The second movement of Gustav Holst’s ‘St Paul’s Suite for string orchestra’ is entitled ‘Ostinato’. This Italian word has the same basis as the word obstinate (meaning ‘stubborn’) and with good reason, as an ostinato is a persistent note or phrase (often in the same voice) that repeats, regardless of the musical context. Chords and harmonies may change but the ostinato figure will remain the same.
In this particular movement it is the 2nd violins that start with this figure. It is a 12 note quaver motif that is slurred (with the slur overlapping the barline). Soon, the 1st violins, violas and cellos join in with a pizzicato hemiola (in this instance, the pulse of the phrases are in 2 across a ¾ barline). So already we have very useful techniques being employed that are useful not only for the purpose of string writing but in composing for any combination of instruments. In bar 13 a solo violin brings in a flowing, legato melody which is based on a four note descending diatonic scale. This soon gives way to a waltz like feel (in bar 37), all the while with the ostinato flowing through it. The notes of the melody now become more staccato as we are led towards a duple metre. At this point, the ostinato is reduced to a four note figure with the 1st violins and violas accompanying with offbeat notes. As in the first movement, contrast is achieved by using different string techniques but also constantly varying the musical feel and content to keep the listener alert. In bar 69 the mood turns more pleasant with a rustic dance like section that has contrary motion between the violins and cellos. Eventually in bar 93 Holst returns to the musical material of bar 13, but this time the 1st violins have the twelve note ostinato in a high register, gliding high above the melody in the 2nd violins. Again, Holst doesn’t simply present us with the same repeated section but varies the orchestration in order to keep it fresh. He also does this harmonically, with an accented chord of A minor with an unusual F# in the bass rudely interrupting the otherwise serene scene. The whole movement ends with quicksilver slithering strings, descending down to the note C. The piece ends with the violas, cellos and double basses playing a pizzicato note, leaving the violins on a sustained chord of C major.
So, what can a string arranger or composer learn from the techniques which Holst employs in this second movement? Firstly, Holst knew stringed instruments: he knew how they felt to play and therefore his familiarity with the four strings tuned in 5ths (or in the case of double basses 4ths) lent him an ease to his writing that can only be gained by the real knowledge of a player. Secondly, there is a naturalness to the way he employs string techniques. He is not trying to convince the listener of his knowledge, but rather has the ability to use his knowledge in service of the idiom and flow of the music at any particular point. Finally, there is variety. The listener is kept involved through melodic and harmonic interest but also by the way these are adorned by various textures.