#49: Friday, May 17, 2019
“Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Op.26, Group II” by Gustav Holst
Text by Holst, from Sanskrit sources
SSA w div, piano or orchestra
(continued from #48, Friday, April 26)
This blog is in three parts – the first part (April 26) was intro material about this full selection, and details about the first movement. This week is Movement 2. My next entry will be Movement 3. Be sure to read all three!
The text of the 2nd movement is as follows:
II. To Agni (God of Fire)
Burn up our sin fierce flaming Agni,
Thou with thy face that shineth brightly,
Flame for us O Agni, flame!
Grant unto those that call upon thee,
That we may live on in our children,
Praising thee forever.
Flame for us O Agni!
Thy glowing tongues of flame leap upward
Reaching the heavens, ever victorious,
Thy face doth gleam on ev’ry side.
Thou art triumphant ev’rywhere.
Over the raging sea of foemen
As in a boat O bear us onward,
Flame for us O Agni!
“To Agni” is a tour-de-force of rhythm and energy – and an exceptional exercise in counting! It is written in 5/4, but the asymmetrical division of 5 is not constant – Holst goes back and forth between 3+2 and 2+3. (As a side note, I also used this as a teaching example in my Conducting class this term, for asymmetrical meter. It was a universally loathed example to start with (ha!), but once they got it, they felt quite proud of themselves, and rightly so!)
The score begins with a note: “In the following hymn, the bars are divided into 3 beats followed by 2 and 2 followed by 3 alternating with few exceptions. The figure at the beginning of each bar denotes which of the two comes first.”
You can see this note, and the measure divisions and markers, in the opening excerpt below.
There are dotted lines that mark measures as 3+2 or 2+3. And a “3” or a “2” at the start of each measure to help as well. For the most part, the music goes back and forth between the two systematically….until it doesn’t.
Just when you feel like you, the chorus, and the pianist or orchestra have it down pat, Holst changes things up, In particular, there are a few sequences of multiple 3+2 measures. [m19, among others]
To make it slightly more complex, the piece is marked at MM=200, so it is fast. We aren’t talking broad, legato asymmetrical patterns with 5 distinct beats (1-2, 3-4-5 or 1-2-3, 4-5), we are talking a lop-sided “2” pattern that changes measure by measure (1& 2&a or 1&a 2&). As simply an exercise in conducting, it is great practice. Teaching it to singers or orchestra members who may not be as familiar with asymmetrical meters (or at least not as familiar with constantly shifting asymmetrical meters) will definitely require some rhythmic legwork.
There is something to be said for not overthinking this movement. Once your performers have the notion of the 3+2/2+3, my advice would be to not overdo the mathematical approach. Feel it, physicalize it, have them conduct it. Try to live the asymmetrical feeling, instead of only counting it. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating a sloppy rendering of the music. But the movement needs energy too. An over-focus on the math will sap some of the inherent drive. Finding a good rehearsal balance between the feel and the math is tricky, but likely will serve the music best in the end.
After you solidify the meter, the first 18 measures of the piece are fairly straightforward. There are two contrasting lines (as seen in the example above). The eighth/quarter pattern (RH in the piano reduction) starts in the oboe, clarinet, tambourine, violins, and viola. The stepwise melodic line is found in the choir, as well as the 1st horn, 1st trumpet, and cello. Instrumentation may change, but that is the general orchestral support. The choir is homophonic, and almost entirely in unison as well, with occasional vertical harmony.
At m19 (after roman numeral I), we encounter the first “all 3+2” section. This is the first imitative moment for the voices. Each choral part enters with a near* identical motive, staggered by one measure. The entrances are supported by oboe and clarinet (LH of the piano reduction), while the eighth-quarter pattern is continued in other instruments as before. (*Alto may need extra practice at m22, as their line differs here from the S1 and S2 entrances that precede it.)
On m34 (after roman numeral II), we come to what is certainly the most tricky section of the piece. Instead of two distinct musical lines, as we’ve had so far, there are now multiple distinct lines. And not all are in the same metrical feel.
1) eighth/quarter pattern, that continues off and on (RH of reduction, m34-35) OR
2) triplets from the upper strings (RH of reduction, m36-37)
3) straight quarter notes in a repeated 5-note stepwise gesture (usually bassoon, cello, and bass–LH of reduction, m34-35) OR
4) dotted quarter+eighth pattern, which include hemiola and ties over the barline (LH of reduction, m36-37)
5) homophonic choral line made up of mostly-but-not-entirely half notes, which would arguably do better written/conducted in 2 or 4, instead of 5. There is significant hemiola and obscuring of the barline.
This is one of those places that counting is absolutely imperative for your singers. The instrumentalists will likely find their groove, but singing the choral parts here is a bit like being tossed feet-first into a double-dutch jumprope game, without any warning or prep. At least for my singers, rehearsing on their own was fine, but once they heard the driving rhythmic 5/4 nature of the other parts, it was very difficult to keep their own 2/4-esque phrases on target. These passages, by far, took the most rehearsal time of the whole movement when combining choir and orchestra together.
At III, the movement returns to earlier styles, as in m1 and m19. Change of text or instrumentation, but similar motives/lines.
Roman numeral IV is the last push to the end, and what a push it is. It starts at fff, and only gets bigger from there. The instrumental motives and melody fragments are similar to m31-37 #1-2-3-4 listed above, while the choral parts are more like the beginning (unison or close). However, the bass line listed above as #3–straight quarter notes, is now half notes (m67-68), borrowing the hemiola concepts from the choral lines earlier. And then just when that feels established, it changes to quarter notes again (m75). With the strength of the bassoon, trombone, tuba, cello, and bass, the final ascending quarter note passage is a giant wall of sound.
With the quarter note bass line coupled with the quarter-eighth pattern and the dotted-eighth/quarter pattern, and an accelerando, the movement snowballs hugely to the finish. After counting rests for a few measures and hoping to jump in at the correct time, the choir enters with a barn-burner of a final chord – the biggest, loudest, longest, highest C major they can muster. (i.e. If you have S1s who love their high notes, this is not the time to hold them back!)
All in all, this is a short movement, but a powerful one. The text is about Agni, the god of fire: fire & flame, victory & triumph. Holst’s musical setting does not disappoint. Prepare for the metrical challenges, but support the musical ideas with unbridled energy and drive. Bring your fire and the music will too.
To be continued in my next entry, focusing on movement 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.