Com­poser of the Month

The at­mo­spheric Carol An­thems were just the start of this Bri­tish com­poser’s re­mark­able out­pour­ing of choral mu­sic, writes Paul Spicer

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MATT HER­RING

Her­bert How­ells is ex­plored by Paul Spicer

‘Ihave com­posed out of sheer love of try­ing to make nice sounds’. So said Her­bert How­ells in ac­knowl­edge­ment of his in­stantly recog­nis­able, rich har­monic lan­guage and his seem­ingly end­less streams of melody wo­ven to­gether, more of­ten than not, in time­less con­tra­pun­tal tex­tures.

How­ells is known more for his choral and or­gan mu­sic than for his songs, pi­ano, cham­ber and or­ches­tral mu­sic. This is re­ally be­cause of a wholly serendip­i­tous event at King’s College, Cam­bridge in

1943. How­ells was stand­ing in as act­ing or­gan­ist at St John’s College, along the road, for Robin Orr who was on ac­tive ser­vice. One af­ter­noon he was hav­ing tea with Eric Mil­ner-white, dean of King’s, Boris Ord, the college or­gan­ist, and Pa­trick Hadley, who was later to be­come pro­fes­sor of mu­sic at the univer­sity. Mil­ner-white lay down a chal­lenge to How­ells and Hadley to write a set­ting of the Te Deum for the King’s Choir, of­fer­ing one guinea to who­ever took up the ‘bet’. How­ells re­sponded and his now iconic Col­legium Re­gale Te Deum was heard in King’s chapel the next year. But it was far more than just an­other set­ting of these well-known words. ‘[It] opened a wholly new chap­ter in ser­vice, per­haps in church mu­sic. Of spir­i­tual mo­ment rather than litur­gi­cal. It is so much more than mu­sic­mak­ing; it is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing deep things in the only medium that can do it,’ said Mil­ner-white, adding that How­ells could create ‘mas­ter­works’. This is ex­actly what the com­poser went on to do.

How­ells was born in Lyd­ney, Glouces­ter­shire, on 17 Oc­to­ber 1892, the youngest of eight chil­dren. His fa­ther was a job­bing builder and dec­o­ra­tor who was sim­ply too nice to col­lect the money owed to him and he thus slid into bank­ruptcy. That was so se­ri­ous a so­cial is­sue at the time that when Her­bert was asked to tea at the lo­cal squire’s house with the other town chil­dren he was sent to the kitchens. But Her­bert adored his fa­ther who, as the boy noted, was ‘a very hum­ble busi­ness­man for six days of seven, and a dread­ful or­gan­ist for the sev­enth day’ at the Bap­tist church which was next door. But de­spite these ini­tial set­backs Her­bert’s tal­ent was recog­nised and the squire, Lord Bledis­loe, helped to get the boy pi­ano lessons with Her­bert Brewer at Glouces­ter Cathe­dral. Be­fore long How­ells was ac­cepted as one of Brewer’s for­mi­da­ble trio of ar­ti­cled pupils at the cathe­dral along­side Ivor Gur­ney and Ivor Novello. Glouces­ter cathe­dral was one of the hosts of the Three Choirs Fes­ti­val, which at­tracted au­di­ences from far and wide and fea­tured sig­nif­i­cant new mu­sic. One of these pre­mieres was Vaughan Wil­liams’s Fan­ta­sia on a Theme of Thomas Tal­lis in Septem­ber 1910 which How­ells felt was ‘the supreme commentary by one great com­poser upon an­other’. He also felt that he and Vaughan Wil­liams re­acted to things in a mu­si­cally sim­i­lar way: ‘We were both at­tracted by Tudor mu­sic, plain­song and the modes. We felt we needed to write in these modes and in the pen­ta­tonic scale’.

How­ells felt that he and Vaughan Wil­liams re­acted to things in a mu­si­cally sim­i­lar way

How­ells left Glouces­ter af­ter win­ning a foun­da­tion schol­ar­ship to the Royal College of Mu­sic (RCM) to be­come one of Stan­ford’s com­po­si­tion stu­dents. At his au­di­tion Hu­bert Parry, di­rec­tor of the RCM, noted in his di­ary, ‘Amaz­ingly gifted boy How­ells from Lyd­ney – & such a queer look­ing scrubby lit­tle crea­ture’. How­ells went on to be­come Stan­ford’s favourite stu­dent, al­though Stan­ford felt his mu­sic was de­vel­op­ing ‘mod­ern stinks’, fail­ing to re­alise that his great­est strength as a teacher was his abil­ity to get his re­mark­able ros­ter of stu­dents to de­velop their own styles.

How­ells was quickly ac­knowl­edged as a leader of his gen­er­a­tion of mu­si­cians. Arthur Bliss noted that ‘I saw for the first time that here was some­one who was much more gifted than my­self. I never for­got that’. Dur­ing these years How­ells was writ­ing far more cham­ber and or­ches­tral mu­sic than choral. His large-scale C mi­nor Pi­ano Con­certo was pre­miered by Arthur Ben­jamin and con­ducted by Stan­ford at the Queen’s Hall in July 1914 and other works were taken up and widely ad­mired – such as his or­ches­tral suite, The Bs, cel­e­brat­ing a group of friends with names or nick­names be­gin­ning with B in­clud­ing Bliss and Ben­jamin.

How­ells had been hav­ing prob­lems with his eyes and Parry sent him to see a specialist. Di­ag­nosed with Graves dis­ease, a heart-re­lated con­di­tion, aged only 23, he was given six months to live. How­ells had re­cently been ap­pointed as as­sis­tant or­gan­ist at Sal­is­bury Cathe­dral but his time there was short-lived as his end­less trips to London for treat­ment ren­dered his po­si­tion un­ten­able. He was given ra­dium treat­ment as an ex­per­i­ment and its ex­tra­or­di­nary suc­cess led him to live to the ripe old age of 90.

