St. Paul's Suite
IV. Finale (The Dargason)
With his St. Paul’s Suite, Holst used the vocal affinity of the string orchestra to good effect in his setting of four English folk songs. His early influences included Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky—both intensely lyrical composers—as well as Wagner and Arthur Sullivan when it came to opera. It was the turn-of-the-century English folk song revival, though, that helped him find his own voice.
In addition to its straightforward melody, presented from the jump by the whole string section in unison, the jig of the first movement shows an affinity for the sort of fiddling that would accompany song and dance in English, Irish, and American traditions. Playful time changes occasionally disrupt the predictable lilt of the jig, the sort of teasing disruption a fiddler might employ to toy with the dancers. Once a more expansive melody occasionally sings out over the rest, as if someone were calling a new tune, an effort that shortly succeeds.
The second movement is also brief and based on a simple premise. The second violins provide a constant stream of eighth notes (the ostinato) as accompaniment to a tune in the first violins that is reminiscent of a country waltz. After a brief transition, in which the whole orchestra stomps its feet, the first and second violins trade roles for another statement of the melody, ending with a graceful bow from each section in turn.
The intermezzo is more operatic in its ambition, although it maintains its role as a light diversion. Over a delicate pizzicato accompaniment, the solo violin sings its aria, complete with some exotic, chromatic turns. The viola answers, the tenor to the soprano prima donna, before the scene is interrupted by a raucous tutti section. Once more, the operatic duo attempt their scene before another equally vivacious interruption. The solo violin gets the last word, however, in a brief coda.
The finale features the most famous songs in the suite. The “dargason” was a well-known ballad tune in the sixteenth century, and it appears first in a setting reminiscent of the hurdy gurdy, with the jaunty melody unfurling over a drone. After it passes among the upper voices, it continues in the violas while the cellos sing “Greensleeves” in solemn counterpoint. The elaboration of the two tunes continues as the texture and volume build, and after the wave crests, the “dargason” fades away with a final flourish in the violins.
This piece for string orchestra was finished shortly before Holst’s most famous work, which he finished in 1916: The Planets. On display in the St. Paul’s Suite is the economy of effort—informed by Holst’s finely honed sense of how long a particular piece of melodic material can go on—that also balances the movements of The Planets over its much longer fifty-minute span.