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Which piece would I program for my concert if I lived in a perfect world with a perfect band and my only determining factor was the artistry of the piece? Would I choose Gustav Holst's simple yet beautiful First Suite in Eb for Military Band or Ralph Vaughan Williams' syncopated and somewhat more virtuosic English Folk Song Suite? In order to determine which piece I would have my band play I will go through each piece and compare their weaknesses and strengths in artistic value only. Let us first start by discussing Holst's First Suite and the methods he used when composing it.
Holst begins his suite with a Chaconne based on an eight bar ostinato melodic pattern in the bass. Though Holst labels his first movement Chaconne it could also be viewed as a passacaglia depending on how one defines each form. Due to the arbitrary nature of the definitions for both the chaconne and passacaglia, however, it doesn't matter which name he chose. The melody begins in the bass and gradually moves up the range to the upper woodwinds while Holst varied the counter melodies and harmonies rhythmically around it. The melody itself is quite lyrical and lends itself well for variation; however Holst never varies the ostinato rhythmically or melodically. Holst, instead, uses the other voices of the band to move the piece along and he does it in a way that leads the listener gradually away from the melody and then gradually back.
Holst's second movement, labeled Intermezzo, is spirited and light and a relief from the epic Chaconne. For this movement he begins with just the flutes and clarinets in direct opposition to the Chaconne which began with the low brass. Holst also finally varies his main theme in this movement through inversion. This movement is also slightly more virtuosic in that it has much more independent parts as well as solo clarinet and flute parts. The style and mood set by Holst in this movement are in perfect contrast to the first movement.
The third and final movement is, of course, a march. For this movement Holst begins with a short three and a half bar introduction and moves right into the March. Holst once again brings back his original melody this time with rhythmic variation and ornamentation. Though he takes some liberties with the March form this movement still brings a very appropriate, if somewhat short, end to the suite. Overall, Holst's First Suite in Eb is still played and replayed by bands to this day because of one factor; Gustav Holst's immense compositional skill.
Vaughan Williams takes a different approach in his Folk Song Suite. For starters Williams begins his suite with a March that is also more straightforward form-wise then Holst's. After a short three bar introduction Williams gets right in to the A theme of the movement which is a syncopated melody in the upper winds with the lower winds filling out the harmony. The B theme is much the same though it is a solo in the first clarinet and first cornet parts. The harmony is also fuller in the section and still mainly resides in the lower winds. The trio is, of course, in six-eight and the melody moves into the lower winds while the upper winds noodle away up top. As the trio closes out we return to the A theme which ends with a concise three bar coda. Overall, this movement is merely another march but I believe that that's all Vaughan Williams wanted it to be and it is a fine example of the style.
The second movement, My Bonny Boy, is like Holst's intermezzo in that it is a drastic change from the first movement. The movement begins with a haunting oboe/cornet solo that brings to mind feelings of a loved one setting sail on a long journey and not knowing if they will ever return. Williams relies heavily on lyrical solo melodies through out the intermezzo which heightens the feeling of loneliness I believe he is trying to convey. As the A section dies away a new theme is introduced along with a new mood. This theme is in the style of an English dance and brings to mind a small seaside pub where are lonely lover tries to lift his or her spirits. However, it is a lost cause and the music fades away into a variation of the A theme with more haunting solos. As the movement comes to an end Williams settles on a Picardy Third signifying the hope that the lonely soul has that her lover will return someday. It is with this movement that Vaughan Williams' true strengths as a story teller come out. As you listen to this movement it is impossible not to create a story to go along with the music because the composition almost demands it. This is lyrical narration at its best and one of the most beautiful pieces of music for wind band ever written.
Folk Songs from Somerset is the title of the third movement and it is another march. Williams once again follows the march form to the T and each theme is based off of an English folk song. The first theme begins with a solo in the first cornet and is once again very syncopated. The sound fills out as the rest of the band enters with syncopated counterpoint to the melody. The trio theme is passed between the upper woodwinds and trumpets and returns to the beginning to end the piece. Overall, I think that Vaughan Williams' compositional style is clearly evident in this piece but I believe he over compensated the differences in writing for band and orchestra. The middle movement is by far the best and truly represents Williams' normal compositional style. Two marches are unnecessary in this suite and I think he may have thought that was the only way to get people to listen to a wind band at the time. We discussed in class that Sea Songs was originally included in the Folk Song Suite but was taken out B'ton the publishers due to time issues. Perhaps the marches serve to bridge the gap between his narrative style of composition and the standard repertoire for wind bands at that time.
Based on what I have deduced from the scores of both suites and through numerous listenings I would have to choose Holst's First Suite in Eb to program in my 'perfect' concert. The reason is that even when Holst writes the March he still does it in his own unique and creative way. Williams, on the other hand, loses much of what makes his music so unique in his effort to break into the world of concert band music. However, if Sea Songs had been left in the original Folk Song Suite my decision would have been tougher. As it stands the First Suite in Eb is just more artistically creative.
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