsal D, the trumpet and euphonium (6:10) take over the theme while the clarinets playfully weave out a web of 8th note accompaniment. Please note that in earlier editions of the First Suite, the trumpet is not accompanied by the euphonium here (this recording would appear to be of one of those editions).

A transition arrives suddenly, changing the meter from 4/4 to 2/4 (still in the same tempo), while the euphonium intones a slightly modified version of Theme II (the last 8th note before the half note in this melody should be an F, not a G, an error that has persisted across several editions). More voices join in the second half of Theme II, accompanied by the insistent 8th note motive earlier presented by the E-flat clarinets.

Rehearsal F is truly one of the most wonderful moments in the world of music, and shows the skill Holst brought to bear on the First Suite. A sudden key change announces the new section, and Holst proceeds to present all three themes that have been used in the Intermezzo - but does so in reverse order:

Theme III enters in the low voices (m. 123, Letter F, 6:55), accompanied by a dominant-tonic obstinate pattern. Theme II enters next in the soprano clarinets and alto sax (m. 126, 7:01), and finally, Theme I, molded to fit (but not quite fit) into the prevailing harmony appears at m. 128 (7:04). Holst has successfully combined all three themes and continues to weave them as the movement winds down - never slowing! - to its conclusion at pianissimo, with a broken arpeggio figure requiring much delicacy. A C major chord, staccato and light, ends the Intermezzo.

Once again, attaca (a very brief respite is appropriate), and the March begins with a flurry of trills while the trumpets, horns, and trombones present a downward quarter note motive. Upon closer inspection, Holst has cleverly harkened back to the three note motive that features prominently in the first two movements, but here he has inverted the notes (Figure 6, m. 1, 7:32).

Figure 6: Inverted Motive

The march motive begins after a bass drum "thud" to bring martial order to the chaos of the woodwind trills and displaced instances of inverted motive, with the first cornet and snare drum leading the charge with Theme IV (Figure 7, m. 5, 7:36).

Figure 7: March theme
The second half of the March Theme (Figure 8, m. 13, 7:44), will be employed by Holst later in the movement. As a conductor, be wary of the tendency for the low voices and timpani to drag at measures 15-16 (in fact, any time there is a quarter note, followed by two quarter rests and another quarter note, or similar rhythms).

Figure 8: March theme, second half

This theme returns in measure 28 (7:58), as the march is propelled to what functions as a "trio"  (adding a flat, as typical of a trio in a march). A four bar introduction serves to arrest the momentum of the march (though not by actually slowing the tempo) as low voices lead us to the second theme of the movement, which starts off with a very familiar three-note sequence (though transposed).

Figure 9: Movement III, second theme melody and counter

There is so much room for musical expression in this theme (m. 41, 8:09) and its countermelody, I don't believe the possibilities will ever be exhausted. Marked "with larghezza" (with breadth), it is an epic, sweeping line propelled along on the backs of the 3rd trombone, tuba, and string bass, who are almost wholly responsible for the tempo in this section. I have found it helpful to relinquish some of my need for control in this section, and NOT beat every half note - I let the shape of the phrases dictate what information I give the ensemble, and they do not disappoint. The low voices are more than capable of sustaining the tempo on their own, a worry I know some conductors face in this section: Trust them. They will not betray that trust. The theme is presented abcac, with the oboes and E-flat clarinet joining in the second repetition of the c stanza.

A brief reprise of the march theme in the upper woodwinds leads us to the "dogfight" strain (Letter C, m. 97, 8:54), where Holst takes ideas from earlier in the march and begins fashioning a tapestry of contrasting elements, heightening the tension. It all begins with cornets and trombones, who are plugging away with snippets of the theme, a driving rhythmic motive that helps propel us to Letter D. In conjunction with this, oboes, bassoon, clarinets, and eventually horns move the harmony by presenting a sequence of upwardly rising chords - C Major, D-flat Maj7, D-flat 7, and E-flat minor.

While this is happening, the euphonium and bari sax are serving up a call to action, based on the ubiquitous three-note motive that drives the entire Suite. This "call" actually begins before Letter C, when the horns state it at the end of the woodwind march theme. The call grows more insistent, more demanding, more regal thanks to the addition of the trombones, and finally the dam breaks and we arrive at the key change.

