Herbert Howells is widely regarded as among the most gifted English composers of the generation to succeed Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Delius. His strong sense of place and unique sound-world set him apart, while his contribution to the renaissance of English choral music during the course of his long life is probably unparalleled.
The son of a local organist, Howells was born in 1892 in deepest Gloucestershire, the beauty of which marked his musical personality as indelibly as the Malvern Hills did with Elgar. Despite a Welsh name and, indeed, an ethnically Celtic background, he always regarded his spiritual home as being very much on the English side of the Welsh border.
As a young man studying organ and composition alongside Ivor Gurney and Ivor
Novello at Gloucester Cathedral, Howells experienced the thunderbolt of attending the premiere of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis, seated next to the composer himself. Howells used to recount how he and Gurney walked the streets of Gloucester for hours afterwards, inebriated by the new sound-world this radical voice had introduced.
His musical ambitions burgeoned at London's Royal Academy of Music, where he was widely regarded as the most naturally gifted student of his generation and where he soon outgrew the disciplined tutelage of Stanford and Parry. Later, Howells himself became one of the Academy's most distinguished teachers for a remarkable 59 years. He also succeeded Gustav Holst in the prestigious position of Director of Music at St Paul's School. Life-threatening illness prevented his serving in the First World War (and so in effect probably saved his life) and from this point onwards his music gained new maturity, perhaps from the psychological scars of the ruins all about him. It is perhaps no coincidence that his Fantasy for String Quartet, widely regarded as his first work of great stature, dates from this period.
It is towards the end of the Great War that Howells wrote the earliest work included here, the Rhapsody No.3 for Organ. Remarkably, it was written overnight in a single sitting during a noisy Zeppelin raid, which may explain the work's declamatory and tempestuous nature. The third of a set of three Rhapsodies for Organ of 1918 which Howells described as "serious attempts at a more freely-expressed music for the instrument," the Rhapsody No.3 is an electrifying piece which shows his skills as a composer for the instrument to best advantage. Howells was an outstanding organist from early on, with a natural gift for improvisation and a determination to use the sophistication of the twentieth century organ to the full, as his Paean shows to startling effect.
In 1936 Howells suffered the sudden death of his nine-year-old son Michael through polio, a harrowing event which understandably left its mark on the man and his music. From here on, the intense spirituality of Howells' music took on a more profound depth. Earlier speculation assumed that the Requiem was composed after Michael's death as a personal tribute to a dearly loved son. However, evidence has since emerged that the work was in fact written 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 to create his larger, longer Hymnus Paradisi, which was very much dedicated to Michael. Other than that, Howells appears to have kept the shorter masterpiece of the Requiem to himself. Perhaps like Mahler and the Kindertotenlieder, which predated the loss of a daughter, Howells resented his own ominous prescience in 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 traditional words of the Requiem as Verdi or Mozart employed them. Otherwise it is entirely in English, based around Psalm texts.
Equally intense is the anthem Like as the hart, written in 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 haunting melodies can be heard echoing almost daily somewhere in the Anglican realm.
In late 1941 Howells was appointed as Acting Organist at St John's College, Cambridge and eighteen months later, spurred on by a sense of mission to revitalise English choral music, he composed his famous morning and evening Canticles for King's College, Cambridge, the Collegium Regale service. Its immediate success marked a watershed for cathedral choral music. As the Dean of King's College, Cambridge, later wrote to Howells: "You have opened a wholly new chapter in church music. Of spiritual moment rather than liturgical. It is so much more than music-making; it is experiencing deep things in the only medium that can do it." Over the next forty years Howells was to write no less than twenty settings of the Canticles for 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 Collegium Regale displays to excellent advantage Howells' natural facility with counterpoint, his under- standing of how music works in the context of specific buildings and their acoustical characteristics and, above all, his care to show the sheer beauty of harmony with voices.
The setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis which opens this recording is the St Paul's Service, perhaps unrivalled for the sheer visceral excitement of its vast harmonic climaxes. The work has, in Howells' own words, "a tonal opulence commensurate with a vast church," while the "harmonic and tonality changes are deployed in a more leisured, more spacious way."
Howells always had a gift for finding and setting unusual poems to music. The Christmas anthem Long, long ago, for instance, sees him respond with customary delicacy to a poem of faith and simplicity written in 1940 by John Buxton while the latter was a prisoner of war.
In 1963 Howells heard with shock, along with the rest of the world, of the death of President John F. Kennedy. It says much about his standing that he was immediately commissioned to write a motet to be sung at the memorial service in Washington Cathedral. Ever concerned to find precisely the right text for this monumental occasion, he triumphed using Helen Waddell's translation from Prudentius's Hymnus circa exsequias defuncti. The result, Take him, earth, for cherishing, is quite simply one of the finest English choral motets of the twentieth century. In a work which had to speak with dignity of the world's loss, it achieves the integration of text and music at the highest level. Perhaps for Howells the work brought again to the surface some of the same feelings of loss which he himself had suffered in his life.
Appropriately, perhaps, this was the motet at Howells' own memorial service twenty years later in 1983 in Westminster Abbey, Here the composer took his place of rest in the north aisle alongside others who had helped forge a character and identity in England's compositional life such as Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Stanford and Walton. During the course of his long life, he had been a distinguished teacher, examiner, scholar, broadcaster and critic, widely admired and respected. Today his most audible legacy is a corpus of work whose individuality and calibre mark Howells out as perhaps the single greatest contributor to the re-birth of sacred choral music in Britain, a fact borne out by a visit to almost any Anglican cathedral.
Barry James Holden
ReviewsHowells, having taken the position of acting organist at St. John's, Cambridge, during the Second World War, is given a fitting tribute with this CD, recorded in the chapel almost 60 years on. It culminates in Howells's 1963 spine-tingling tribute to President John F. Kennedy, Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing, sung here with an exquisite intimacy, rarely enjoyed outside of a live performance. - Tarik O'Regan, The Observer (London), January 2000