The first few weeks were small chamber works. This week we hit a happy medium with Gustav Holst's "St. Paul's Suite" for string orchestra. As with all of the music this month, it features string instruments doing what they do best - playing pretty melodies and rocking out! However, unlike some of the other craziness I posted about in the last few weeks, this is a much tamer version in many ways.
St. Paul's was the name of a school where Gustav Holst was teaching, in England. So, much like Vivaldi and his works for the school where he worked, this piece doesn't necessarily include particularly difficult technical passages or virtuosic writing. In fact, most people who play this piece do so with amateur or student groups, and it is sometimes used in professional performances when the mood is a bit lighter, such as for outdoor performances and festivals. Holst later created a version of the work including some wind instruments, so that more students would get to participate.
Holst is the most modern composer I've talked about in the last weeks and this, I believe, can help bridge the gap between the pieces from the other weeks and the popular works of today, but not necessarily just in the musical sense. Musically, as I have shown, not much has actually changed. We like different arrangements of instruments now than we did then (but not really) and we like different sounds than we did then (but not really) and in the end the biggest change is just that we have more instruments and sound possibilities to choose from. So instead, what is more modern about this work is the fact that it is based on the familiar and turns that into something new. This is the same principle that drives The Piano Guys and allows us to love their fresh takes on old music, like in the bonus clip from the Vivaldi post last week.
Students today tend to ask their orchestra teachers to give them arrangements of cool pieces like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber and so on (often to be quite disappointed with how boring the melodies actually are - much of today's music is focused on text so melodies are rarely very interesting... kind of like church music from the middle ages actually, where the melodies were not allowed to be too interesting lest they take away the attention from the text and ultimately from the reverence of the Lord). Holst's pupils may not have asked for this work, but the way he composed it was much in that vein. He took some popular folk melodies and rearranged them so that they turned into a single coherent musical work. Not only that, the last movement (which is the focus for this week) is actually an arrangement of one of Holst's own arrangements. He had written a piece for wind band which included a movement called "Fantasia on the Dargason", and from this movement comes the last movement of the St. Paul's Suite.
Well firstly, have a listen (this is by a professional ensemble, by the by):
There are some wonderful low notes and double stops throughout in the cello and double bass parts, and the violins are far away in their high registers playing melodies, however Holst does give almost everyone a chance to shine. This is typical in music written for school groups, because it helps make everyone feel that they are participating. The double bass gets the short end of the stick, but then again, it took a few years still before double bassists could seriously rock out with virtuosic passages (Gary Karr was one of the biggies!).
This piece, unlike some of the ones from the last few weeks, doesn't have much of a climactic ending. The climaxes come in the middle of the movement and there are a few of them - just some super sweet loud moments where everyone is really actually sawing away on their instruments. And some pretty bits from Greensleeves. But the ending is like a big joke - built up to nothing, and then BAM - Chord - finished. But it works, and gives the first violin the opportunity to have a real solo.
If you get a chance, do listen to the full suite as the first movement is also a bundle of energy and there are some gorgeous slow passages in the other movements.
So there, that's it for this year's March Madness. Perhaps there will be another one next year! But for now, if you have your own sweet classical rock songs, do post them in comments below! I stuck to mostly string music and pieces I know because I've played them or heard them, but there are tons of pieces I haven't heard... and plenty of those which are just fantastic.