Our program is entitled British Classics, and grew out of our ambition to perform the entire work, The Planets by Gustav Holst (1874-1934). It’s particularly appropriate to perform this work this summer as we honor the 50th anniversary of the moon landing of July 20, 1969. While studying the music of Holst, our conductor was drawn to two other English composers who lived concurrently, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and Edward Elgar (1857-1934).
Vaughan Williams and Holst became lifelong friends and the three composers were all greatly in admiration of each other. Elgar had become the most well-known English composer of his time, and Vaughan Williams and Holst respected and were inspired by him. All three English composers were particularly drawn to English folksongs and musical traditions. It is a great combination of composers to perform together on one program.
Holst: The Planets (1917)
Gustav Theodore Holst (1874-1934) was an English composer, arranger and teacher. Best known for his orchestral suite The Planets, he composed a large number of other works across a range of genres, although none achieved comparable success. His distinctive compositional style was the product of many influences, Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss being most crucial early in his development. The subsequent inspiration of the English folksong revival of the early 20th century, and the example of such rising modern composers as Maurice Ravel, led Holst to develop and refine an individual style.
There were professional musicians in the previous three generations of Holst’s family and it was clear from his early years that he would follow the same calling. He hoped to become a pianist, but was prevented by neuritis in his right arm. Despite his father’s reservations, he pursued a career as a composer, studying at the Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford. Unable to support himself by his compositions, he played the trombone professionally and later became a teacher—a great one, according to his colleague Ralph Vaughan Williams. Among other teaching activities he built up a strong tradition of performance at Morley College, where he served as musical director from 1907 until 1924, and pioneered music education for women at St Paul’s Girls’ School, where he taught from 1905 until his death in 1934. He was the founder of a series of Whitsun music festivals, which ran from 1916 for the remainder of his life.
Holst’s works were played frequently in the early years of the 20th century, but it was not until the international success of The Planets in the years immediately after the First World War that he became a well-known figure. A shy man, he did not welcome this fame, and preferred to be left in peace to compose and teach. In his later years his uncompromising, personal style of composition struck many music lovers as too austere, and his brief popularity declined. Nevertheless, he was a significant influence on a number of younger English composers, including Edmund Rubbra, Michael Tippett and Benjamin Britten. Apart from The Planets and a handful of other works, his music was generally neglected until the 1980s, when recordings of much of his output became available.
Interestingly, our modern audiences may hear familiar sounds in Holst’s work, as there are many similarities between Holst’s Planets and John Williams’ film scores for Star Wars. We have all begun to associate the sounds that Holst created, as the sounds of “space music,” whatever that might be. In addition, there are band arrangements of some of the movements, and young people on the Kenai Peninsula may have played “Mars.” The Planets is Holst’s most famous work, although he himself was not fond of it. The Planets, composed in 1917, has been a popular work of symphonic repertoire for years. The work is astrological rather than astronomical. The movements are named for the planets’ metaphysical personalities, though not necessarily the influence of the horoscope. Holst saw the entire work as a journey through life, from the creation of life itself to the ending of life. Seven planets are featured, not including the Earth nor Pluto. Pluto had not yet been discovered and since that time, it has slipped in and out of planetary classification.
The Planets was originally written as a four-hand, two-piano work, except for the Neptune movement which was written for organ, as Holst felt the mysteriousness and distance of Neptune lent itself better to organ than the percussive sounds of piano.
Mars, the Bringer of War, a movement that is quite familiar in popular culture, is implacable in its never-changing tempo and intensity. In quintuple meter, its strong beats imply rudeness, power and unfeeling.
Venus, the Bringer of Peace, favors harp, woodwinds, and a solo violin – a lullaby.
Mercury, the Winged Messenger, captures a capricious feel, not settling on any one theme, and ends moments after it begins.
Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, portrays merrymaking and revelry, interspersed with a solemn hymnlike middle section, a melody which Holst later set to words by Sir Cecil Spring Rice, I Vow to Thee, My Country.
Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age, suggests the inexorable progression of time. Gloomy and mystical, serene, a tolling bell rhythm gives way to expanded melodies in the strings.
Uranus, the Magician, is reminiscent of Paul Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, with is magical mysterious bounce and a spell motive invoked by the opening brass.
Neptune, the Mystic, concludes The Planets. An offstage women’s chorus with wordless atmospheric sounds suggests the timeless void beyond the planets. It is one of the earliest examples of the “fade-out”, instructions include that the women’s chorus is to be in an offstage room, where, as the music draws to an end, the door to the room is silently and slowly closed. Imogen Holst, the composer’s daughter, remarked that Neptune’s ending is “unforgettable, with its hidden chorus of women’s voices growing fainter and fainter… until the imagination knew no difference between sound and silence”.
