Raise your hand if you have never played this piece.
If you participated in a band program in the United States, you have likely played this piece at least once, if not multiple times. It is a huge staple of music education in the wind band world, and a true gem of artistry. It suffers a little bit by how jaded people can become by being in a band and by the swath of "eh" that is composed for that ensemble, but the brilliance inherent in the work when you cast the baggage aside is something at which to be marveled.
I, myself, have only performed this piece in concert three times, each time playing a different part, so I may have escaped the overindulgence of such a work. You can take a listen to it here to refresh your memory.
A Brief Overview of Holst
Gustav Holst (1874 – 1934) had kind of a miserable upbringing. His mother died shortly after the birth of her second child (Holst's little sister), and both were heavily neglected by his father, who seemed to favor the piano over his children. Holst suffered from poor eyesight, rampant asthma, and neuritis of the hands, all of which went unchecked in youth—his official bio states that "no one seemed to bother" with any of his health issues.
He studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music, where he was described as shy yet absorbed with people. Peculiar for the time, he was a vegetarian, and did not smoke or drink. Since vegetarianism was maybe less understood at that time, he likely never received a fully nourishing meal in school, and thus continued to lose sight while the neuritis in his hands only increased.
Some of his earliest influences as a composer were Wagner's Götterdämmerung (conducted by Mahler), and J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor. He was a trombonist—apparently excessively virtuosic while still an active performer—before quitting and completely diving into composition, and was a lifelong friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams. He remained a fanatic of Sanskrit texts, such as the Vedas and Bhagavad-gita, which permeated his earlier operas and songs.
Most notably, Holst is remembered for composing the Planets, a colossal work for orchestra which embraces the astrological signs as related to all of our neighbors in the solar system except Pluto (the prominent Holst scholar, Colin Mathews, later wrote a Pluto movement, but it is not... quite fitting of the previous masterpieces). His legacy as a great teacher, a neurotic composer, and proficient intellect a prominent in much of his compositions, which still remain largely unknown even by his own countrymen.
A bit about the piece
This piece is about as tight as one can find for how early in the repertoire it comes. Written in 1909 and stemming from the British military band tradition, Suite No. 1 in E flat is a bit unusual in that it is not like a lot of more contemporary wind ensemble works where the piece was written as a collection of winds and percussion without strings, but also not falling into "that band sound" where the listener is assaulted by an army of saxophones and horns playing in unison. It is more like he conceived it as a chamber piece that just happened to have 18+ players in it (let me tell you, if you ever get a chance to program / hear / perform this work as a chamber piece with one player per part, it is like a brand new work!).
The entire piece comes from the chaconne melody from the first movement. Literally. The first movement itself is an architectural masterpiece consisting of a melodic presentation that is then embellished by variations and inventions of itself, working through a slow, orchestrated crescendo that culminates into one of the most magnificently textbook-scored Eb major chords ever to grace my ears (John Mackey actually lifted this chord, orchestration and all, and used it to end his piece Aurora Awakes).
The intermezzo is a spinout of the the first three notes from the chaconne, and the march is an inversion of those same notes. What is really refreshing about the work as a whole—or in part— is that the piece very clearly is not trying to be anything other than a work deliberately written for these instruments. The chaconne very much as that triangle shape in form, holding true to its passacaglia characteristics all the way to the end; the intermezzo is one of the most perfect encapsulations of the term; the march is one of the most clear-cut renditions of the form so codified by John Philip Sousa.
But what the whole point is for me is that this piece was written in 1909: it established these standards—these cliches, if you will—without falling victim to them. I find it curious that, with such a starting point (one could argue the "start of the wind band" all the way back to a Mozart Divertimento, though many give credit to Vaughan Williams' English Folk Song Suite as the "first" piece for band), how did all of that repertoire between then and the birth of the wind ensemble concept from Eastman get written? Almost like most composers just ignored Holst's orchestration prowess and defaulted to the shades of gray that jade our thought on what winds can, and should, actually sound like as a large ensemble.
Regardless, if you know this suite, dust it off and give it a new listen with fresh ears. If you do not know it, spend some time with it. It is a true masterpiece through and through.