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.
-Clarinet in A I-II
-Horn in F I-II-III-IV
-Trumpet in A I-II
-Percussion (tamburo, bass drum, cymbals)
-Flute I-II (though it seems to be assumed there will be 3 players at least)
-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
-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
SUMMARYNote: 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).
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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.