Gustav Holst: Brook Green Suite
Gustav Holst composed his 1933 Brook Green Suite for the St Paul’s Girls’ School junior string orchestra. Written whilst in hospital just a year before his death, Holst wanted to create a work that was easy enough for the younger members of the orchestra to play, that was not a “watered down” arrangement of another work. Brook Green Suite has a number of different origins in terms of its name. The first being Brook Green itself, the place where he was married in 1901. Or, the name could come from the location of the school being on Brook Green in Hammersmith, London. Either way, the picturesque title sets the listener up for what is to come.
Set into three movements, Brook Green Suite is set in a traditional way.
Movement I – Prelude
The opening Prelude is based around the scale of C major. The light pastoral style of this movement creates a warm and inviting atmosphere, that Holst was often known for. The upper strings play in unison, whilst the lower strings play a light counter-melody. The crossing of these two themes creates a rich texture that is easy on the ear. The music itself only covers two octaves of the C major scale. This ensures no dramatic twists and turns, but a humble core in the middle of the range. After a cheeky pizzicato statement of the main theme, the Prelude comes to a quiet close.
Movement II – Air
The slow middle movement resembles typical folk melodies of the time, although it is not based on one in particular. The warm harmonies wash over the ensemble as the upper strings play the melody and the lower strings move between arco and pizzicato accompaniments. Holst’s use of counterpoint is at its height in this movement, with the two halves of the ensemble going off each other’s themes. Similar in character to the opening movement, the serene, pastoral atmosphere continues.
Movement III – Dance
The finale movement, the Dance, is based on an Italian melody that Holst heard whilst in Sicily. The melody derives from a puppet show that Holst saw whilst in Italy, and this forms the basis for this movement. The chirpy melody is passed around around the ensemble, with Holst utilising staggered entries, cross-rhythms and more counterpoint to really showcase the melody. The energetic finale concludes with the strings in bold unison.
When composing Brook Green Suite, Gustav Holst had his pupils in mind. His lifelong career in both education and composition comes together in this short suite, which is still a concert favourite today.
Ⓒ Alex Burns 2020