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Holst Suite Showdown: First vs. Second

British composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) paved the way for modern concert band music.

Other composers had written for groups of wind and percussion instruments before (sometimes called “bands”), but Holst’s two suites for military band signaled a change toward the ensemble we now know as a concert band.

Statue of Gustav Holst
Statue of Gustav Holst Photo by Jongleur100 on Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

While working on First Suite in an ensemble recently, I decided to listen to both suites for the fun of it (and it is quite fun – Holst wrote some fantastic music!) Each time I thought I’d decided on my favorite part I’d be reminded of another favorite part, and so on.

I can’t be the only one, right?

Not sure which suite is right for you? Can’t decide which is your favorite? Check out the features list!

First
listen here
Second
listen here
InstrumentationMilitary BandMilitary Band
Movements34
Duration10:2511:30
Competing Time Signatures
Uses Folk Songs
Movement Based on a Relentlessly
Repeating Theme
Famed Euphonium Solo
Tuba/Piccolo Duet
Bass Drum Solo
Anvil Feature
Flaunts Traditional Fast-Slow-Fast
Movement Structure
Layered Themes

Highlight Reel

Chill-inducing chord progression

This wonderful moment happens in Second Suite, second movement (“Song Without Words : I’ll Love My Love”). While the entire movement is just beautiful, with a plaintive melody, great use of suspension and relief (1:14 & 2:23), and a beautiful accompaniment of running eighth notes (1:34), there is one part in particular that gets me.

Every. Single. Time.

As the melody finishes the second time through, the solo clarinet begins a climb upward (2:38), then cascades down, leading to the most delicious transition of tone color and chord progression between clarinet and alto sax, which then continues down through the ensemble to give the tubas the last few, gentle notes.

The First Piccolo and Tuba Duet in Wind Band History

We’ll stick with the Second Suite, but jump to the fourth movement (“Fantasia on the Dargason”). This movement is a whirlwind, with one jig tune forming the bulk of it and a bit of “Greensleeves” thrown in for good measure.

Holst starts winding down around 2:20, with the ensemble thinning out and the theme traveling further down in range. Then, at 2:47, the tuba blurts out a modified version of the theme, with the piccolo answering. They have a nice little chat, then the whole band plays a final note.

Chamber Music Hidden Within a Concert Band

In First Suite, the “Chaconne” movement (mvt. 1) is built on a repeating theme, which is stated in the low voices at the beginning of the piece. Holst builds on this for a third or so of the piece, but then he brings it down to various groups of solo instruments (around 1:57-2:28). The gives the music a more intimate feel, as if you’re listening to a small chamber ensemble instead of a full concert band.

After that sojourn, he starts to build back toward full band and leads up to a large, powerful ending.

Those Glorious Horns

“Chaconne” has another great moment (as submitted by my husband).

As the piece reaches its final, big, broad statement, listen to the horns (and others) with their ascending scale beginning at 4:13.

Oh yeah.

Take A Breather

In the third movement of First Suite (“March”), things really build up toward the end. Holst has the full band playing, with some folks playing the lyrical B theme with the upper winds on an obligato based on the initial march theme. There’s a lot going on.

But at 2:20, everything just settles down and there’s this moment of clarity. The underlying tempo is still the same (for now); things just feel slower because of longer note values and the winds are no longer twirling about. There is a slow down at 2:29 to give one more breather before the final flourishes at 2:38.

Did You Pick A Winner?

Does one suite come out on top for you? Or are you a waffler, like me? Do you have other picks for the highlight reel?

No matter the outcome, Holst’s two suites for band are staples of the repertoire. Enjoy!

Lori Archer Sutherland

Librarian & musician. Collects model horses of all sorts. Bass clarinet nerd, doing more composing & arranging.

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