Imogen Holst: String Quintet


As the only child of British composer, Gustav Holst, Imogen Holst (1907-1984) is fondly remembered for being a popular composer, arranger, administrator, teacher and conductor. Her oeuvre is comprised of works for a number of different ensembles and genres, making her a rather diverse composer. She was joint Artistic Director of the Aldeburgh Festival for 20 years and she worked for a number of organisations such as the English Folk Dance and Song Society. After studying at St Paul’s Girls’ School and the Royal College of Music, Holst was looking into being a full-time professional pianist, however her health wouldn’t allow it, so she focused on conducting, composing, amongst many of the roles she took upon herself.

After working as Benjamin Britten’s assistant for 20 years, Holst decided to pursue her own career, as well as preserving the legacy of her father. Although her music is still relatively unknown and seldom performed, there has been a small surge in recordings done of her music, which is a fantastic step forward for the genre. 


The Music

Holst’s String Quintet was one of her later works that was composed just two years before she died. Set into three movements, the quintet is unusually balanced as the final Theme and Variations movement is triple the length of the other two movements. 


Movement I – Prelude

The opening movement begins quietly, with the four distinct voices slowly layering on top of one another. The solemn character throughout is enhanced by the minor tonality, which sees the lamenting voices intertwine with each other. Holst’s emphatic harmonic language adds a heart-wrenching edge to this opening prelude.


Movement II – Scherzo

Buzzing with excitement, the opening violin melody is bouncy, playful and full of energy. Holst’s changes between pizzicato and arco playing and combining the two creates some playful textures that the voices bounce off of. Although quite quiet in dynamic throughout, the fizz of energy is certainly present, with all voices adding to the mix. The intricate layering at the end of the movement allows Holst to conclude the movement very cleverly.


Movement III – Theme & Variations

The extended third movement is set as a theme and variations. Opening with the theme played by the cello, the rest of the voices soon enter and begin to take the melody in different directions. Holst makes sure to use all four distinct voices throughout to create the desired effects of each variation. Holst first turns to a pizzicato variation, before exploring rhythmic changes and subtle differences in tempo, dynamic and harmony. The central upbeat section is soon outweighed by a solemn character that is reminiscent of the second movement. The movement ends so quietly you can barely hear the last notes, which creates a mysterious and poignant last word from Holst. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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