Gustav Holst (1874-1934) was a British composer and teacher. After studying composition at London’s Royal College of Music, he spent the early part of his career playing trombone in an opera orchestra. It was not until the early 1900s that his career as a composer began to take off. Around this same time he acquired positions at both St. Paul’s Girls’ School and Morley College that he would hold until retirement, despite his rising star as a composer. His music was influenced by his interest in English folk songs and Hindu mysticism, late-Romantic era composers like Strauss and Delius, and avante-garde composers of his time like Stravinsky and Schoenberg. He is perhaps best known for composing The Planets, a massive orchestral suite that depicts the astrological character of each known planet. His works for wind band (two suites and a tone poem, Hammersmith) are foundational to the modern wind literature.
The First Suite is particularly important to the later development of artistic music for wind band. Holst wrote it in 1909 for an ensemble that came to define the instrumentation that bands would use for at least the next century and beyond. Oddly, it was not performed until 1920, and published a year later. Since then, the First Suite has left an indelible mark on band musicians and audiences around the world. Its appeal is in its simplicity and its artistry. While there are difficult passages and exposed solo work in many instruments, it places few extreme demands on the players, and it uses a straightforward and easily-identifiable theme throughout its 3 movements. Yet this theme is turned and pulled into many different forms, and put on an emotional roller-coaster of doubts, sweet reveries, ecstatic joy, and triumph. Truly, the impact that the First Suite still makes on those who hear it is impossible to put into words. It is a classic piece of art music that has helped to define the development of a century of wind band music.
The US Marine Band performing the complete Suite on Youtube. Not much to look at, but GREAT listening!
Gustavholst.info – a major web resource for information on the composer.