IMOGEN HOLST – String Quartet and Quintet

British Early Modern composer Imogen Clare Holst [1907–1984] wrote two string quartets, a string quintet and several other chamber works. Being the daughter of Gustav Holst, she was raised in a musical environment and had a significant role in British musical education, as well as being a productive composer in her own right. I am going to discuss the First Quartet and the String Quintet.

The former, titled Phantasy Quartet, was one of her earliest works. From 1928, it is in one movement. A warm harmonic environment opens the work, with gently swirling chords and no particular melodic direction. A fanfare of violins changes all that, only to have the music drop back into a soothing pastoral sound. Wispy violins drift across the sparse background, eventually giving way to some strong chordal thrusts, which lead to an increase in tempo and intensity. This doesn’t last and a solo violin muses beautifully in a modal manner, over a sombre background.

The intensity again gently rises as the violin leads the ensemble into a period of subtle rhythmic tension until the cello goes solo and dissolves the rhythm. A pause brings more strong chords and a solo violin, featuring a rich tone, which, investigates further modal possibilities. Now a little harmonic movement is heard before a very serene passage, which gently progresses in an alluring manner. Some melodic tension can be heard, while it is still modal. A droning ensemble introduces a lamenting violin which is oh, so delicate as it wafts forward, accompanied by a sombre ensemble which fades to a soft conclusion.

The quintet, from 1982 (now there’s a gap), in three movements, is a long way from the quartet in many ways. Firstly it has atonal leanings and the melodic expression is slightly entropic, with the five voices exhibiting more independence than in the quartet. There is still much beauty to be found however, it’s just more modern. Nearing the end the violin creates wonderful, touching lines to conclude.

The second movement opens in a playful mode, no modernity here. Its brief nature really only allows for snatches of music, mostly of a light texture.

The final movement, easily the most substantial, gives voice to a solo violin, which is then joined by an interestingly harmonised passage featuring beautiful writing for the ensemble. This very moving section gives way to a smattering of pizzicato before returning to the previous feeling. Now an energised, frisky passage is brief and a morose mood unfolds. Very sparse lines hardly form a texture, as a violin goes solo in a most elegiac manner. There are many spaces between individual notes. The cello returns, in a similar manner to the violin with spacious solo lines. The ensemble slowly begins to build and the effect is almost church-like as extremely soft violins conclude this meditation. Apparently this ending uses some of the last bars of music that her father wrote.

This is distinctly British music, although as noted, there is a significant development in style between the two pieces. The review CD, String Chamber Music also contains two other significant works. A String Trio from 1944 displays elements of modernity and a stunning solo cello piece, Fall of the Leaf, from 1962, is also wonderful. Only the individual musicians are mentioned so I can’t tell you the name of the quartet – it may just be a number of musicians assembled for the recording. It is released on The Court Lane Music label.

Availability is a problem although a copy can be had on Presto Music. Everywhere else it appears to be download only.

The CD is on Spotify, and most works are on earsense and YouTube.

Listenability: Charming British pastoral works, sometimes with a hard edge.

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2 thoughts on “IMOGEN HOLST – String Quartet and Quintet”

  1. Thanks Ken – I think the string trio is fine too. I shall check out some of her other music…

    Cheers,

    JH

  2. A significant review of chamber pieces by a gifted composer, conductor (listen to her releases on Lyrita!) and music educator who deserves far more attention than she gets these days. Thank you, John, for this fine piece!

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