Gustav Holst: Second Suite in F for Military Band (Movement 4: Fantasia on the Dargason)

In our last week of the Desert Island Band Literature competition we are talking about folk songs again, but this time it's with Gustav Holst (1874-1934).  

Now, I realize LF has been on an unannounced hiatus for a few weeks now.  Long story short- I needed a break.  I do understand that the 2.3 of you who faithfully read this site must be devastated, but I have to explain a few things.  

Over summer I interviewed for, landed, and have begun a full time position outside of teaching.  I had been a music educator from January 22nd, 2007 until May 23rd, 2013. As a related side note, half of America's teachers leave the field after just 5 years.  

I made it 1 year, 4 months, and 1 day past that. 

And there was much rejoicing.

It was not an easy decision to come by, and that (more than anything else) has impacted my desire to sit down and write out the latest and greatest Listening Friday entry.  

The idea of pursuing a career in music entered into my brain sometime around middle school and into high school.  I played trombone starting when I was 10, and I had become highly involved in my church through running their sound board.  I participated in many performances through this time, both secular and religious, both with my school and with the church.  

I can remember being a young sound tech and running the board for a Christmas or Easter cantata and being overwhelmed by the musical performance.  Looking back, I'm sure it was a fine exhibition, but who knows what the quality actually was.  For some reason something clicked.  Something in my brain said, "This is what you are meant to do."  

I misunderstood.  

In the summer between my Junior and Senior years of high school, I was awarded a scholarship to attend the Florida State University Summer Music Camps in Tallahassee, FL.  At this point I was already well-acquainted with FSU and had been up for the Tri-State Band Festival they host (which is nothing short of a big recruit-a-thon, but a valuable experience none-the-less).  Dr. James Croft was conducting us for one week, and at this point he was still the Director of Bands and had not retired.  He chose several pieces for us to perform, but the one that remains lodged in my memory was Gustav Holst's "Second Suite in F for Military Band".  


Dr. Croft, for those who don't know him, was a tall, wiry, old man.  He had aspired to become a basketball player in his youth, but found a career in being a band director more fitting.  He had been at FSU a long time before I encountered him, and had been in front of many, possibly tens of thousands of high school kids at one time or another.  He spoke very softly most of the time, so softly the entire band would strain to hear every word, leaning in, not daring to move even a finger, lest the sound of a distracting movement obscure a gem of wisdom floating through the hall.  

Now, to someone who had not the distinct pleasure of being rehearsed by Dr. Croft this might sound a bit enthusiastic, and you would be right.  But I can't accurately describe the feeling of being in the room with this man and under his baton.  If there is magic in this world, Jim Croft was a proprietor.  

He began to rehearse the Holst.  We struggled in all the familiar places, the 3rd movement of course, the saxophone intonation at the beginning of the 4th.  He guided us down his well-trodden path and looking back I have to wonder what the first time he rehearsed this piece must have been like.  He explained the history behind Holst and how he and Vaughn Williams and Grainger had all become enchanted with folk music of the European continent and had basically spun these simple melodies into gold using only pen and manuscript.  

It was magic.  Pure and simple.

The fourth movement of the work encompasses two pieces from what was essentially a handbook on how to perform the country dances of the time.  These dances were intricate patterns involving on average 8-12 couples and the movements were all highly regimented and organized.  The two melodies are the Dargason and Greensleeves (also known as 'What Child is This?').  Holst begins simply enough with two saxes playing the main theme and then works his way around the band, feeling the lay of the land so-to-speak as he experiments with the texture a bit.  

At some point it all changes.  Greensleeves is introduced, but not as a separate entity.  It is woven into the texture created by the Dargason and essentially becomes one in the same. Now the Dargason is a melody in a meter that is known as 6/8.  This means that there are 6 beats in each measure and that each beat is marked by an 8th note.  Greensleeves is in 3/4 which implies 3 beats per bar and a quarter note as the beat. Mathematically, they're the same thing.  If you take half of a quarter note, you get an 8th note, which would mean that there are in fact 6 8th notes in a measure of 3/4, same as 6/8.  The difference comes when we examine how each meter is interpreted.  

6/8 is divided into two larger groups, 1-2-3 and 4-5-6.  A conductor will indicate where beat 1 and 4 are to the ensemble, the pulse is felt internally.  With 3/4 however, each quarter note is given its own pulse, thus making the feel of the melody a bit more triangular.  What Holst successfully demonstrated was that using a compositional technique known as the 'hemiola' you can juxtapose three over two evenly.  

He demonstrates this two times, the second is prelude to the finale of the movement where we are treated to polar opposites of texture.  A tuba and piccolo play the remaining lines of melody to a triumphant stinger at the end.  

It was through rehearsing this piece that I heard that voice again, I wanted to live this life of the magician and be constantly surrounded by this wondrous music that I was party to.  I would not be deterred and thus launched head-long into a music education degree the following year at FSU.  

Now I certainly live with no regrets of any of this, because my time at FSU was great. Performing with the many wonderful ensembles and learning from some of the finest men and women to grace the profession was nothing short of amazing.  However, upon entering the 'real world' and realizing that so little of the magic is actually available for use and on tap was quite defeating.  Limiting factors were incessant and quite frankly it ground me down.  I don't really care to go into the details, but know that with the exception of one year I truly feel my job was cleaning up one mess after another.  

Fix all the bands.

But even more basic than that, I started to notice that my personality did not fit in.  As many of my friends adapted and grew more and more acquainted with their musical endeavors, I felt more locked in and unable to escape.  I began to not care about progression or advancement.  It felt like being trapped.  I constantly felt like I was enclosed and was constantly being drained of any and all of the musical magic I could muster.  

So, I quit.

And I walked away from it.  

But it's not as easy as it sounds.  

My whole career I've toyed with the idea that my becoming a band director was a horrible, misguided mistake.  But walking away meant abandoning something I felt I could be proud of.  It meant letting down all the people who had held up a guiding hand along the way.  I felt burdened by guilt for wanting to get out.  Not to mention being unemployed wasn't necessarily the best option at the time what with a family to feed and all.  

But I left.  I took a big chance and tried to find other employment, initially looking towards something close to my degree and experience, but finally figuring out what I had misunderstood all along.  

I am not one to be the center of attention, but like standing to the left of it.  In all my years of running that sound board in church I had realized that I love the performing arts, but my place in it was not on the stage. 

My place is just off stage.  

Now, that's not to say I would ever sell my trombone or give up my J-Bass, but the terrific weight of building a band program and guiding them through the various stages of development is not something I am greatly built to accomplish.  

I've been thinking a lot lately about whether or not this was the right choice.  I have been having trouble finding the right way to word this entry, perhaps it's poetic justice to find myself having to visit this piece again at time like this.  

But ultimately, I do have a love for music and a passion to continually learn more about it and I don't think that will change any time soon.  So without further explanation, here is the final piece in our Desert Island repertoire: Gustav Holst's Fantasia on the Dargason.

Homework: Make a decision today to be happy.

See you next Friday. 

I promise.