Music Plug #4: Holst, Elgar

Everybody loves The Planets.  Well, more accurately, everyone knows Mars and Jupiter, and probably wouldn't recognize anything else as part the suite even if you told them the name of the movement was "Saturn" or "Venus".  But pimping Uranus (ha ha) isn't the point of this post.  One of the things people don't know about Gustav Holst is that he was a trombone player and did a lot of non-orchestral composition, much of it for wind or military band.  And unless you're a band geek like me, you probably won't be familiar with any of his other literature.

One of Holst's contemporaries was a fellow Briton named Edward Elgar.  Elgar is best known for his Pomp and Circumstance marches.  (You already know the first one because it's played at every single graduation ceremony in the Anglosphere.)  While the marches are quite good, I'm actually a bigger fan of his other compositions - especially his Enigma Variations, a cryptographic musical love letter to his family, friends, and (in the true hubristic spirit of the 19th Century artist) himself.

Unlike Holst, Elgar never wrote directly for wind band, but his compositions are relatively simple and have been transcribed for (and largely played by) wind ensembles.  I'm going to exclusively use band arrangements for both composers here.  I encourage you to find orchestral versions and listen to those as well.

Gustav Holst

Mars, the Bringer of War

You've heard this before.  Maybe not the original; maybe not in its entirety, but you've at least heard strains of it in John Williams' Star Wars score or even the introduction to Metallica's "Am I Evil".  Mars is an iconic piece, and one of the few classical compositions that could truly be called "metal".  But that's not why I like Mars.  Mars is a unique - even prophetic - piece of music.

As the embodiment of war, Mars has a driving, march-like quality.  But Mars is a march in five - it's a march no human feet could ever follow.  You can't help but hear the rumbling of tank treads and the roar of bomber engines in the constant, driving rhythm.  Mars is about a world where armies and machines rule and individual human lives are next to worthless.  When the piece has heroic lines, they become frantic and panicked - then disappear, leaving nothing but the ceaseless drum-beat of war.

Mars ends in devastation.  It ends not at Reims or Versailles but at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Mars is not about victory or armistice.  It is about about war itself: primal; destructive; single-minded; evil.

In this piece, Holst captures what war has become in the 20th and 21st Centuries.  What makes Mars prophetic, however, is that it was written before the start of World War I - before trench warfare, mechanized combat, and aerial bombardment.  In other words, it was written before any of the horrors it so accurately predicted became terrible reality.

Neptune, the Mystic

This is the other "weird" movement from Holst's Planets suite.  Like Mars, it's in 5/4 meter.  But the effect in Neptune is to create a mysterious and otherworldly atmosphere.

Neptune is notable in that it's one of the first recorded pieces of music to have a "fade-out" ending - a female choir is placed in an adjoining room and the door slowly shut as they repeat the final few bars.  While this sort of thing is cliche now, at the time the effect was quite revolutionary.

First Suite in E♭

This is one of the classic concert band works.  Holst defined the sound of the British military band in much the same way Sousa did for bands in America.  I'm including it here as sort of palate cleanser because it's a neat piece and very entertaining.

Edward Elgar

Enigma Variations, Variation IX "Nimrod"

The Enigma Variations are a musical puzzle - each movement corresponds to someone in Elgar's life that he was close to.  We don't know for sure who every single person is.  But we do know that the ninth variation, Nimrod, is a reference to his friend, Augustus Jaeger, who saved Elgar's career (and possibly his life) when the composer fell into a deep depression.  A lot of music tries to capture emotions like love and passion, but this piece captures something more profound - deep, abiding, lifelong friendship.

As Ron White would say, I told you that story to tell you this one: A good band director is more than just your boss for two hours a week - s/he's a friend, a parent figure, someone who guides you through the deeply spiritual process of coming together to make music.  And when a beloved director leaves an ensemble, it's a major emotional event for everyone involved.

Forget everything I've told you about Elgar, Enigma Variations, or Augustus Jaeger.  All you really need to know about Nimrod is that it's the piece they play when a band director dies.


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