Gustav Holst: Beni Mora

Context

Composed between 1909-12, Gustav Holst’s three-movement suite Beni Mora is one of his lesser-known works. Inspired by a trip to Algeria, Holst’s suite reflects some Eastern music traditions. In 1908, Holst was advised to take a holiday due to his mounting stress, depression and neuritis. He chose Algeria as his holiday hot-spot, and whilst walking down the streets he heard local musicians playing their native music. The title comes from the setting of Robert Hichens’s 1904 novel The Garden of Allah. 

Beni Mora was premiered at Queen’s Hall in London in May 1912 and was conducted by Holst himself. Originally Holst had composed just the first movement as a stand-alone work entitled Oriental Dance. It was dedicated to music critic Edwin Evans. It wasn’t until 1910 that Holst added the other two movements. 

Holst aimed to embody some of the Eastern traditions he heard in the Algerian street music, such as the constant repetition of one theme. It is said that Holst heard a street musician play the same theme on a bamboo flute for over two hours! This technique is said to be a precursor of what then became modern minimalism. Holst also includes dance rhythms and slow melodies, particularly showing off the woodwind and percussion sections of the orchestra. 

 

The Music
Movement I – First Dance

Opening with the broad theme from the strings, the atmosphere is ominous to begin with. After an interruption from the brass and percussion, the movement switches into a lively dance. Holst highlights some soloists in the orchestra, including the cor anglais, oboe and flute. These solos accentuate the repeated melody used in this movement. 

First Dance really utilises the woodwind section, with all the solos coming from there, as well as much of the characteristic decorations. The brass and percussion also play a part in accentuating the melody, which is further bolstered by the strings. The bombastic percussion adds excitement to the music. 

Holst fluctuates between the lively dance rhythms and the atmospheric opening, which adds light and shade to the music. The quick changes keeps the listener on their toes whilst listening to this movement. As the repeated rhythm begins to slow in tempo, the dynamics also begin to lower and the movement finishes quietly, slowly fading into the distance. 

 

Movement II – Second Dance

The shortest of the three movements, the Second Dance also has the lightest scoring. Opening with a solo timpani, the bassoon soon enters with a new ominous theme. The atmosphere is up for interpretation here, as it could be seen as mysterious, gentle or even foreboding. The theme bumbles along and sees solos from the timpani, bassoon and flute. The movement is quiet throughout, ending similarly to the first movement – very quietly.

 

Movement III – In the Street of the Ouled Naïls

Picking up where the second movement left off, the quiet opening to the third movement creates a mysterious atmosphere. A solo flute enters to play an eight-note theme, which in turn is repeated a whopping 163 times throughout the movement. Full of dance rhythms, this finale movement sees Holst’s rich scoring come to life as pompous percussion and bitter muted brass accentuate the ever-repeating woodwind theme and the rich string counter-melody. 

The music reaches its climax, with the orchestra uniting on the two main melodies of the movement. The brass add to the drama, with their parts being marked very loud and finally played without a mute in. As the volume begins to decrease, the movement becomes softer again like the opening. Similar to the previous two movements, the finale movement also concludes quietly. 

 

Final Thoughts

Gustav Holst’s Beni Mora suite is an intriguing selection of music from Holst as it is quite different from some of his other works.Each movement is unique and showcases the orchestra through Holst’s rich orchestrations. Beni Mora has been recorded a number of times, however it has been around 10 years since the last professional recording of it. 

 

Happy Reading!

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