#48: Friday, April 26, 2019
“Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Op.26, Group II” by Gustav Holst
Intro and Mvt 1
Text by Holst, from Sanskrit sources
SSA w div, piano or orchestra
This blog is in three parts – the first part (this week) will be intro material about this selection, and details about the first movement. Subsequent weeks will cover the 2nd and 3rd movements.
At Hollins, I lead the choral program, and recently also took on directing the student/community orchestra (Valley Chamber Orchestra). With me in front of both the choral and orchestral forces, the time seemed right this spring to program a choral-orchestral concert. The biggest challenge of this collaboration (besides how to fit everyone on stage!) was about repertoire. The amount of choral-orchestral rep for SATB choirs is large. However, the list of quality non-pops selections for full orchestra and SSAA choir is much harder to navigate.
In the end, the rep for the combined portion was as follows:
- David Dickau, “If Music Be the Food of Love.” SSAA. Also available SATB. Orchestral parts for purchase from Colla Voce for orchestra parts.
- Gustav Holst, Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Group II. SSA div. Orchestral Parts
for rent from ECS.
- I. To Varuna
- II. To Agni
- III. Funeral Chant
- Gwyneth Walker, “Crossing the Bar.” SSAA. Orchestra parts for purchase from ECS.
- Giuseppe Verdi, “Witches’ Chorus”from Macbeth, arr. Rutter, published in Three Opera Choruses for Upper Voices. Orchestra parts available
for rent through Oxford and Edition Peters. SSA.
- We only did the Verdi this time, but have previously programmed the other two movements in this set: “Spinning Chorus” from Wagner’s Der Fliegende Hollander and “Chorus of Peasant Girls” from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.
Of all the repertoire in the choral-orchestral portion of the concert, the Holst gained the most grudging respect from my singers, over the course of the semester. At first, I’ll be honest, they were not fans. Unfamiliar harmonies, exposed choral parts, sparse orchestral support, odd divisi, and difficult meters were just some of the reasons they found the work overwhelming early in the learning process. It was tougher music than I’d thrown at them before, so they were a little hesitant. The orchestra was likewise reticent, for similar reasons. But all those same challenging qualities also ended up being what they loved most about the work by the end.
First, a little background on this portion of Holst’s compositional life, according to musicologist Chris Morrison:
“The years 1900 through 1912 could be thought of as the British composer Gustav Holst’s (1874-1934) “Sanskrit” period. Inspired by his Theosophist stepmother, Holst developed an interest in the religious literature and poetry of India in his mid-twenties, going so far as to learn the rudiments of the Sanskrit language at University College, London, so that he could make his own translations when he found those that available were unsuitable for his musical settings. His first effort in this vein was the opera Sita (1900-1906); later came works like the opera Sàvitri (1908), the choral work The Cloud Messenger (1909-1910), and the Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, written over the years 1908 through 1912.
The Rig Veda is a set of over 1000 hymns — singing the praises of the sacred plant soma and gods like Varuna, Agni, and Indra — brought by Indo-European speaking peoples into India somewhere around 1500-1000 B.C. Holst set 14 of these hymns in his four groups of Choral Hymns, which were fairly popular during his lifetime, but have seldom been performed since.
The first group (written in 1908-1910, premiered at Newcastle on December 6, 1911) is scored for mixed chorus and orchestra. The third group (written in 1910, premiered at Blackburn on March 16, 1911) combines women’s chorus with harp accompaniment. The fourth group (written in 1912, premiered at Queen’s Hall on March 18, 1914) is scored for men’s chorus and orchestra. [As a women’s chorus conductor, the third group – for women’s choir and harp – was the one I was already familiar with.]
The second group (written in 1909, premiered at Queen’s Hall on March 22, 1911) features women’s chorus with orchestra. The mysterious “To Varuna (God of the Waters),” with its quiet, desolate opening and unusual harmonies, is followed by the lively, polyphonic “To Agni (God of Fire)” and the haunting “Funeral Chant.”
The text of the 1st movement is as follows:
I. To Varuna
O Varuna, we offer up to thee a song to bring thee earthward unto us.
O thou, the Ancient One, the Mighty, the Holy,
laden with treasure of sacrifice, Descend to us.
But now having entered unto his presence his face doth scorch as flames of angry fire.
O Varuna if we have sinned against thee yet we are thine own.
Give shelter to those that bring thee praise.
Hast thou forgotten how in the days gone by with thee O Varuna fearlessly walked we.
Into thy mansion, lofty and shining, built with a thousand doors,
Freely we entered.
