With this year’s English Music Festival featuring two major works by Herbert Howells, it’s well worth checking out. On Sunday 29th May The City of London Choir with The Holst Orchestra will be giving a concert that includes An English Mass. The next day Howells’ Second Violin Sonata features in the form of a new edition by Paul Spicer. If you can’t get to Dorchester, the mass is being repeated in a concert on Thursday 23 June 2011 at 7.30pm in St John’s, Smith Square.
And if you can’t get to either of them, Hyperion released a very good CD of the mass in 1992 with Vernon Handley and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra which is available for download here.
An English Mass – Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Kyrie, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Gloria
Despite considerable interest in Herbert Howells’ early works, it took until he was nearly sixty, with the first performance of Hymnus Paradisi (at the 1950 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival), for him to score a major success with the critical press. Following this, the Festival was very keen to commission another large scale work for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Howells’ response was the Missa Sabrinensis (Mass of the Severn), highly similar in style, equally complex but considerably longer than Hymnus. The size of the work proved too much for the performers and the first performance in Worcester was followed by an even bigger disaster during the London premiere, during which they had to stop at one point.
Howells, ever sensitive to the critics, followed the Missa Sabrinensis with another mass setting, again for chorus and orchestra, but this time with a number of major differences. An English Mass is half the length (at around 35 minutes) and scored for chorus, strings and organ, with optional parts for flute, oboe, timpani and harp for concert performance and a short ‘Sursum Corda’ for liturgical use. The ‘English’ descriptor refers to the language of the text from the Book of Common Prayer (although, as usual, the Kyrie is in Greek). The Mass was completed in early 1956 and dedicated to Harold Darke and his St Michael Singers who gave the first performance in June 1956 during a concert to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Darke’s appointment at St Michael’s Church, Cornhill. Alongside the Mass were Hierusalem by Sir George Dyson and A Vision of Aeroplanes by Ralph Vaughan Williams. After the concert, Howells wrote praising the choir: “They were grand; quick to learn the bulk of my strange notes, and inspired in finding better ones when mine didn’t fit”.
The Mass contains a huge variety of styles and moods, from the rhapsodical, delicate unfolding of the Kyrie to the blazing fortissimos and highly arresting rhythmic fanfares that occur in the Gloria, Credo (particularly when the chorus burst in following the opening intonation) and Sanctus (the enormous build up to ‘Lord most high’). Regardless of Howells’ own lack of faith, the Mass is characterised by the assertiveness of (in his words) the “personal and creative reaction to a text of immense, immemorial significance”. One can hardly fail to sense a personal optimism with moments such as the solo line ‘I look for the resurrection of the dead’ in the Credo; even after the passing of over twenty years, Howells’ works were still deeply influenced by the death of his son, Michael.
©2011 Jonathan Clinch