In 2016 Guy Johnston gave the public premiere of Herbert Howells’ Cello Concerto following the publication of my completion of its finale. I’m thrilled to announce that a new recording of Guy playing the concerto with the Britten Sinfonia is released today.
Herbert Howells: Cello Concerto (Fantasia, Threnody and Finale)
Herbert Howells’ early compositional success came not from the church music for which he is so widely known today, but from a golden period around the First World War when he wrote a string of chamber and orchestra works which earnt him a reputation as the leading composer of the younger generation. Charles Villiers Stanford, Howells’ composition professor at the Royal College of Music, made all of his students attend orchestral rehearsals to give them a practical understanding of orchestration and Howells responded with orchestral suites and two piano concertos in his early career. The critical reception to his Second Piano Concerto(1925), which he withdrew from publication, led the composer to explore new stylistic areas. However, we can hear the roots of the Cello Concertoin works such as the poignant Elegy for solo viola, string quartet, and string orchestraof 1917, written in memory of his friend and fellow RCM student, Francis Purcell Warren, who was killed during the Battle of the Somme. The Elegyhas an intense darkness and melancholy which seems to resurface in the Cello Concerto. 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 Concertoand Hymnus Paradisi (reworking material from his earlier Requiem). Both became private ‘medical documents’. In 1950 a group of friends (including Herbert Sumsion, Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughan Williams) convinced Howells to release Hymnus Paradisi for its first performance at The Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral, 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 Tallisas 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 Clavichordand 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 very 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. Howells combines several formal elements, so whilst the movement could be considered a theme and (continuous) variations, there are also two large arches to the form where he builds on each successive variation to create a major climax, which then gradually dies away to a central passage of relative calm and stillness, before repeating the whole arch-process again, this time with greater intensity as he compresses the early variations. 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 acts as a sort of song-without-words for the soloist, and was completed in short score in the summer of 1936. 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.
The project to complete the concerto, which was supported by the Herbert Howells Trust, began in 2010 when I started 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 (sometimes 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). 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 (with elements of Walton), so one might assume a focus on the anger and pain caused by his loss, but then the remarkable jaunty second 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. The concerto received its public premiered at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival in Gloucester Cathedral played by Guy Johnston and the Royal College of Music Philharmonic Orchestraunder the conductor Martin André.
© Jonathan Clinch 2019. http://www.jclinch.com