Then in thy boat we embarked with thee Varuna,
Forth did we wend o’er the path of the ocean,
Over the surface of billowy waters swaying so gently, gliding so smoothly,
Yea in those happy days
Thou didst inspire us, gavest us wisdom, mad’st us thy singers.
Ah! In those happy days
Broad were the heav’ns, long were the days
O Varuna if we have sinned against thee yet we are thine own
Give shelter to those that bring thee praise.
“To Varuna,” opens very sparsely in 3/2, with haunting phrases in individual string parts, punctuated by intervals in the winds. There is one sharp in the key signature, but accidentals abound. Your principal violin and principal viola must have no fear, and great intonation. I conducted this in big 3, with subdivisions as needed for entrances or emphasis.
After the intro, choral parts (SSA) enter in unison, but with no instrumental support underneath. They just float in from the ether. For a choir used to rhythmic or tonal accompaniment support (either from the piano or from other voices), this opening can feel a little exposed.
The unison turns to homophonic/chordal harmony, with some difficult dissonances between voices. A solo oboe enters above the voices, to add a layer. The counting here for voices can be tricky – the rhythms fall in line with the text, which makes it feel more spoken than sung, but the rests come at unexpected times.
Flute, harp, timpani, and horn enter next, pp – still no full strings. Throughout the whole movement, there is a rhythmic contrast between three-half-notes and two-dotted-half-notes. Both figures are almost always present, so if you are conducting in a big 3, one group will always feel “on” and another will always feel “off.” It makes for tricky rehearsals initially, but good rhythmic intrigue later.
The voices return, continuing in the parlando style – minimal harmony, maximum text. Tension ramps up quickly – moving from pp with just a few instruments to ff with everyone (including percussion and brass). This coincides with the text “as flames of angry fire.”
Continuing in the study of contrasts, the harp has running patterns of four-sixteenths, while the strings enter with 8th notes triplets. Some instrumental lines have dotted half figures, while others have half notes. Everyone must count – each section for themselves!
After another sparsely orchestrated section with speechlike rhythms, the style changes a bit. Instead of moderate 3/2, the tempo gets just a little faster and is written in 6/4. I kept conducting in three, but it felt like 3 primary beats, whereas the 3/2 felt like three with subdivision. This was counterintuitive to the given meter signatures, but it fit the music best.
Oboe, bass clarinet, and horn underscore this middle section of the movement, with an interesting combination of long tones and quick eighths. Choral parts are legato half notes (“Hast thou forgotten…”), in solid, non-diatonic triads. Accidentals are everywhere! This is not the section to learn via solfege – recognizing half-steps and whole-steps would be a much stronger teaching tool here. There are also some enharmonics from chord to chord that can be problematic until the singers catch them all.
After a full cycle of the choral half-note motive, with very minimal accompaniment, the strings re-enter as a unit, doubling the choral notes. At this point though, Holst introduces divisi into the vocal lines. In the score, it is written as “first row” (SSA new material) and “remainder” (SSA half note motive, now supported by strings). Essentially, your group is now in six parts.
For my purposes, I put my stronger singers on the new material, regardless of where they were standing, and kept everyone else on the material they already knew. Your mileage may vary, depending on how you feel your group would best be divided. The “first row” lines are predominantly quarter notes, so they move twice as fast as the rest of the choir. Together, the six parts and the orchestra create a quiet yet energetic section of moderately-controlled chaos.
After a brief return to the half-notes-only motive, without the quarter note overlay, the piece shifts to piu mosso and some very loud, very emphatic quarter note duplets (“Ah, in those happy days…”), before calming back down. The opening material returns, in pseudo da-capo fashion. The piece ends similar to how it begins, with a parlando invocation to Varuna, this time with a poignant violin solo over top.
To be continued in my next entries, focusing on movements 2 and 3.
|Title:||Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Group II|
|Date of Composition:||1909-1911|
|Author:||Holst, from Sanskrit Vedic hymns|
|Voicing Details:||SSA with divisi up to 6 parts|
|Ranges:||Vary greatly by movement. Highest Sopranos need C6. Lowest Altos need G3.|
|Accompaniment:||Piano, or orchestra|
|Duration:||~12 minutes, for all three movements|
|Tempo:||I: 48, 66|
|Dedication:||To Edward Mason and his Choir|
|Publisher:||Galaxy Music (a division of ECS)|
|Further descriptions and details, including program notes, audio, perusal score, and purchasing: |
Until next week!
Dr. Shelbie Wahl-Fouts is associate professor of music, Director of Choral Activities, and music department chair at Hollins University, a women’s college in Roanoke, Virginia.