Gustav Holst: St. Paul’s Suite


In the earlier days of his career, Gustav Holst (1874-1934) struggled to earn a living as a full-time composer. In 1904, after holding an array of different teaching positions, he was appointed as Musical Director at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith. This became his biggest and longest teaching commitment he held in his lifetime. Luckily for Holst, in 1912 the new music wing of St Paul’s was open for teaching, and the composer spent extra hours in there composing and using his creativity within music. 

St. Paul’s Suite was the first work to be composed in the room, with the name naturally paying homage to the building that Holst spent a large amount of time in. Arranged for string orchestra, Holst also wrote extra parts in if a full orchestra was necessary at the school. Comprised of four short movements the work is simple, straightforward and pleasing to the ear. Holst, like many of his British contemporaries, took inspiration from British folk songs, with each movement reflecting a different dance, genre or style. 

The Music 

I. Jig (Vivace)


Opening with a classic Jig that fluctuates between 6/8 and 9/8 time, Holst introduces a contrasting theme that develops into an exciting musical conversation between the two melodies. Holst’s orchestration for this suite is one of the highlights, with his keen technique in subtly blending melodies being a particular strength. The two themes unite and this bubbly jig comes to a quick close.


II. Ostinato (Presto)

The fast pace of this movement follows on naturally from the first, with the second violins playing the opening theme. This segment of the melody is then passed around the orchestra until a solo viola interrupts the theme. As the title suggests, the ostinato pattern comes from the second violins, who chug through a busy four-note pattern. The first violins try to penetrate this ostinato throughout and only succeed when the second violins abruptly quit four bars before the end of the movement.

III. Intermezzo (Andante con moto)

The musically rich third movement sees a quartet of soloists step to the forefront, with a solo violin and viola starting the movement. The duet between these two instruments sits on top of pizzicato chords from the orchestra. The music in this movement highlights Holst’s experimental techniques, which juxtaposes a mystical style led by the violin, and the energetic interludes that come between.

Holst lulls the listener into a false sense of security during this movement, as it is initially set up as a typical slow movement of a suite. However, Holst writes a vivacious fast section that promptly gets the music going. The increasing energy is presented through the growth of dynamics, mood and musicinship between the various parts.


IV. Finale (The Dargason – Allegro)

If you think you might recognise this movement then it may be because it is an almost note-for-note transcription of the fourth movement of Holst’s Second Suite in F. The opening Dargason theme opens the work and acts as the ostinato. The theme is passed around the whole orchestra, with each instrument getting a fair share of ownership over the melody. Dargason is a type of English country dance, with one of its main qualities being its relentless nature. 

Holst counterbalances this later on with a beautiful arrangement of Greensleeves, which the lower strings lead. The two melodies unite and are played together to formally end the suite.

Final Thoughts

St. Paul’s Suite has become one of Holst’s most well-known works. His compositional techniques were still being explored at this point, and were evidently leading up to his most famous suite – The Planets. This charming suite is often heard in concert halls as a bubbly and joyful opening to a programme. 

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Ralph Vaughan Williams: English Folk Song Suite


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