This new CD is entirely made up of piano pieces that I have found on my research travels, beautifully played by Matthew Schellhorn. My edited scores will be published in a volume by Wise Music, the release of which has been delayed due to the pandemic.
Here are my notes for the new release. Enjoy!
Naxos – Howells Piano Music Volume One
Born in 1892, Herbert Howells’ earliest musical education came from his sister at an old upright piano within the family home at Lydney, Gloucestershire. His school headmaster encouraged him, and a local squire funded more serious musical tuition with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, becoming an official apprentice at the same time as Ivor Gurney and Ivor Novello. Crucially, the link with Gloucester also drew Howells into the world of the annual Three Choirs Festivals, where he experienced not only the riches of the oratorio tradition but also some of the latest contemporary music. When he won an open scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music in 1912, he changed overnight. The ‘queer-looking scrubby little creature’ (that Hubert Parry describes in his diary) transformed himself into a charming, dapper gentleman. With the move to London, Howells jettisoned so much of his early musical style in favour of a far more refined approach where every note mattered. The move to such a cosmopolitan city allowed Howells to soak up all the latest music. Parry mentored him and he was frequently invited to salon recitals in the homes of the rich and famous in Kensington and beyond. The Royal College of Music itself hosted many of the earliest London performances of new music and it was the French school of Debussy and Ravel that had the greatest impact on Howells. Likewise, the wartime performances of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were unmissable for the young composer. He joined the teaching staff of the Royal College of Music in 1920, remaining there throughout his career until ill health forced him to reduce his musical activities in the late 1970s. He died in 1983.
As for many composers, the piano was the instrument at which Howells liked to experiment and although he never composed directly at the instrument (Charles Stanford had taught him that this approach encouraged poor technique) it was nevertheless, an important tool for him. It also played an important role in his creative imagination and he claimed that he could never write without a person or a place in mind. His most personal gifts were very often piano pieces and I am very grateful to all those who released manuscripts for this project, so that they could be recorded and published for the first time.
The 1910 Three Choirs Festival had a strong impact on the young Howells, particularly the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and it was then that he committed to following a professional career as a composer. His lessons with Herbert Brewer had provided a strong training in both piano performance and composition. His friendship with Ivor Gurney was also hugely influential. Gurney departed for the Royal College of Music that year but continued to return home to Gloucestershire regularly and the pair frequently walked for days in the surrounding countryside. The Summer Idyls were written between April and May 1911, and they formed part of a portfolio which he submitted to the Royal College of Music for his open scholarship. In spirit, they seem to capture the pastoral wanderings of Gurney and Howells. In style, they allude to a range of musical influences. The general theme is of the Romantic character piece or miniature (and there are moments of Schumann or Grieg, for example) but the changing musical landscape is also represented, from the jaunty Elgarian tunefulness of Meadow-Rest (‘Not too slowly, but very quietly’), Summer-Song (‘Very lively and gay’), and In the Morning (‘Cheerily’), through to the Debussy-like dreaming sonorities of June-Haze (‘Very peacefully and persistent’) Quiet Woods (‘Tranquil, and not too slowly’), and Near Midnight (‘Slowly but not in strict time’). Elsewhere (and particularly in Down the Hills) Howells marks his deep love of Rachmaninoff’s latest piano writing.
Contemporary French music continued to be a strong influence on Howells throughout his time as a student (1912–17). In Phantasy (1917) we hear possibly the most successful Ravel-pastiche by an English composer, with Jeux d’eau echoing throughout the playful scherzo. Nevertheless, the level of compositional craft marked out Howells’ original voice, with several commentators pointing to him as ‘the hope’ for the next generation of British music. At the heart of Harlequin Dreaming (1918) is a fantastical waltz that develops through hypnotic repetition, only to vanish to nothing at the end. It is most likely that the puckish character that the composer had in mind was his close friend, Arthur Bliss.
The photographer Herbert Lambert had a sideline in making clavichords and in the summer of 1926 he lent one such instrument to Howells, who was fascinated by the exoticness of this relatively unknown instrument with its intimate sound, limited range and highly expressive touch. It connected him to what he saw as the golden age of English music (with composers such as Tallis and Byrd) and sparked a lifelong enthrallment with the dance forms and modal harmonic style of the period (leading to collections such as Lambert’s Clavichord (1927) and Howells’ Clavichord (1961), as well as many other miscellaneous pieces). Although inspired initially by the clavichord, the composer always chose to play the works on the piano. All the remaining piano works here fall into the category of this ‘clavichord style’, fusing renaissance elements with a thoroughly twentieth-century approach to dissonance and expression on the piano. My Lord Harewood’s Galliard (1949) was a wedding present for the Earl of Harewood and his first wife, Marion Stein (later Mrs Jeremy Thorpe), who had been a pupil of Howells. It was originally preceded by a pavane which is now lost.
Gerald Finzi and Herbert Howells had a very complex and, at times, close relationship. On hearing of Finzi’s death, Howells wrote a piece in his clavichord style called Finzi’s rest: for Gerald on the morrow of 27th September 1956 which was later published as part of Howells’ Clavichord. However, this was not the only piece penned that day. Whereas the published tribute emulated Finzi’s own style, the other piece that Howells wrote that day, Finzi: his rest, was much darker, more personal, and far more emotionally troubled. It presents in music a completely different picture of the Howells/Finzi relationship and, for those who understand something of the biography, it is a truly astonishing memorial.
The Siciliana, Pavane and Galliard, and Petrus Suite were all written for pianists at the Royal College of Music. The rich and lilting, Siciliana (1958), with its characteristic dotted rhythm, was completed in an afternoon and gently builds to an impassioned climax, after which the tension is gently dispersed. By contrast, the Pavane and Galliard is a much darker response to the renaissance idiom: written in 1964 at a point when he was also working on his Stabat Mater, it is characterised by the torturous harmonic language of the Pavane (intensified by the dance form) and nervous anxiety of the Galliard. The Petrus Suite was written between 1967 and 1973 for Hilary Macnamara, the title referring to her son, Peter. The Suite underwent a number of revisions and although seven movements exist, it was performed in a number of different orders. In common with other works in his late style, the suite shows a further paring back of his writing, to the absolute essentials of Howells’ counterpoint. Material from the playful Toccatina was also used by Howells in his Sonatina for piano (1971), but the piece originates from a sketch he made on Easter Sunday 1921.
Copyright, Jonathan Clinch 2020