16 February 2018

Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo

Having recently decided to "re-start" the blog from scratch, I thought...what better way to do so than by revisiting one of my favourite wind band works of all time - Gustav Holst's Hammersmith. If you don't know it very well, I hope you will come to enjoy it and learn something about the work. And if you do know it well, who knows...maybe you will learn something new seeing it through another's eyes...or rather, hearing it through someone else's ears.

There are only a handful of works in the wind band pantheon that move me the way Hammersmith: Prelude and Scherzo does. It is one of a very few set of pieces that I was introduced to while still a high school musician which I have not yet outgrown...I do not expect that I ever will. It shall likely remain a "Top Five Desert Island" work for me until the day I die.

My first experience with Hammersmith came in the form of a vinyl record, found in the library section of my high school band director’s office. This record was one in a series of educational recordings of various groups...many of you may remember them and their distinctive orange and black sleeve covers…I was hooked from the get-go, mesmerized by that dark opening of tubas and euphoniums.

The Educational Record Reference Library series.

Not long after I first heard it, a mentor of mine (Joseph Kreines, the legendary Florida troubador/clinician) included it in a series of cassette tapes he made for me. These tapes contained music that he believed to be important, and I realised my instincts had been correct: This was serious music, of a depth I had not yet encountered. It was something beyond my meager experience, something I could not yet fully comprehend...I just knew that it resonated with me, and I could listen to it a hundred times and still find something new, something clever, something that made me excited about music.

At the collegiate level, I have conducted Hammersmith twice, once with the Emory Wind Ensemble, and once with the Indiana State University Wind Orchestra. Both performances went well, but I am no closer to "mastering" the work than I was when I heard it at the tender age of 17. However, I do believe that I am further along the road to understanding it than I've ever been. With any luck, in a few more decades I'll be another couple of inches closer to understanding it. Maybe.

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.

Holst was offered the commission which would become Hammersmith in 1927. In a rather florid and ornamented letter, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) wrote:
Dear Mr. Holst,

This corporation is anxious in the interests of Military Band music, to do everything possible to procure as wide a field as possible for such activities, believing that in its military band, the B.B.C. possesses as good a combination of that order as exists anywhere. The Corporation is desirous of developing the Band's potentialities to the fullest possible extent, especially in the direction of finding for it as wide a range of material as possible; at present the Band is hampered by the very limited repertoire suitable.

With this view we are asking one or two of the foremost British composers of today to write specially for Military Band, feeling that thus we may make musicians realise how real a future there is for such music. May we ask you how you would view a request from us to compose for Military Band a piece in one movement, lasting from twelve to fifteen minutes in performance, in the form of a Concert Overture, or Fantasy, or Symphonic Poem?

On hearing from you, as we hope to do, that you view the proposal at this stage with favor, we can go into the question of copyright, terms, etc.

Thank you in advance, We are, Yours Faithfully,
DMC (D. Millar Craig)
The work was to be for the BBC Wireless Band, and it would be the first opportunity Holst would have to write a piece of band music for professional musicians - the two earlier suites (First Suite in E-flat, Second Suite in F) having been written for amateurs. He approached the endeavour with a great seriousness of purpose, responding to the BBC:
I should be delighted to fall in with your wishes. If there is no immediate hurry, I would like to postpone writing this piece and first arrange one of Bach's Organ Fugues for military band. I have had this at the back of my mind for many years. I should be delighted if the BBC would give the first performance of my arrangement...
It had been a long 16 years since Holst had last visited the genre of the wind band, and it has been theorized by some that Holst felt he needed a "warm up" piece to prepare himself for the task of writing the BBC commission. The Bach arrangement, incidentally, ended up being Fugue a la Gigue (BWV 557), an arrangement that is still in wide use by wind bands to this day.

Holst began serious work on Hammersmith in 1929. He originally entitled the work "Prelude and Fugue," but later changed the Fugue to a Scherzo. By the fall of 1930, the work was almost thoroughly sketched out. Holst, as he often did, began to seek opinions from some of this musical confidants, including Ralph Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult, before orchestrating the work. On 30 December 1930, an agreement was signed giving the BBC rights to the original band version. Although the parts were distributed, and the work rehearsed, Hammersmith was not performed by the BBC Wireless Band for reasons unknown.