Elgar: Enigma Variations (1899)
Sir Edward William Elgar (1857- 1934) 1st Baronet OM GCVO (Order of Merit, Grand Cross of the Victorian Order) was an English composer, many of whose works have entered the British and international classical concert repertoire. The GCVO was awarded to persons who were recognized for special service to the Monarchy. Elgar was knighted in 1904. He received numerous degrees from universities in England as well as the USA. Among his best-known compositions are orchestral works including the Enigma Variations, the Pomp and Circumstance Marches, concertos for violin and cello, and two symphonies. He also composed choral works, including The Dream of Gerontius, chamber music and songs. He was appointed Master of the King’s Musick in 1924.
Although Elgar is often regarded as a typically English composer, most of his musical influences were not from England but from continental Europe. He felt himself to be an outsider, not only musically, but socially. In musical circles dominated by academics, he was a self-taught composer. He married the daughter of a senior British army officer. She inspired him both musically and socially, but he struggled to achieve success until his forties, when after a series of moderately successful works, his Enigma Variations (1899) became immediately popular in Britain and overseas. He followed the Variations with a choral work, The Dream of Gerontius (1900), based on a Roman Catholic text that caused some disquiet in the Anglican establishment in Britain, but it became, and has remained, a core repertory work in Britain and elsewhere. His later full-length religious choral works were well received but have not entered the regular repertory. His Pomp and Circumstance Marches include the famous trio which many recognize as the graduation march.
In his fifties, Elgar composed a symphony and a violin concerto that were immensely successful. His second symphony and his cello concerto did not gain immediate public popularity and took many years to achieve a regular place in the concert repertory of British orchestras. Elgar’s music came, in his later years, to be seen as appealing chiefly to British audiences. His stock remained low for a generation after his death. It began to revive significantly in the 1960s, helped by new recordings of his works. Some of his works have, in recent years, been taken up again internationally, but the music continues to be played more in Britain than elsewhere.
Elgar has been described as the first composer to take the gramophone seriously. Between 1914 and 1925, he conducted a series of acoustic recordings of his works. The introduction of the moving-coil microphone in 1923 made far more accurate sound reproduction possible, and Elgar made new recordings of most of his major orchestral works and excerpts from The Dream of Gerontius.
The Enigma Variations, entitled Variations on an Original Theme, written in 1899, was written to depict Elgar’s wife, twelve friends, and the composer himself. The Enigma itself, the main theme, has not been conclusively identified, even though hints are given for each variation. The crowning movement, Variation IX, named “Nimrod” is often performed as a stand-alone piece.
Vaughn Williams: Overture to The Wasps (1909)
Ralph Vaughan Williams OM (1872-1958) was an English composer. His works include operas, ballets, chamber music, secular and religious vocal pieces and orchestral compositions including nine symphonies, written over sixty years. Strongly influenced by Tudor music and English folk-song, his output marked a decisive break in British music from its German-dominated style of the 19th century.
Vaughan Williams was born to a well-to-do family with strong moral views and a progressive social outlook. Throughout his life he sought to be of service to his fellow citizens and believed in making music as available as possible to everybody. He wrote many works for amateur and student performances. Musically, he was a late developer, not finding his true voice until his late thirties; his studies in 1907–1908 with the French composer Maurice Ravel helped him clarify the textures of his music and free it from Teutonic influences.
Vaughan Williams is among the best-known British symphonists, noted for his very wide range of moods, from stormy and impassioned to tranquil, from mysterious to exuberant. Among the most familiar of his other concert works are Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) and The Lark Ascending (1914). His vocal works include hymns, folk-song arrangements and large-scale choral pieces. He wrote eight works for stage performance between 1919 and 1951. Although none of his operas became popular repertoire pieces, his ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing (1930) was successful and has been frequently staged.
Two episodes made notably deep impressions in Vaughan Williams’s personal life. The First World War, in which he served in the army, had a lasting emotional effect. Twenty years later, though in his sixties and devotedly married, he was reinvigorated by a love affair with a much younger woman, who later became his second wife. He went on composing through his seventies and eighties, producing his last symphony months before his death at the age of eighty-five. His works have continued to be a staple of the British concert repertoire, and all his major compositions and many of the minor ones have been recorded.
The Wasps is incidental music composed for a production of Aristophanes’ The Wasps at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was Vaughan Williams’ first of only three forays into incidental music.
It was scored for baritone solo voices, a chorus of tenors and baritones (in two parts each), and orchestra. The complete incidental music is lengthy (about 1 hour and 45 minutes) and is not often performed.
Vaughan Williams later arranged parts of the music into an orchestral suite (about 26 minutes), in five parts: Overture, Entr’acte, March Past of the Kitchen Utensils, Entr’acte, Ballet and Final Tableau. The Overture is quite concise (about 10 minutes) and is a popular independent concert piece today.
The year before he wrote The Wasps, Vaughan Williams spent three months in Paris studying orchestration with Maurice Ravel. Although The Wasps may reflect something of Ravel, it is quintessential Vaughan Williams. Except for the opening buzzing, the piece has little to do with wasps or with ancient Greece.