Gustav Holst

(b. Cheltenham, 21 September 1874 – d. London, 25 May 1934)


for flute, oboe and viola

In April 1925 the editor of Cobbett’s Cyclopedia, Edwin Evans, was preparing a long article about Holst’s music for inclusion when he received a letter from the composer:  “I am working on something that will probably be chamber music or waste paper.  If you care to send me a card just before sending in final proofs I might be able to tell you which of the two it has become.  But it is too embryonic to be mentioned just now”.

The cause of Holst’s doubt was that in the piece he was experimenting with polytonality.  Each of the three instruments is in a different key.  The flute opens the work with a folk-like tune in a modal A major/F-sharp minor.  The oboe enters after a few bars in A-flat/F minor, and the viola a few bars later, in C major/A minor.  To emphasize this, Holst writes the three parts each with a different key signature.  However, his close friend Ralph Vaughan Williams noted that the different keys were “more seen by the eye than felt by the ear”.   This was not surprising since Holst’s view of polytonality seems to have been to make the tonal centre of the work ambiguous, rather than to revel in any discordant clashes that emerged.  In this he was doing little more than – say – Ravel was doing in the 1920s.  In fact there had been a precedent – one that Holst knew – in Edward Elgar’s 1908 part-song There is Sweet Music, op.53/1, where the females sing in A-flat and the males in G without the piece ever sounding discordant.

In took several hearings for Holst to decide that he liked the effect, but in the end he did so enough to re-use the meno mosso of the second movement (beginning at bar 64) in the Double Concerto of 1929 for two violins and strings.

Phillip Brookes, 2014

Reprint of a copy from the collection Phillip Brookes, Roxas City.