During the following year, Holst created an orchestral transcription of the work, and that version received a premiere on 25 November 1931, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with Adrian Boult conducting. According to Imogen Holst, "most of the listeners at the first performance of Hammersmith found the river Prelude too slow, too quiet, too monotonous...too uncomfortable." It may have also been overshadowed by another work on the program: the London premiere of William Walton's Belshezzar's Feast (in fact, there are claims that people booed at the end of Hammersmith).

Although it is widely believed by many sources that Hammersmith did not receive a premiere (in its original band incarnation) until 1954, this is untrue: While lecturing at Harvard University in 1932, Holst was contacted about conducting the work at the ABA (American Bandmasters Association) convention. Holst was unable to conduct because of medical issues (a duodenal ulcer), but the premiere performance by the United States Marine Band did indeed take place, with Captain Taylor Branson conducting the premiere.

After this performance, unbelievably, Hammersmith fell through the cracks of the wind band world and laid dormant for 22 years, although it was mentioned in many sources, including the score to Percy Aldridge Grainger's Lincolnshire Posy. When Robert Cantrick, Director of Bands at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) conducted it in 1954, he fully believed he was giving the world premiere of the work, and wrote so in an article entitled "Hammersmith and the Two Worlds of Gustav Holst." Cantrick's misconception was understandable: he'd been forced to copy parts out of a manuscript score he was able to track down!

It was thanks to Cantrick's performance (and his article) that Hammersmith finally came to the attention of wind band directors and audiences worldwide, finally being published in 1956 by Boosey and Hawkes...two and a half decades after it was composed. The first commercial recording of the work came courtesy of Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 1958. It has since been almost universally acknowledged as one of the cornerstones of the wind band repertoire, and one of Holst's finest compositions.

Hammersmith is named after a district in West London, in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. At the time of the composition, 125,000 people would have inhabited Hammersmith...all packed into an area of roughly 3.6 square miles. The district sits on the Thames River, which is the longest river that is entirely in England. Holst lived in Hammersmith for most of his life, working as the musical director for the St. Paul's Girls School and Morley College, retaining both positions until his death in 1934. The work is a result of the composer's fascination with the dualities present in his surroundings.

Imogen Holst wrote:
The mood out of which the music had grown was a mood that haunted him for nearly forty years. During his solitary walks in Hammersmith he had always been aware of the aloofness of the quiet river, unhurried and unconcerned, while just around the corner there was all the noise and hustle and exuberant vulgarity of the Cockney crowd, pushing and shoving and sweating and swearing and shreaking and guffawing its good-humoured way. 
[Hammersmith] was the outcome of long years of familiarity with the changing crowds and the changing river. Those Saturday night crowds, who were always good-natured even when they were being pushed off the pavement into the middle of the traffic. The stall holders in that narrow lane behind the Broadway, with their unexpected assortment of goods lit up by brilliant flares. And the large woman at the fruit shop who always called him 'dearie' when he bought oranges for his Sunday picnics at St. Paul's. 
...in Hammersmith, the river is the background to the crowd: It is a river that goes on its way unnoticed and unconcerned.
Hammersmith is not programmatic music, in its traditional sense. Rather, it is a reflection of Holst's surroundings, a musical portrait of the dualities who saw around him. The work is dedicated “to the author of the Water Gypsies.” That author is Alan P. Herbert, and his 1930 novel deals with a working-class girl from Hammersmith that shares her life with two very opposite characters: a painter and an illiterate barge worker. The duality of this predicament obviously appealed to Holst.

Note: Timings used in this section correspond to the recording by the North Texas Wind Symphony, Eugene Corporon conducting. A link is provided below. For easiest maneuvering, it is recommended that you open the link in a new window, so that the sound file can play as you follow along.

North Texas Wind Symphony (Eugene Corporon, conducting)

Hammersmith begins with a slow, ponderous basso ostinato from the tubas and euphoniums (Theme A, m.1, 0:01), ascending and descending in F minor in a 4/2 meter - a calm inhalation and exhalation representative of the vast river. This so-called “white note notation” serves a visual purpose, helping the ensemble think in terms of sustain and restraint, subtly tricking performers into keeping the pulse from getting too fast (provided the conductor can do the same!) The three-measure ostinato is repeated 15 times before it evolves, losing momentum and being transformed.

