I’m very pleased to announce that the first recording of Herbert Howells’ Cello Concerto, a work which I completed from the composer’s sketches as part of my PhD study, is now available for pre-order from Dutton Records.
Herbert Howells: Cello Concerto
Howells: Two Orchestral Pieces
Ronald Corp: Cello Concerto
Alice Neary (cello)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Ronald Corp (conductor)
For those interested, I’ve reproduced my notes on the Howells works below.
Fantasia: Tranquillo, assai Andante
Threnody: Lento calmato, assai teneramente
Finale: Allegro vigoroso
Herbert Howells (1892 -1983) was the perfect English gentleman; small in stature, softly spoken and always immaculately dressed. His lifelong association with The Royal College of Music, alongside doctorates from both Oxford and Cambridge and several honours, mark him out as the inheritor of Stanford and Parry’s ‘English Musical Renaissance’. However, a difficult childhood and a propensity for self doubt made him an extremely private man, an outward refinement guarding a restless heart. The Cello Concerto, although never finished in his lifetime, gives us a unique window into the composer’s emotional world.
Howells began sketches for a cello concerto in 1933, which he continued intermittently thereafter. In September 1935 tragedy struck the Howells family whilst they were on holiday in Gloucestershire. Nine-year-old Michael, their second child, became ill and within the space of a few days died from polio. In the immediate aftermath, Howells turned to composition as a means of dealing with his grief, focusing on two works, the Cello Concerto and Hymnus Paradisi (reworking material from his earlier Requiem). Both became private ‘medical documents’. In 1950 a group of friends (including Herbert Sumsion and Ralph Vaughan Williams) convinced Howells to release Hymnus Paradisi for its first performance at The Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, a few miles from where Michael was buried. Both works are of major importance within Howells’ output, but what is special about the concerto is the direct focus on the individual which the concerto form brings. Howells saw the cello as ‘an extension of the male voice’ and in this highly personal work, that voice is markedly his own.
He completed the first movement and included it within his DMus submission at The Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1937. For examination purposes he gave the movement the title ‘Fantasia’ and it was subsequently deposited in the Bodleian Library. Although it came from the examination rubric, the title ‘Fantasia’ is particularly suitable since Howells often cited the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis as his most important formative experience, frequently adding 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’. Howells’ fascination with this period and his subsequent involvement with the Tudor Church Music series at the start of his career had a very direct influence on his own composition. In 1926 Howells started to experiment with Tudor compositional techniques in his collection Lambert’s Clavichord and this influence continued throughout his life to varying degrees. In the Fantasia, Howells’ love of modal harmony and, in particular, the colour of his chromatic alterations and false relations come to the fore in the frequent juxtaposition of major and minor triads (most notably at the end of the movement). Also of note, is the way in which he wrote in long lines (as though his mode of thinking was principally horizontal) and this is partly why the first movement is relatively long in length and rhapsodic in form, as Howells expands elements from the initial cello entry. Despite such economy of musical material, Howells achieves a remarkable overall sense of pathos through his subtle development of texture, line and harmonic colour.
The second movement was completed in short score in the summer of 1936, but Howells made no attempt at a full score, continuing instead with sketches for the final movement. Evidence from letters and diary entries suggests that he returned to the sketches for the concerto as a sort of mourning ritual, each year around the anniversary of his son’s death. At various stages friends tried to get him to finish the work, but he felt unable, possibly because of the highly personal nature of this particular work. In 1992, Christopher Palmer unearthed the second movement from the Howells estate and orchestrated it to match the preceding movement. It was then performed in a centenary concert in Westminster Abbey, where Howells’ ashes had been buried. Following Palmer’s untimely death in 1995, the concerto sketches were returned to the Royal College of Music library.
In 2010 I began to study the sketches and was particularly struck by the quantity of material (thirty-four pages in total) and the contrast it provides to the other two movements. The chance to hear what the finished concerto might have sounded like as a whole seemed an extremely interesting ‘what if’ and after a few months of working on the sketches I realised that the page numbering (that had been subsequently added) was incorrect, which allowed me to reorder them, giving twenty-four pages of continuous music in short score (often just outlined). The other ten pages demonstrated Howells’ ‘working’, including the reworking of several ideas from the initial twenty-four pages. From this I created a single edition of the material, incorporating his later changes and adding an ending based on the earlier material in a manner which matches Howells’ form in several other works. I also ‘filled out’ the bars in the earlier sketches where he left only a single part (without harmony) in order to indicate his intensions. Finally I orchestrated the movement to match the forces of the preceding two, particularly noting Howells’ own orchestration of similar material in the Fantasia. I am particularly grateful for the advice and support of John Rutter, Robert Saxton, Anthony Payne, Christopher Robinson, Julian Lloyd Webber (Howells’ godson) and Jeremy Dibble.
