What common characteristics can you find in the works of composers like Holst, Vaughan Williams, or Grainger? I list these three in particular because of their propensity to build on existing folk songs in works like "Second Suite in F", "English Folk Song Suite", or "Lincolnshire Posy", allowing them to retain something centrally English about the tunes from which they derive their melodies.

The one unifying characteristic I've noticed is a propensity to use the Dorian mode - both Second Suite and English Folk Song Suite have second movements prominently featuring F Dorian oboe solos(the latter's first movement is also placed mainly in F Dorian). I've also seen a good deal of 6/8 and 12/8 time signatures.

So, in terms of chord progressions, scales, orchestration, textures, form, and composing techniques, what unifies late English Romantic composers? Additionally, what gives tunes such as those of "Second Suite" and "English Folk Song Suite" such a distinctly "nautical" feel?

Also, to clarify, I'm not speaking specifically about works based on english folk songs, though I'd argue that the works of these composers which don't fit that billing still inherited a lot of influence from folk songs. In my mind, something like "Moorside Suite" or "First Suite in Eb"(I'm reticent to list this one given that the first movement has arguable ties to "Agincourt Carol") evokes no less English imagery than "Second Suite".

Edit: In terms of structure, it's hard not to point to some connection between "Second Suite" and "English Folk Song Suite", particularly in their first movements. Both employ a number of folk songs separated into discrete units by perfect cadences before cycling back(EFSS is arch form, SS is ABCAB). Again, the second movements are almost laughably similar, featuring F dorian oboe solos against oscillation of minor chords. EFSS distinguishes itself slightly in this regard by ending its movement with "The Lost Lady Found"(incidentally, one Grainger used in the final movement of LP), a more upbeat folk song. Not sure how much this means, all in all.

You can draw some connections regarding development of themes here. A good chunk of movements from the listed pieces loop the same melody repeatedly while altering instrumentation or adding ornamentation from different sections(the best example I can think of is "The Lost Lady Found" - it's literally the same tune with nothing but orchestration changed; also a masterclass in orchestration in that regard). Some just give in to the urge to create circular melodies(notably, "Fantasia on the Dargason").

One technique common in the elements of the Holst repertoire I listed(as commenters have pointed out, it's inaccurate to characterize all of his opus along these lines) entails the statement of an A theme, the presentation of a B theme(this can be either layered on top of the A theme, which is placed in the background, as with "Fantasia on the Dargason", or played on its own, as with the clarinet sol[i/o]s in "Intermezzo" and "March" from "First Suite"), and the merging of the two(this time allocated equal volume and importance) as point and counterpoint, frequently making use of hemiolas in the process(again, best example is "Dargason").

  • Good input, good question. I'll be interested in answers of others and would like to give my own. But I'll need about half a year to listen to the 3 composers as I don't know them well and never compared their work. Jul 3, 2019 at 17:04
  • I'd be careful generalizing about Holst's compositional style based on a few of his works: he wrote some bitonal/polytonal works that I'd argue were ahead of his time, and even his The Planets is filled with weakly tonal passages, chord planing, and rapid and abrupt modulations to distant keys. I could write an entire article on a harmonic analysis of Mars alone, and it wouldn't be close to either of his Suites for military band.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 3, 2019 at 17:37
  • Also, both the "Second Suite in F" and "English Folk Song Suite" directly quote actual British folk songs for much, if not all, of their length. Thus, I wouldn't use them as examples of what scales these composers used.
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 3, 2019 at 17:41
  • maybe we'll find some answers here: ww2.lipscomb.edu/windbandhistory/… Jul 3, 2019 at 18:21
  • 2
    Was Grainger English? I thought he was Australian.
    – JimM
    Jul 3, 2019 at 19:40

1 Answer 1


1st Q: What common characteristics can you find in the works of composers like Holst, Vaughan Williams, or Grainger? I list these three in particular because of their propensity to build on existing folk songs

A: Well, the early 20th century was a period of English folk song revival. Many composers wrote in the genre of the time. It's more accurate to say the revival shaped Holst's style, rather than say he had a "propensity." I'll make an example of Holst since, as others commented, his body of work is large and varied yet "distinctive." Here's a more detailed explanation from Wikipedia:

Holst's absorption of folksong, not only in the melodic sense but in terms of its simplicity and economy of expression, helped to develop a style that many ... found austere and cerebral. This is contrary to the popular identification of Holst with The Planets, which Matthews believes has masked his status as a composer of genuine originality ... Vaughan Williams remarked that Holst always said in his music what he wished to say, directly and concisely; "He was not afraid of being obvious when the occasion demanded, nor did he hesitate to be remote when remoteness expressed his purpose" ... A highly significant factor in Holst's musical development was the English folksong revival, evident in the orchestral suite A Somerset Rhapsody ... Observing the work's kinship with Vaughan Williams's Norfolk Rhapsody, Dickinson remarks that, with its firm overall structure, Holst's composition "rises beyond the level of a song-selection." Imogen acknowledges that Holst's discovery of English folksongs "transformed his orchestral writing", and that the composition of A Somerset Rhapsody did much to banish the chromaticisms that had dominated his early compositions."

2nd Q: something centrally English about the tunes ... Dorian mode ... a good deal of 6/8 and 12/8 time ... So, in terms of chord progressions, scales, orchestration, textures, form, and composing techniques, what unifies late English Romantic composers?

A: English Folk, like many other types of folk music, was written and played on portable, affordable instruments. In this case, predominantly the recorder and penny whistle. Their limited range (usually nine notes, from root to 9) lends itself very well to the Dorian mode and whole-step progressions (example: F Major to G Dorian). The time signatures were popular for dancing.

All styles of music can be identified and differentiated by their scale, chord, and rhythmic tendencies. Music is cultural, and these foundational elements are traceable to the culture with which a style is identified. Orchestrations/arrangements will vary depending on the ensemble, and the composer's personal tendencies and education, but what "unifies" them is the source material. The scale and rhythms of English Folk.

3rd Q: what gives tunes ... such a distinctly "nautical" feel?

A: The sway of 6|8 and 12|8 time, which as you mentioned earlier is very common in this genre. It's the three-beat Waltz - the heavy weight placed on the first beat of each measure (or in the case of 12|8, the heavy downbeats) - which create this feeling.


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