Theme A: Basso Ostinato, Tubas and Euphoniums
Only one repetition of the ostinato into the work, the horns begin to intone a sustained cantilena – a long, flowing musical line set in E Major (Theme B, m. 4, 0:14). Immediately, all sense of tonality disappears, though at no point is there rough clashing or a note out of place; neither is the tonal center given away, for it does not exist. Through Holst's compositional skill, we never come to a dissonance, but stay aloft on a sea of consonant thirds and sixths, horns in five sharps deftly weaving above conical low brass in four flats, in an indifferent, phlegmatic dance. Here we have our first duality: The Prelude, much like the working-class girl from A.P. Herbert’s novel, exists in two worlds simultaneously, E Major and F minor.

Theme B: Cantilena
At the 8th repetition of the ostinato (m. 22, 1:30), the flutes and bassoons take over the cantilena, abruptly changing the colour and gathering momentum, while the first horn joins the ostinato. One phrase later, the flute is replaced by the E-flat soprano clarinet while the bassoon remains. While seemingly inconsequential, this colour change prevents the flute from being used in a higher register, one that might have dispelled the serenity and calm before Holst was ready to do so. When the flutes re-enter one phrase later, at the higher register, the bassoon's leap into its own higher register seems to deflect attention away from the flutes and the whole phrase continues almost seamlessly before once again giving way to the E-flat clarinet.

This wonderful, serene, mystical experience is suddenly torn asunder by the piccolo and the first entrance of a new motive (Theme C, m. 43, 2:58). Holst, out for a walk by the river, hears hints of the bustling crowd around the next bend. The trombones remind us that this is music of paradox by softly “sighing” between E Major and F minor (m. 46, 3:14), and then, impatiently, the trumpets transform the peace and quiet with a harsh re-issue of Theme C, what Cantrick called the "challenge theme."

Theme C: Cantrick's "Challenge Theme"
Into this suddenly unsure landscape enter the brass in parallel fifths, new material that is related to the earlier horn cantilena. This is answered by the woodwinds in parallel octaves and fifths, and the ostinato begins to gather momentum as it is molded into a 3/2 meter, shed of all but its first four notes, accelerating and rising in register, until the Prelude ends in triple suspense: tonally, rhythmically, and dynamically, leaving us to feel abandoned and unsure (3:50-3:59). 

A moment of silence...

...and here come the flutes, prancing into the empty void with a new theme (D, m. 62, 4:00); up in F minor outline, down in E Major outline, erupting into a spasm of giggles as the solo clarinet takes over the new theme down a perfect fifth. Conductors should be aware of the very bad page turn the flutes have here, and be prepared to make extra copies. Over this, the flutes begin a jig-like counter-subject in 6/8 (Theme E, m. 73, 4:10), an outgrowth of Theme D. As the flutes and solo clarinet “giggle” together in 16th notes, the bassoon, saxes, and remaining clarinets give us Theme D, back in its original key.

Theme D: Main Scherzo theme

Theme E: "Jig" counter-subject
Piccolo and E-flat Clarinet introduce another new theme (Theme F, m. 88, 4:24) at Rehearsal D, while the tubas and euphoniums join in playing Theme D, once again down a perfect fifth. Oboes, tenor sax, and horns re-introduce the jig-like Theme E, and we are off in a cacophony of themes, tonal centers, and moods. A fugue begins to develop using Theme D (m. 101), over which Theme E dances with Theme F in a wild moment of superb counterpoint.

Theme F
Holst treats this area as a “fantasia,” using techniques such as stretto (the overlapping of answer with subject in a fugue, as in m. 114-121) and inversion (as in Theme D inverted in upper woodwinds at m. 122-124). He fragments Theme F and uses these fragments, along with upwardly rising scalar material, to lead into the first sustained chord of the scherzo: C-sharp Major with an added flat fifth for spice (m. 142, 5:15). Next is a D Major chord, again with a flat fifth. These two chords alternate as Theme E is stated in the woodwinds. The main Scherzo theme (Theme D) makes an appearance, augmented into quarter notes and intoned by the low voices.

Conductors should pay attention to the timpanist here, as they have been resting for 142 measures, and this is their first entrance. For those that are able to secure it or find it in your colleagues' libraries, the orchestral version has a much-expanded timpani part...though, of course, it is a semitone off from the original.

The “challenge theme” (Theme C) is developed fully, used as a rallying cry, stated and rebuked, then finally picked up by the woodwinds before dissolving into an ostinato of high treble voices. The low voices “lurch ponderously” from their low F to the minor ninth above (5:40), while the upper brass present Theme E in a more "heroic," less jig-like style.

