Variations on THAXTED

Premiere: 3 October 2003 at Long Grove Community Church, Long Grove, IL. Camerata Chicago/Drostan Hall

Duration: ca. 15′

Instrumentation: string orchestra (min. 2.2.2.2.1)

Performance Note: Gustav Holst composed his orchestra suite The Planets between 1914 and 1916; after the premiere on 29 September 1918, the work established itself as his most popular composition, a trait it retains to date. Holst insisted that the seven movements of The Planets corresponded to the seven known planets of our solar system (Earth being excluded, and the unfortunate Pluto not discovered until 1929) by way of their astrological significance, though the music succeeds in purely abstract terms as well. The fourth movement of the suite is titled “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity,” and it is from the slow, central section of this movement that Holst adapted the hymn tune THAXTED in the 1920s (the tune name refers to the English village in which Holst lived for a time).

The Variations on THAXTED constitute, in effect, my Opus 1. In the spring of 2003, I was asked by my former violin teacher, Drostan Hall, to develop a substantial piece out of an earlier composition for strings that I had somewhat Romantically titled Impromptu on THAXTED. The impetus for this new commission was the inaugural season of the Camerata Chicago, a chamber orchestra that had been a dream of Drostan’s for several years prior; the Variations were premiered on the ensemble’s opening program (in the heady company of Grieg, Holst himself, and Shostakovich).

A general outline of the work follows:

After the presentation of the theme, the first variation, Waltz, is heard in a succession of odd meters, most regularly 7/8 (and never in the traditional triple meter). It is less an homage to the 5/4 waltz of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony than to the charming waltz (entirely in 7/8) that forms the second movement of Leonard Bernstein’s Divertimento. The second variation, Burlesque, is built around the opening four-note motive of the theme; the central section of this variation imbues Holst’s noble tune with a wild, savage spirit. After the tight, driving energy of the Burlesque, the third variation, Pastorale (literally “song”), provides for a peaceful respite. The fourth variation, the Scherzo, is the most lighthearted of the work, combining duple and triple rhythms with various offbeat accents. A brief Intermezzo (which contains the only material in the Variations derived from my earlier Impromptu) leads to the Finale, in which the theme, bracketed by pedal B-flats in the first violins, cellos, and basses, is presented by the violas under a descant played by the second violins.

The Variations on THAXTED are dedicated to the Camerata Chicago, in honor of their inaugural season, and to their founder and music director, Drostan Hall, with much appreciation.