It was typical of Howells that the piece should only ever see the light of day as an examination exercise (such was his disinterest in self promotion) and it seems fitting that the concerto be finished as a similar doctoral exercise. As one of the ‘medical documents’ that he used to come to terms with his son’s death, it is an extremely special work in which you can hear the emotional backdrop in the music itself. Such turmoil unlocked a new stage in his compositional career, giving Howells a new reason to write and an active release from the critical self doubt that had plagued him in the decade following the second piano concerto. The chief influence is that of Vaughan Williams (especially in the allusion of the opening to ‘The Lark Ascending’) with their shared love of modal harmony, soft diatonic dissonances (with frequent sevenths and ninths) and false relations, but Howells’ own love of writing in long lines, which rework a small number of short motivic ideas, allows the distinctive syntax to stand out in his inimitable way, far beyond mere pastiche. Howells considered the second movement as possibly his finest work and the finale in particular shows a very different side to the composer we know from his Anglican Church music. The finale is much more angular and energetic, so one might assume a focus on the anger and pain caused by his loss, but then the remarkable jaunty subject in 7/8 enters (a theme which would seem much more likely in Holst’s music) and suddenly there is a child-like sense of fun. Overall, the restless tension and richness of aesthetic seem to match Howells the man so well, transforming the concerto into a soliloquy on grief and the associated mixed emotions, which we, through music, are privileged to share.
Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, op.20
i) Puck’s Minuet ii) Merry-Eye
The London performances of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes acted as a major influence on a generation of young composers which included the likes of Arthur Bliss, Eugene Goossens, Arthur Benjamin and Howells himself. For the first time they were exposed to the rich and exotic orchestral music of composers such as Debussy, Ravel and Satie. Of all the scores though, it was Stravinsky’s tale of a puppet coming to life, Petrushka, which captured Howells’ imagination the most and inspired his first ‘light’ music. He started in 1914 with a suite for orchestra entitled ‘The B’s’, each movement of which he titled with the nicknames of his fellow students at the Royal College of Music; the suite was programmed as one of the ‘symphonic interludes’ in the 1919 Ballets Russes season in London. For the ‘Two Pieces for Small Orchestra’, ‘Puck’s Minuet’ and ‘Merry-Eye’, Howells returned to the same idiom he had developed initially in ‘The B’s’. Both are pastoral works in the sense that they incorporate elements of country life (including dance and quasi-folk tunes), Howells no doubt had scenes from his native Gloucestershire in mind as he transformed Stravinsky’s Shrovetide Fair into a quintessentially English country fete (complete with orchestral piano). Reminiscent of Debussy’s own ‘La danse de Puck’ from book one of Préludes, ‘Puck’s Minuet’ is a light scherzo, of which Howells wrote: ‘though written to an imaginary scene, it little matters what particular ‘picture’ is in the listener’s mind, so long as there be a picture’. Remarkably, Howells sketched the whole work in the waiting room at Reading Station during a three-hour delay. The piece became popular for a short time and was a particular favourite of the conductor Sir Hamilton Harty. Following Puck’s success, Howells wrote a more extended work on a similar fairytale idea, ‘Merry-Eye’, to a commission from Sir Henry Wood for the 1920 Proms, about which he wrote:
This piece has not necessarily a programme, but if an idea of such be entertained, it can be supposed that the listener meets with an average-type character out of the domain of folklore – called Merry-Eye – who reveals more about himself and his personality than folklore itself ever tells of him or his kind. Much that he relates is true to his name and to such part of his history as is common reading-public property; much else, on the other hand, contradicts this. Merry-Eye’s name is – like most titles – only half suggestive of youth.
Again, like ‘Puck’s Minuet’, the score was written at speed, this time during his honeymoon at Soudley in the Forest of Dean. It was also similarly well received, with one critic noting: [Howells] ‘has produced a score which for skill and beauty of colour could hold its own beside anything by Debussy or Stravinsky’.