Material from the introduction of the march is reprised here, with forte trills in the woodwinds, and the descending three-note inverted motive - driving ever forward and culminating in an F minor chord with an added G (m. 122, 9:24) high above on the flute/piccolo (a very striking chord that deposits us neatly into Letter D, where Holst combines the two main themes found in the march.

Take care to note that the march theme has been altered slightly in the second measure: Instead of going from B-flat to A-flat in the two quarter notes after the 8ths, the B-flat is repeated. This is presumably done because the Theme V countermelody features a G-natural that would have clashed with the A-flat, however, in the second repetition immediately after, a G-natural is still present in the countermelody, while the notes now go from B-flat to A-flat. It may be that one or the other is in error, however, a quick look at Holst's manuscript score reveals that this is how it was written, so we may never know the actual intent behind writing it as such (or whether it was a mistake).

The third stanza of the March's second theme returns midway through measure 153, a striking moment that lends itself well to musical experimentation in order to highlight its return. My personal favourite interpretation at the moment includes a subito piano with a crescendo back to forte in the following measure.

Suddenly, the tempo slows, and we are presented with the first stanza of the second theme one last time, before a short codetta reprising material from the dogfight while the trombones triumphantly intone one last heroic phrase before the woodwinds rush us toward a final E-flat major chord.

The overall form of the First Suite is as follows (with room for interpretation):

Movement One:

A (E-flat Major)

- Chaconne theme (m. 1-8) + Statements 2-9 (m. 9-72)

(C minor)

- Inverted chaconne theme, statements 10-11 (m. 73-88) 
   + Statements 12-14 (m. 89-113)

A (E-flat Major)

- Statements 15-16 (m. 114-end)

Movement Two:

A (C minor)

-2-bar intro, Theme I (aba) - m. 1-24

-2-bar intro, Theme II (m. 25-38), 4-bar outro 

-Theme I (aba), m. 43-64), two-bar extension (m. 65-66)

(F Dorian)

-Theme III (ab) x 2 (m. 67-98)

A1 (F minor/ C minor)

- Theme I (aba), m. 99-122

B1 (C Major)

- All three themes combined (m. 123-138)

- Codetta (m. 139-end)

Movement Three:

"March Form"

A (E-flat Major)

-Introduction, m. 1-4

-March theme (aba), m. 5-36

"Trio"(A-flat Major)

-Introduction, m. 37-40

-Lyrical theme (abca), m. 41-96

"Dogfight" (Transition)

-Development, Fantasia, m. 97-122

Conclusion (E-flat Major)

-Themes in combination (m. 123-168)

-Coda (m. 169-end)

The First Suite in E-flat is a wild ride. It has clearly stood the test of time and been affirmed as one of the masterpieces of our genre, and with good reason, as I hope the bulk of this article has shown. If you take anything away from reading this, I hope it is that there is still plenty to be discovered, even in a "warhorse" that is now over 100 years old!

For me, the joy of hearing my students play this with such vigor and musicality - especially those (yes, there are sadly many!) who had never played it before. I hope that these small musical meanderings of mine can be beneficial to you in some way.

Proper tempo plays an important role in the First Suite in E-flat. It can make the Suite sound rushed and frazzled, or ponderous and lethargic. Taking too slow a tempo in the Chaconne will necessitate a breath in between sub-phrases of the main motive, too fast a tempo will create havoc and a feeling of anxiety between Letters A and C (not to mention, it will cause performance issues with clarity). In the second and third movements, too slow a tempo will cause the Intermezzo and March to feel weighty and cumbersome; too fast a tempo leads to numerous rhythmic issues and a feeling of insecurity throughout.

