HOWELLS: Rhapsodic Quintet / Violin Sonata No. 3

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Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)

Chamber Music

Herbert Howells is known chiefly for his large body ofchurch music, arguably the finest by any English composer of the twentiethcentury, but he also wrote major choral, orchestral and chamber works. He was apupil of Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral from 1905 to 1911, then, from1912 to 1916, studied at the Royal College of Music under Charles VilliersStanford and Charles Wood. Apart from composing he was active in the fields ofteaching and adjudicating, and taught at the Royal College of Music for overforty years; succeeded Holst as director of music at St Paul's Girls School,and was professor of music at London University from 1954 to 1964. He was madeCBE in 1953 and became a Companion of Honour in 1972.

Howell's voice as a composer drew from four sources ofinspiration: the music of the Tudor period, the works of Vaughan Williams,English folk-song, and the landscape of his native Gloucestershire. Hisorchestral works include the Elegy (1917), the Fantasia for cello (1937) andthe Concerto for Strings (1939). Among chamber works are the Piano Quartet(1916), the string quartet In Gloucestershire (1916 - c1935 ), three violinsonatas, an oboe sonata and a clarinet sonata. His mastery of large-scalechoral forces is shown by his masterpiece Hymnus Paradisi (1938, revised in1950), Missa Sabrinensis (1954) and Stabat mater (1963). On a smaller scale theRequiem (1932) and the Motet on the Death of President Kennedy, Take him,earth, for cherishing (1964) rank high among his achievements. Outstandingamong his many canticle settings is Collegium Regale (1945) written for King'sCollege, Cambridge. He also made a substantial contribution to organ literatureand wrote many fine songs, primarily in settings of poems by his friend Walterde la Mare, including King David (1919).

At the outset of his career Howells came to prominencelargely through a series of striking chamber works including the RhapsodicQuintet composed in 1919 for the clarinettist Oscar Street. According to theleading Howells scholar, Paul Spicer, whose book Herbert Howells is afascinating study of the composer's life and works, Howells was greatlypreoccupied with problems relating to the form of the Rhapsodic Quintet. Hecast it in a single movement, a structure he explored several times and whichreflects the contemporaneous ambitions of Walter Wilson Cobbett (1847-1937), abusinessman and amateur musician whose dual passions were chamber music and themusic of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. He was particularly interested inthe instrumental fantasy (or phantasy as Cobbett preferred), a form in whichseveral unrelated but varied sections form the basis for a single extendedwork. In 1905 he established the Cobbett prize for chamber works in onemovement which Howells won in 1917 with his Phantasy String Quartet.

Howells described the Quintet as having 'a mystic quality',which may be sensed at the outset in the impassioned unison theme that sweepsupwards. This provides the first principal idea of the work. In contrast tothis is a tender, tranquil falling theme introduced by the clarinet and echoedby the violins in longer notes. Shortly after the first climax a short, puckishsubsidiary idea appears, again on the clarinet, that seems to turn in onitself. By now the tempo of the music has quickened for an extendedpolyrhythmic passage combining three time signatures in which, over a pizzicatobass, the second and subsidiary ideas are developed. This section ends with anelated climax and a proliferation of polyphonic lines. Over undulating tripletfigures the first idea is developed, as the music gradually quietens and slowsin tempo, to end with a closing paragraph of rapt, serene beauty.

The Clarinet Sonata was written in 1946 for the greatestclarinettist of the day, Frederick Thurston, who gave the premi?¿re in a BBCThird Programme broadcast on 27th January 1947 accompanied by Eric Harrison. Ithas links with the Oboe Sonata of 1942, a work which Leon Goosens, for whom itwas written, had criticized, with the consequence that the sensitive composereffectively buried it. It seems possible that Howells may have viewed theClarinet Sonata as a revision and rethinking of the earlier work.

The sonata is in two movements in which the musical materialis closely connected. Of great importance is the rhythm of 3+3+2 beats that thepiano gently emphasizes from the very beginning and which flows under theclarinet's long-limbed graceful, lyrical first theme. A more agitated passageacts as a link to the second group of ideas, which are introduced by the pianoand are ruminative in character. The development is underpinned by theinsistent rhythmic pattern and builds to a passionate climax, before a dramaticpause and the return to the opening ideas. By contrast the second movement isfiery and rhythmically energetic with frequent changes of metre that emphasizeits unfettered dynamism. The rhythmic pattern of the first movement returnsemphatically, as do other thematic references until, after a brief cadenza-likeinterruption by the solo clarinet, the tempo slackens and the main idea of thefirst movement's second group of ideas returns on the piano. This sets thescene for the return of the opening of the sonata itself, which is transformed,though, to a mood of intense melancholy. The shadows are quickly brushed away,however, as the fast music returns driving helter-skelter to the end.

The Prelude for harp, originally designated as No.1, isHowells's only work for the instrument and was written in 1915 for Kate Wilson,a fellow student at the Royal College of Music. The manuscript was donated tothe College library on her death and a Junior College student, RowenaWilkinson, played it to the elderly composer in 1976, although he couldremember nothing about it. It is a haunting miniature, full of modalmelancholy.

In the same year that he composed his Clarinet Sonata,Howells also wrote the charming A Near-Minuet for the same combination ofinstruments, which possibly prompts speculation that he had conceived itoriginally as the basis for an additional, probably middle, movement for thesonata.

In 1915, at the age of 23, Howells was diagnosed as having aheart-related disease and given six months to live. Given the seriousness ofhis situation, he agreed to try experimental therapy, which over several yearsdid finally cure him. In the early twenties, however, he was still weak fromthe combination of illness and treatment, so that in 1923 the Associated Boardof the Royal Schools of Music sent him on two trips examining in South Africaand Canada in the hope that these would speed his recuperation. The ThirdViolin Sonata arose directly from his Canadian visit and the overwhelmingimpact that the Rocky Mountains made on Howells when he travelled through themby train. Musically the rugged grandeur of the terrain is reflected in the moredissonant and chromatic harmony compared to his other works of the period. Thesonata was composed in the same year as his visit and dedicated to one of thegreat violinists of the time, Albert Sammons.

The beginning of the first movement, a wide-spaced chordbuilt around just two notes, followed by a lyrical arching melody, has anopen-air quality suitable to the work's inspiration. An animated passage leadsto a quasi march-like ostinato in the piano against which the violin's sonorousmelody seems to evoke the vastness of the mountains. The middle movement is askittish scherzo with its main idea played pizzicato by the violin against theinfectious, insistent tread of the piano accompaniment, which possiblycharacter
Item number 8557188
Barcode 747313218820
Release date 02/01/2004
Category Quintet
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Composers Howells, Herbert
Howells, Herbert
Producers Ponder, Michael
Ponder, Michael
Disc: 1
Violin Sonata No. 3 in E minor, Op.38
1 Lento, ma appassionato - a tempo, tranquillo - Piu
2 Con moto dolce e con tenerezza
3 Allegro ritmico con brio
4 Prelude for Harp
5 A Near-Minuet for Clarinet and Piano
6 Poco allegro, semplice
7 Allegro moderato, assai ritmico
8 Vivace, assai ritmico
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