The Past is clear, the Present confused: Rare Howells Choral Music

SOMM Recordings have just released the latest in a series of excellent recordings from Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir under Paul Spicer. A review from The Guardian may be found here. For those who may be interested in the repertoire, I’ve reproduced my notes below. 

The Past is clear, the Present confused…the Great Composer is he who can master the Present through the wisdom of the Past.’
For Herbert Howells, the past lived on in a very special way. From his early days at Lydney Parish Church and Gloucester Cathedral, Howells became enchanted by the ‘immemorial sound of voices’. Not only did he feel most at home within the Anglican choral tradition, but his music has come to redefine that tradition within the twentieth century and beyond. This disc, made up of some of Howells’ lesser known choral works, not only demonstrates his stylistic development but, more importantly, shows how he achieved this by looking back in history to the composers of the past.
Howells became acutely aware of his sensibility for this living tradition when he attended the premiere of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallisat the 1910 Three Choirs Festival. This iconic work, which simultaneously embodies musical past, present andfuture, spoke to him intensely and led him to comment (much later in his career) that ‘all through my life I’ve had this strange feeling that I belonged somehow to the Tudor period not only musically but in every way. Ralph Vaughan Williams even had a theory that I was the reincarnation of one of the lesser Tudor luminaries.’
Though Howells was inspired by the music of Vaughan Williams, it was really Charles Wood at the Royal College of Music who gave him the required technique (particularly in modal counterpoint) and who demonstrated in his own choral works that, despite the limitations, writing in a pastiche style (such as that of Byrd or Tallis) could still yield remarkable results in the modern day. But this was far more than mere academic exercise; Wood (along with Howells’ composition professor, Charles Villiers Stanford) was hugely supportive of Richard Runciman Terry’s pioneering choir at the newly-built Westminster Cathedral and frequently extolled the virtues of hearing ‘polyphony for a penny’ (the bus fare from South Kensington) within a live liturgy. People and places were a lifelong fascination for Howells and so the combination of Terry’s efforts and John Francis Bentley’s Byzantine masterpiece in Westminster had a considerable impact on the young, impressionable Howells. Indeed it is significant, not to say ironic, that a composer who is now most strongly associated with Anglican music should have received some of his earliest formative experiences from the Catholic church, since, as a student, Howells wrote music for Terry and, from 1917-1920, worked as his assistant on the famous Tudor Church Music edition. Howells had already come a long way from his first musical experiences alongside his father at Lydney Baptist Church, next door to the family home. The music on this disc, predominantly written for Westminster Cathedral, gives us a remarkable picture of Howells the craftsman working in a range of pastiche genres which seem a world apart from the more famous church music written for iconic Anglican foundations such as King’s College, Cambridge and cathedrals such as Gloucester and St Paul’s.
Despite having little religious faith of his own, Howells had a deep sense of spirituality and perceived the mass as a ‘vivid, powerful, pervasive and irresistible part of the mental and spiritual nature of man.’ The Mass in Dorian Mode was his first work to be performed in London (under Terry at Westminster) and demonstrates a remarkable fluency in writing for voices in the manner of Renaissance master, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, splitting the Angus Deiinto two sections for an extended meditation which delays the arrival of the final ‘dona nobis pacem’ (grant us peace). We can already hear Howells gently pushing the stylistic boundaries of diatonic dissonance and expanding his contrapuntal lines in a manner which saw fuller exploration in Vaughan Williams’s 1921 Mass in G minor. Nevertheless, Howells’ writing in this mode has a remarkable timeless beauty and marks a significant start to his extraordinary contribution to music for the church, the most important for several centuries.
The unaccompanied Latin motets, ‘O Salutaris Hostia’ (1913), ‘Salve Regina’(1916), ‘Regina Cœli’(1916) and ‘Haec Dies’ (1918), alongside Howells’ first Nunc Dimittis(1914), were all written for the Westminster Choir and represent the complete extant Latin church music that Howells wrote for Terry. The 1916 anthems were part of a set of Four Anthems to the Blessed Virgin Marywhich Howells composed in a single week for Easter that year. Noticeably freer in style compared with the Mass, they have much more in common with the unaccompanied works of Parry, Stanford, Harris and Wood, while the sensuousness of moments such as the final soprano solo in the ‘Salve Regina’ or the final ‘Alleluia’ of the ‘Regina Cœli’ marks them out as quintessentially Howellsian at a time when he was becoming increasing interested in the music of Maurice Ravel.
The two five-part madrigals ‘In Youth is Pleasure’ (1915) and ‘Before Me, Careless Lying’ (1918) both won prizes from The Madrigal Society and demonstrate another strand of Howells’ forays in Tudor style, this time in secular mode but equally technically assured. Here too the assurance with the form seems to hide the bittersweet escapism of these war-time fancies.
The two accompanied anthems, ‘When first thine eies unveil’and ‘My eyes for beauty pine’, were completed consecutively on Christmas and Boxing Day 1925. The poets Henry Vaughan and Robert Bridges were both favourites of Hubert Parry, whose own sense of lyricism and longing can be heard in ‘My eyes for beauty pine’; however, ‘When first thine eies unveil’ uses a much bleaker harmonic and tonal language, rather closer in style to Holst than Parry. The mastery of form here, as Howells builds from the solo of the opening to an overwhelming fortissimoclimax on the word ‘company’, which he then reduces for the delicate pianissimoending, gives us one of the first glimpses of the sheer originality of which Howells was capable.
The lilting compound time which begins the wedding anthem for soprano voices and organ, ‘Levávi oculos meos’ (1959), links the work to the Siciliano for a High Ceremony (written in 1952, also for a wedding) for organ. Listeners may also recognise a characteristic Howellsian gesture most notably deployed at the start of the Gloria to the Collegium Regale evening service. Setting words from Psalm 121, it unusually uses both Latin and English, although the manuscript source is extremely unclear and major editorial work was required by Paul Spicer for its initial publication in 2000.
Both ‘Walking in the Snow’and associated ‘Long, long ago’,written for George Guest and his Lady Margaret Singers of Cambridge in 1950 to texts by the Oxford poet and ornithologist, John Buxton (1912 -1989),demonstrate the mature Howells at his finest. His individual lines, the building up of choral textures and, most of all, his unique harmonic style (contrasting modal simplicity with the sharpness of daring false relations and suspensions) mark these rare pieces out as indicative of his complete mastery of the carol-anthem genre, which he first made his own in works such as ‘A Spotless Rose’ (1919).
O Mortal Man’ is an arrangement made of the Sussex Mummers’ Carol. Originally dating from medieval times, Mummers were groups of actors who went around performing seasonal folk plays. Performances often ended in carol-singing and this tune was first written down around 1880 by Miss Lucy Broadwood at Lyne in Sussex. Although the exact date of this arrangement is unknown, the style of writing and a performance at St John’s Cambridge (where Howells was acting Director of Music during the Second World War) place it in the early 1940s.

Since its publication in Church Hymns (1871), the directness of George Herbert’s poem ‘Antiphon’(which begins ‘Let all the world in every corner sing’) has appealed to congregations and musicians alike. Howells was a great admirer of Kenneth Leighton who set the text for St Matthew’s, Northampton in 1965 and it may be that he thought back to that music when writing his own setting for Sir David Willcocks in 1977. The virtuosic anthem, with all its rhythmic and harmonic complexities, shows a vigour and strength which are especially remarkable for a composer in his eighty-fifth year, but the ecstatic text clearly held a particular resonance for a man whose devotion to ‘immemorial voices’ had changed the sound of church music forever.
© 2014 Jonathan Clinch

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