Gustav Holst: A Somerset Rhapsody


Composed in 1906, Gustav Holst’s A Somerset Rhapsody is inspired by a collection of key English folk tunes. Dedicated to Cecil Sharp, to whose tunes the work is based on, A Somerset Rhapsody tells a story, which Holst once divulged to a colleague:

“Into a quiet country scene comes the sound of approaching soldiers. A youth who is courting a girl is persuaded to enlist and go to war. The soldiers march into the distance and the pastoral quietness returns. The girl is left alone.”


Holst made some revisions to the original 1906 version prior to its performance at the prestigious Queens Hall in 1910. This was regarded as one of the big premiere concert venues of the time, and Holst regarded this performance as his first true success in his musical career. 


The Music

Based on three folk tunes from rural Somerset, A Somerset Rhapsody starts quietly with the “Sheep-Shearing Song” (It’s a Rosebud in June). The lone oboe is accompanied by delicate strings. The modal theme is then taken by the violins who progress the melody further. There is a pastoral mood in this opening section, with the stillness in the quiet countryside speaking volumes about Holst’s inspirations. 

The second tune, “High Germany” is set in a march style and represents the oncoming soldiers. The timpani hits and muted trumpet fanfares sound in a military fashion in the distance as the cor anglais takes up the opening pastoral. By intertwining these two ideas it gives the impression that the music and story is about to progress on. The recognisable tune of High Germany is primarily led by the brass and lower strings. The winds and upper strings join later on to form a richer texture. 

The final tune, “The Lover’s Farewell” sees the young girl say goodbye to her partner who has been enlisted by the soldiers to go to war. The climax of the piece happens in the middle of the piece just before moving onto this final tune. The mood of the music begins to fluctuate and a recapitulation of all three tunes before the final conclusion of the Sheep-Shearing Song. A Somerset Rhapsody concludes with the solo oboe playing the opening theme once more as peace is once again restored in this peaceful country scene. 


Final Thoughts

Gustav Holst’s A Somerset Rhapsody has remained one of his most popular works for orchestra. With its catchy melodies and pastoral atmosphere, it has remained a beloved work in English classical music repertoire. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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