Back in his stu­dent days, start­ing in

1912, Stan­ford had sent How­ells to the new West­min­ster Cathe­dral which had opened in 1903. Richard Terry was putting on pi­o­neer­ing per­for­mances of Re­nais­sance polyphony with his al­ready cel­e­brated choir. This deep­ened How­ells’s love for mu­sic of this pe­riod and led to the ear­li­est pro­fes­sional per­for­mances of some of his choral com­po­si­tions, in­clud­ing his Mass in the Do­rian Mode. Not able to serve in the armed forces be­cause of his ill­ness, and ren­dered pen­ni­less hav­ing left Sal­is­bury, How­ells was awarded a gen­er­ous grant by the Carnegie Trust, which had just pub­lished his re­mark­able Pi­ano Quar­tet, to help Terry edit Tudor church mu­sic. Ev­ery­thing he did at this time fed his cre­ative imag­i­na­tion and showed him a com­po­si­tional path which, while pay­ing homage to a dis­tant past, also al­lowed him to de­velop a style which be­came so uniquely his own.

An early suc­cess were the Three Carol An­thems, writ­ten in 1918 and show­ing his keen feel­ing for words. ‘Here is the Lit­tle Door’, ‘A Spot­less Rose’ and ‘Sing Lul­laby’ re­main sta­ples of the choral reper­tory for Christ­mas all over the world. The sen­su­ous fi­nal ca­dence of ‘A Spot­less Rose’ caused Pa­trick Hadley to write to How­ells that ‘brain­wave it cer­tainly is, but it is much more than that. It is a stroke of ge­nius. I should like, when my time comes, to pass away to that mag­i­cal ca­dence’.

Things were not to con­tinue with such un­ruf­fled pro­fes­sional progress for long, how­ever. In 1925, his Sec­ond Pi­ano Con­certo, com­mis­sioned by the Royal Phil­har­monic So­ci­ety, was pre­miered in the Queen’s Hall. His de­cid­edly con­tem­po­rary ap­proach led to a mixed re­cep­tion for the piece and im­me­di­ate with­drawal from pub­li­ca­tion by the over­sen­si­tive How­ells.

In 1932 How­ells wrote his beau­ti­ful un­ac­com­pa­nied Re­quiem to which his sixyear-old son Michael con­trib­uted a mid­dle C in the man­u­script score. Three years later, Michael would be dead of a vir­u­lent form of po­lio. Af­ter his death, ev­ery­thing How­ells wrote re­lated in some form or other to the mem­ory of his son.

Four works stand out in this way: Hym­nus Par­a­disi, writ­ten at How­ells’s daugh­ter Ur­sula’s sug­ges­tion to help him ex­or­cise the ghost of the boy. Based

A er Michael’s death, ev­ery­thing How­ells wrote re­lated to the mem­ory of his son

on the mu­sic of the Re­quiem to which Michael had con­trib­uted that sin­gle note, it was kept as a pri­vate doc­u­ment un­til 1950, when How­ells con­ducted the first per­for­mance at Glouces­ter Cathe­dral to uni­ver­sal ac­claim.

Just af­ter the third an­niver­sary, in Septem­ber 1938, of Michael’s death, How­ells wrote the Psalm Pre­lude Set 2

No. 1; there is noth­ing else quite like this in the en­tire or­gan reper­tory. It’s es­sen­tially a tone-poem based on the text from the first verse of Psalm 130, ‘Out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord’, which in­spires an in­can­des­cent, pow­er­fully af­fect­ing out­pour­ing of grief.

1964’s Motet on the Death of Pres­i­dent Kennedy, one of the finest un­ac­com­pa­nied motets of the 20th cen­tury, is also con­nected to Michael through its text. ‘Take him, earth for cher­ish­ing’ was used as the ded­i­ca­tion in the Hym­nus Par­a­disi, and seen by How­ells there­fore as a deeply per­sonal gift to Kennedy.

And the Sta­bat Mater, ar­guably

How­ells’s great­est work, was pre­miered in Novem­ber 1965. The sub­ject mat­ter is the griev­ing mother of Je­sus at the foot of the cross. How­ells’s in­spi­ra­tion was taken from Michelan­gelo’s Pi­età, the sculp­ture of the dead Je­sus ly­ing across his mother’s knees. The link is ob­vi­ous and shows how, even af­ter 30 years, his own grief is still pow­er­fully present. Other works such as the Con­certo for Strings, with its slow move­ment ded­i­cated jointly to El­gar and Michael’s mem­ory, and the Se­quence for St Michael, with its bare-faced shouts of ‘Michael’ at its open­ing, wit­ness this ev­er­p­re­sent ob­ses­sion.

How­ells, then, is a com­poser whose mu­sic stirs pro­found emo­tional re­ac­tions from per­form­ers and au­di­ences alike.

He is at last find­ing his proper place in the ex­tra­or­di­nary pan­theon of Bri­tish com­posers of the first half of the 20th cen­tury who gave this coun­try its unique mu­si­cal voice. At this dis­tance in time it is dif­fi­cult to re­alise just how mod­ern a voice How­ells’s was. But that atavis­tic sense shared with Vaughan Wil­liams of how a long dis­tant past can help shape a deeply orig­i­nal mu­si­cal present was one of How­ells’s great gifts to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, and it can be found in the rich whole­ness of his com­plete com­po­si­tional out­put.

Kin­dred spir­its: How­ells with Vaughan Wil­liams in 1956

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