After all of this development, themes overlapping each other, clever compositional devices, and forward momentum many composers would be envious of...incredibly, it all unravels in the space of the five bars from m. 223 to 227 (6:28).

A solo saxophone (m. 228, 6:33) laments the loss of momentum, performing the jig theme nostalgically, in augmented rhythm, while flutes and bassoons play bittersweet chords. For the briefest of moments, it feels like the Scherzo is about to unwind again with a few hiccups of Theme D in the low brass, but instead it evaporates, just like the Prelude did, into silence. As Cantrick asked, "Can one really lose touch with humanity so completely and devastatingly?"

Out of the silence, a lone voice (clarinet) begins a soft soliloquy (Theme G – 7:05), laid out in pensive falling lines. When the flute enters, mirroring this melody a perfect fifth higher, the clarinet begins weaving a complicated triplet-laden countermelody reminiscent of the “challenge theme.” The oboe enters the fray, as does the tenor sax, while the triplet countermelodies continue unabated: the soliloquy is no longer such. In one of my personal favourite moments in the entirety of wind band music, the high brass, smooth as velvet, enters with a harmonized version of Theme G, while the tubas shadow them in canon two beats (and two octaves) apart (m. 275, 8:25).

Theme G: Soliloquy
Despite all of these entrances and developments, we still have failed to establish tonality, and thus the tubas set off in search of it in the last two measures (8:44) before the Scherzo returns, almost by accident. This recapitulation explores various former themes in more detail, once again combining themes together, opposing forces that dance carefully around each other, co-existing by sheer force of will. The only new material being presented during this “scene change” is at m. 311 (9:14), with the euphonium bringing us a new rhythm that morphs into an insistent 8th note motive, leading us to a slight arrest of motion at the Allargando, one of the climactic moments of Hammersmith, where once again Holst presents us duality (Theme F set against Theme D). The tempo suddenly jumps back, and the stream of theme development continues unabated.

At Rehearsal X (m. 371, 10:10), Holst cleverly augments the “jig” theme (from 6/8 into 3/4) and lays it over the top of pounding chords, very reminiscent of what we initially heard at Rehearsal H, and yet another duality, as Theme E is in triple time feel while the pounding chords are in duple feel. A sudden change of gears follows at Rehearsal Y (m. 384, 10:22), and the Scherzo winds itself toward a climax with repetitions of the challenge theme laid on top of rising scalar material, first in quarter notes then in triplet quarters.


The postlude begins.

Chaos and confusion are abruptly dismissed by the tam tam as the river re-asserts its calm and quiet dignity. Brief memories of the Scherzo find their way into the piccolo and E-flat clarinet, and even the xylophone gets involved here. Theme B is restated and re-framed in the saxophones before being picked up once again by the horns, who take it and shift it into a new, more transparent register (m. 413) before handing it off to the trumpets.

The final "thud" of the bass drum (m. 422, 12:27) course-corrects the tempo and the key, a tad slower than the initial opening. Holst, ever the trombone aficionado, allows them (and the euphoniums) the last word, fragments of the soliloquy, as the river passes slowly by, inexorably out to sea. The last few exhalations of the tuba are no more than weeping, mournful sighs as the trombone and euphonium fade to niente.

Form of Hammersmith

In Hammersmith, Holst found a way in which to express the paradox of his life and surroundings. The Prelude: mysterious, serene, and introverted, the Scherzo: raffish, vulgar, all-too-human, extroverted. The marvel of it all is how Holst manages to present them both as equally important without raising one above the other. In the process, he crafted an enduring and inexorable work of art.

If you are new to Hammersmith, I sincerely hope you will be able to move past the outwardly inaccessible veneer to reach the heart of the paradox inside. Turn off all the lights, shut the world out for the next thirteen and a half minutes, and soak in this masterpiece. And if I cannot convince you, perhaps the composer himself can:
All mystic experiences, like all artistic ones, are either illusions or direct and intimate realisations. I do not know if they are illusions or whether they alone are real and the illusion is the world we live in.  
- Gustav Holst, 1920

  • Fennell, Frederick. Gustav Holst's Hammersmith. The Instrumentalist, May 1977, pages 52-59.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this. I played one of the trumpet parts in a performance of this in college many many years ago. The harmonies created by the ostinato and cantilena are genius and haunting. I'm glad this work is still somewhat relevant.