The first Behind the Lines adult workshop of the New Year took place last week at Westminster Music Library with musicians from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. There was a high demand for places at this event so we had our fullest group yet of music enthusiasts. Continuing on the theme of Holst, this workshop looked at The Hymn of Jesus and The Planets.
As workshop leader Tim welcomed everybody to Westminster Music Library, he invited everyone to say a little about themselves. We all soon learned of the variety of people who attend these music events; musicians, composers, former military band members, students, researchers, and plenty of people who said they ‘had nothing to contribute to music’, ‘never played an instrument before’, but ‘loved listening to it all day, every day’. But they had to change these statements after today’s workshop!
For the first time in this series of events, everyone was encouraged to sing. So after waking our voices with some warm-ups and exercises, we all learned to sing the opening theme from The Hymn of Jesus. The step-wise movement of the phrase made it easy enough for everyone to sing. The melody was also played by the RPO musicians and their instruments – cello, trumpet and flute – and it was discussed how the same melody on different instruments can sound so different and have such different effects on the listener.
This workshop also gave some people a chance to pick up a new instrument for the very first time! With spare French horns and flutes, as well as other melodic instruments such as vibraphone and tubular bells, everyone split off into groups to learn a section of The Hymn of Jesus. It was hard to master the wind instruments for those non-wind players, but everyone made a great attempt!
This led us into the tea break, in which there was plenty of discussion about Holst. Westminster Music Library contributed to this discussion by providing scanned images of original documents and letters written by the famous composer to music critic Edwin Evans. Evans’ collection of thousands of scores, letters, documents, and books was given to Westminster Libraries after his death in 1946. The original vocal score of The Hymn of Jesus was on display for all to see.
After some tea and biscuits, everyone resumed position for a short discussion on Holst and his contribution to the war, the most prominent being his role as Music Organiser with the YMCA, working with demobilised troops in Salonika and Constantinople. Here, he taught and encouraged people to play music, many for the first time.
Another great output during the war was his suite for large orchestra, The Planets. The well-known opening 5/4 rhythm of the first movement Mars, the Bringer of War was introduced to the group, who then went on to experiment with it; different rhythms, taking out/adding notes, different accents etc. But in the end, the group decided that the original 5/4 rhythm has the most power, creating a ‘menacing’ atmosphere, and suits the war era in which it was produced. The group also experimented with the interesting opening melody of Mars, swapping around notes and discussing the effects. The grand finale of the workshop was a performance of the Mars themes by all the participants – so everyone did contribute to the music, even the non-musicians!
This workshop represented a great tribute to Holst as he dedicated his life to teaching amateur musicians and encouraging everyone to get involved. We are pretty sure he would have loved to have been there!