I am lucky to own several recordings of the First Suite, and have notated the tempi used in each movement as a rough reference guide when making a decision about the correct tempo of each movement. The ensemble, conductor, and abbreviation used for each recording is as follows:
  • Cleveland Symphonic Winds (Frederic Fennell) - CSW
  • Dallas Wind Symphony (Howard Dunn) - DWS
  • Eastman Wind Ensemble (Frederick Fennell) - EWE-F
  • Eastman Wind Ensemble (Donald Hunsberger) - EWE-H
  • Florida State University Wind Orchestra (Richard Clary) - FSU
  • Keystone Wind Ensemble (Stamp) - KWE
  • Mt. San Antonio College Wind Ensemble (Dustin Barr) - MSAC
  • North Texas Wind Symphony (Eugene Corporon) - NTWS
  • Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra (Frederick Fennell) - TKWO
  • University of Michigan Symphony Band (H. Robert Reynolds) - UMSB
  • US Air Force Heritage of America Band (Graham) - USAF
Note: The YouTube recording above is NOT the same as the recording by TKWO I own.


-CSW: mm = 86
-DWS: mm = 82
-EWE-F: mm = 86
-EWE-H: mm = 96
-FSU: mm = 94
-KWE: mm = 96
-MSAC: mm = 80
-NTWS: mm = 84
-TKWO: mm = 76
-UMSB: mm = 90
-USAF: mm = 86

Almost without exception, each one of these ensembles fluctuated in tempo after the initial opening phrase. The fastest tempo, clocked by both the Eastman Wind Ensemble and the Keystone Wind Ensemble at m.m. 96 sound quite comfortable - the opening movement is marked Allegro Moderato, after all. However, once the 16th notes started appearing in the 5th and 6th statements, this tempo can sound strained. The slowest tempo, Tokyo Kosei's m.m. 76, sounded ponderous and cumbersome to my ears, and tempo definitely picked up as we got closer to the middle of the movement. The most popular tempo choice would appear to be m.m. 86.


-CSW: mm = 144
-DWS: mm = 156
-EWE-F: mm = 154
-EWE-H: mm = 154
-FSU: mm = 152
-KWE: mm = 148
-MSAC: mm = 150
-NTWS: mm = 144
-TKWO: mm = 138
-UMSB: mm = 148
-USAF: mm = 160

Many of these recordings slowed down at the L'Istesso, despite its inherent indication to keep the tempo the same. The fastest, US Air Force Band, sounded a little frantic to my ears, the slowest, Tokyo Kosei, sounded impossibly sluggish (curiously, it sounds like the opening theme included neither oboe nor muted cornet, just the clarinet). The most popular tempo would appear to be m.m. 144.


-CSW: mm = 130
-DWS: mm = 118
-EWE-F: mm = 142
-EWE-H: mm = 140
-FSU: mm = 122
-KWE: mm = 138
-MSAC: mm = 126
-NTWS: mm = 136
-TKWO: mm = 134
-UMSB: mm = 116
-USAF: mm = 126

No real consensus on what the tempo should be here, though a few hover between 130-140. The fastest, Fennell's Eastman recording, sounded entirely too rushed at m.m. 142, while the slowest, Reynold's Michigan Band at m.m. 116 was very deliberate and sluggish (to be fair, by the second repetition of the opening phrase, the tempo was up around m.m 122).

As discussed previously, we are  referring to the 4th measure of the first movement. In this measure, we come to a momentary pause, as the first half of the chaconne melody is revealed.

Over the years I've heard different thoughts on this relatively trifling issue, so I thought I'd give a listen to each of the eleven different recordings I have of this work and see who does what.

  • Cleveland Symphonic Winds (Frederic Fennell) - A small break.
  • Dallas Wind Symphony (Howard Dunn) - Break.
  • Eastman Wind Ensemble (Frederick Fennell) - Definite break. This is my earliest recording of the work.
  • Eastman Wind Ensemble (Donald Hunsberger) - Quite a big break. Almost a quarter note's worth.
  • Florida State University Wind Orchestra (Richard Clary) - Break.
  • Keystone Wind Ensemble (Stamp) - No break at all.
  • Mt. San Antonio College Wind Ensemble (Dustin Barr) - No break.
  • North Texas Wind Symphony (Eugene Corporon) - Break.
  • Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra (Frederick Fennell) - Minuscule break...almost imperceptible.
  • Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra (Frederick Fennell) - In this much later recording, Fennell does not break at all.
  • University of Michigan Symphony Band (H. Robert Reynolds) - No break.
  • US Air Force Heritage of America Band (Graham) - No break.
It seems we have no consensus, even amongst conductors working on the piece with different ensembles!