Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Herbert Howells is widely regarded as among the mostgifted English composers of the generation to succeed Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holstand Delius. His strong sense of place and unique sound-world set him apart, whilehis contribution to the renaissance of English choral music during the courseof his long life is probably unparalleled.
The son of a local organist, Howells was born in 1892 indeepest Gloucestershire, the beauty of which marked his musical personality asindelibly as the Malvern Hills did with Elgar. Despite a Welsh name and,indeed, an ethnically Celtic background, he always regarded his spiritual homeas being very much on the English side of the Welsh border.
As a young man studying organ and composition alongsideIvor Gurney and Ivor
Novello at Gloucester Cathedral, Howells experienced thethunderbolt of attending the premiere of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia ona theme of Thomas Tallis, seated next to the composer himself. Howells usedto recount how he and Gurney walked the streets of Gloucester for hoursafterwards, inebriated by the new sound-world this radical voice hadintroduced.
His musical ambitions burgeoned at London's Royal Academyof Music, where he was widely regarded as the most naturally gifted student of hisgeneration and where he soon outgrew the disciplined tutelage of Stanford andParry. Later, Howells himself became one of the Academy's most distinguishedteachers for a remarkable 59 years. He also succeeded Gustav Holst in the prestigiousposition of Director of Music at St Paul's School. Life-threatening illnessprevented his serving in the First World War (and so in effect probably savedhis life) and from this point onwards his music gained new maturity, perhaps fromthe psychological scars of the ruins all about him. It is perhaps nocoincidence that his Fantasy for String Quartet, widely regarded as hisfirst work of great stature, dates from this period.
It is towards the end of the Great War that Howells wrotethe earliest work included here, the Rhapsody No.3 for Organ.
Remarkably, it was written overnight in a single sitting during a noisy Zeppelinraid, which may explain the work's declamatory and tempestuous nature. Thethird of a set of three Rhapsodies for Organ of 1918 which Howellsdescribed as "serious attempts at a more freely-expressed music for theinstrument," the Rhapsody No.3 is an electrifying piece which shows hisskills as a composer for the instrument to best advantage. Howells was anoutstanding organist from early on, with a natural gift for improvisation and adetermination to use the sophistication of the twentieth century organ to thefull, as his Paean shows to startling effect.
In 1936 Howells suffered the sudden death of hisnine-year-old son Michael through polio, a harrowing event which understandablyleft its mark on the man and his music. From here on, the intense spiritualityof Howells' music took on a more profound depth. Earlier speculation assumed thatthe Requiem was composed after Michael's death as a personal tribute to adearly loved son. However, evidence has since emerged that the work was in factwritten three years earlier, in 1933, for Boris Ord and King's College Cambridge.
It is true to say that Howells later re-used some of the Requiem tocreate his larger, longer Hymnus Paradisi, which was very much dedicatedto Michael. Other than that, Howells appears to have kept the shortermasterpiece of the Requiem to himself. Perhaps like Mahler and the Kindertotenlieder,which predated the loss of a daughter, Howells resented his own ominous presciencein completing a Requiem so soon before his son's death.
The Requiem is a work of immense depth and a rapt,hushed intensity. The text deserves comment in that only two movement uses the traditionalwords of the Requiem as Verdi or Mozart employed them. Otherwise it is entirelyin English, based around Psalm texts.
Equally intense is the anthem Like as the hart, writtenin a single day in early 1941 as one of a set of Anthems "In time of War".
This is perhaps the best-known of all Howells' anthems, and its hauntingmelodies can be heard echoing almost daily somewhere in the Anglican realm.
In late 1941 Howells was appointed as Acting Organist atSt John's College, Cambridge and eighteen months later, spurred on by a senseof mission to revitalise English choral music, he composed his famous morningand evening Canticles for King's College, Cambridge, the Collegium Regale
service. Its immediate success marked a watershed for cathedral choral music. Asthe Dean of King's College, Cambridge, later wrote to Howells: "You haveopened a wholly new chapter in church music. Of spiritual moment ratherthan liturgical. It is so much more than music-making; it isexperiencing deep things in the only medium that can do it." Over the nextforty years Howells was to write no less than twenty settings of the Canticlesfor cathedrals in both England and the United States.
The music Howells wrote for the Collegium Regale
service is here represented by the Communion Service. Written in 1956,it re-uses the themes of his classic 1943 work in what is effectively a"Parody" Mass. Like those famed Canticles, the Communion Service CollegiumRegale displays to excellent advantage Howells' natural facility with counterpoint,his under- standing of how music works in the context of specific buildings andtheir acoustical characteristics and, above all, his care to show the sheer beautyof harmony with voices.
The setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis
which opens this recording is the St Paul's Service, perhaps unrivalled for thesheer visceral excitement of its vast harmonic climaxes. The work has, inHowells' own words, "a tonal opulence commensurate with a vastchurch," while the "harmonic and tonality changes are deployed in amore leisured, more spacious way."
Howells always had a gift for finding and setting unusualpoems to music. The Christmas anthem Long, long ago, for instance, seeshim respond with customary delicacy to a poem of faith and simplicity writtenin 1940 by John Buxton while the latter was a prisoner of war.
In 1963 Howells heard with shock, along with the rest ofthe world, of the death of President John F. Kennedy. It says much about hisstanding that he was immediately commissioned to write a motet to be sung atthe memorial service in Washington Cathedral. Ever concerned to find preciselythe right text for this monumental occasion, he triumphed using Helen Waddell'stranslation from Prudentius's Hymnus circa exsequias defuncti. The result,Take him, earth, for cherishing, is quite simply one of the finest Englishchoral motets of the twentieth century. In a work which h