Gustav Holst: A Moorside Suite

Context

Gustav Holst’s A Moorside Suite is the composer’s only work for brass band. Commissioned by the BBC and the National Brass Band Festival Committee in 1927, A Moorside Suite was used for the final of the 1928 National Brass Band Championships of Great Britain, which was held at Crystal Palace that year. Holst was a trombonist himself, however this is the only piece for brass band that he wrote. He, instead, focused his attention on military bands and orchestras. 

Holst attended the Nationals and sat and listened to all 15 bands perform his work on stage. Black Dyke Mills Band won the trophy that year, with William Halliwell conducting. Holst was thrilled about the outcome of the day he had listened to bands, commenting to The British Bandsman that:

“Thank you for inviting me to write this year’s test piece. I thoroughly enjoyed doing so, and was both impressed and delighted with the performance. Last Saturday I listened to musicians conducted by musicians. Perhaps my greatest joy was in the flexibility of the rhythm of the best bands.” 

 

The commission of A Moorside Suite prompted a number of new works to be commissioned for the National Finals for the Championship section. Many of these works are now considered staples in most band rooms. This included:

 

  • Edward Elgar: The Severn Suite (1930)
  • John Ireland: A Downland Suite (1932)
  • Granville Bantock: Prometheus Unbound (1933)
  • Arthur Bliss: Kenilworth (1936)
  • Herbert Howells: Pageantry (1937)

 

The Music

Set into three movements each exploring different rhythmic themes and testing bands on their technical, ensemble and melodic playing. There is a great sense of agility and stamina needed to play this suite well. 

 

Movement I – Scherzo

The bouncy 6/8 time signature gets this opening movement off to an animated start. Holst’s changes between very quiet and louder sections allows us to enjoy the melody in a range of different forms. There is a lot of tutti playing within sections, which is then bolstered when the band unites for fragments of the melody. Certainly folk-inspired, this opening movement can be likened to Holst’s St Paul’s Suite, plus others.

Holst writes some intricate lines between the cornets and the middle band, which weaves a wall of sound that really packs a punch in the climactic sections. A reprise of the opening scherzo melody is played across the band, this time louder. As the dynamic begins to come down, the music still presses on until the last quiet flourish of notes.

 

Movement II – Nocturne

The longest of the three movements, the slow and beautiful Nocturne is a real test of a bands control and overall sound. The sustained notes at the start require much control for long stretches of time. To make it even harder, Holst writes for these slow lines to be pp or ppp in dynamic. Some have likened the atmosphere and the general movement of this section to Saturn and Venus from Holst’s The Planets. 

Whereas the opening movement was about ensemble playing, the second also highlights key soloists. A lyrical cornet solo merges into a tenor horn solo, which then brings these upper sections together to play sonorous block chords. The dynamic begins to through the repeated block chord movement throughout the band until we’re back down to just a lone solo cornet. 

There is a real sense of maturity in Holst’s writing in this movement. The need for really difficult technical work is not what he focused on. Instead, Holst focused on the ensemble and how to create a harmonious unit of musicians. Of course this requires great control, tuning and confidence, but when played well, this second movement is truly glorious.

 

Movement III – March

Similar in style to his two wind band suites, the final March highlights Holst’s flair orchestration and melody writing. The opening cornet fanfare is infectious and ebb and flow between the loud and quiet sections are so effective. Perhaps the most technically demanding of the three movements, this movement tests a band’s agility to move from fanfares and marches to the soft and flowing trio clips. 

The vigorous melodic fourths presented in the melody in this movement create anticipation as the band comes together for yet more fanfares. The intricate cornet work shines above the band, as the lower band keep chugging along to keep the tempo moving. After a reprise of the opening material the music begins to slow down until the final flourish and cymbal crash to end this exciting test piece.

 

Final Thoughts

Gustav Holst’s only work for brass band has become one of the classics in the banding world. Although technically not the most difficult work for brass band, A Moorside Suite certainly tests a band’s ensemble playing. There is a real sense of maturity in Holst’s style in the suite, which prompted him to arrange the suite for strings and military band, although these were never published. The popular second movement was also arranged and published for string orchestra.

 

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Gilbert Vinter: Symphony of Marches

 

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