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! 

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