With a name like Gustav, you might guess that this composer was German! But Gustav Holst is actually one of the most influential composers in British history. Holst is primarily remembered for one large-scale composition: The Planets. This orchestral suite (a group of pieces composed for large symphony orchestra) contains one movement for each of the known planets at the time of its composition. Earth was not included.
These pieces creatively use many of the sounds that are possible with an orchestra. The beginning of this piece requires the string instruments to play col legno (that means that they play with the wooden, back part of their bow instead of with the strings!) What emotions do you hear in this music? I hear anger! Do you hear other feelings in this music?
We will listen to other movements from The Planets later this month, but for now let's listen to part of a piece that Holst composed for band! If you ever get the chance to play a wind instrument in a band, chances are that you'll play one of Holst's famous Suites for band.
As we noticed in Mars, Holst loved to create beautiful combinations of sounds by asking instruments to play in unusual combinations. Listen for all the beautiful and unusual combinations of instruments in this movement from his Second Suite. This recording is a live performance by young musicians from Sweden. It's a song about a blacksmith, so the sounds of an anvil fit right in!
Holst primarily wrote music for wind and string instruments, but thankfully he wrote some music for the piano to play, too!
Listen to this Nocturne for piano. Holst was always trying to create fascinating new sounds for instruments to play. Some of the harmonies and chords that Holst writes are sounds that other composers would avoid, and at times this music can be quite "dissonant" (that means that the different notes create tension between them; I often refer to these parts of the music as being "crunchy!").
Did you know that Holst was a music teacher? He taught at the St. Paul's Girls' School near London and wrote music specifically for his students to play! This piece is the first movement of his "St. Paul's Suite" (named after the school where he taught).
This piece is a great example of music written for a String Orchestra. Notice that all the instruments playing are string instruments! Can you find all 4 different types of string instruments in this video? (As a reminder, they are the violin, the viola, the cello, and the bass.)
Holst was inspired by different cultures and ideas throughout his life. He loved his native England and English folk songs, but he also was fascinated by folk songs, legends, and beliefs from other cultures. As an example of how he was inspired by people who lived far away from him, here's the Finale (or ending) of the "Japanese Suite" that he wrote in 1915. This example doesn't have a video, so you'll just have to listen. As you're listening, think about the ways that Holst created this music to be so exciting! Think about how all the quick notes drive the energy forward and how the changes in volume keep us on our toes!
I mentioned that Holst was inspired by folk songs from his home country of England; let's listen to a piece he composed using a folk song as his starting point! Let's listen to another piece from his "St. Paul's Suite" for string orchestra. This fun "music video" is put together by young musicians and highlights the different emotions that can be found in the music! Can you spot the moment in the video when the actors start changing their emotions from joyful to angry? How does this reflect what happens in the music?
Gustav Holst was not only interested in exploring new sounds in music; he also helped carry on the traditions of the past. Holst composed many pieces for voices to sing. In England there is a long tradition of choral singing, and Holst contributed to that tradition by creating new pieces that can be sung. This piece has become a popular song to sing at Christmas, but even if you don't celebrate Christmas you can still enjoy the beautiful sounds that are created when people get together to sing!
Holst wrote so much music, but he is mostly famous for The Planets. We started the month with Mars, so let's finish the month with Jupiter!
This piece was one of the first pieces of classical music that I fell in love with, and it's part of the reason why I play, compose, and teach music!
Can you name all the planets in our solar system as you listen to this music?!
Thanks for listening to the music of Gustav Holst!
Here's a bonus video: A silly version of Jupiter played on melodicas by the Melodica Men!