HYPERION: Programme Note for Herbert Howells – Missa Sabrinensis

Howells Missa Sab

A Choral Symphony in all but name and one Howells’ greatest achievements, the 1954 Mass of the Severn (River) is now available from Hyperion.

My Programme Notes

The English composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983) is chiefly celebrated today for his liturgical choral music within the Anglican cathedral tradition, but that represents a fraction of his overall output. His three large-scale masterpieces for chorus, soloists and orchestra—Hymnus Paradisi (1950), Missa Sabrinensis (1954) and Stabat mater (1965)—take that style and elevate it to a new level. They stand out not only because the composer’s highly distinctive style is instantly recognizable and direct, but because they demonstrate a profound ability to set such universal texts in a very personal way, with an overwhelming intensity of emotional thought. Howells was most inspired when dealing with the substantial musical architecture required in setting what he called ‘immemorial prose’: words that, although they had little personal meaning for the atheistic composer, had nevertheless represented a source of human comfort for centuries. Howells wrote of the Mass that, ‘for the creative musician it has become—like the Passion—one of the two superlative texts for musical setting’. After the significant success of the requiem Hymnus Paradisi, written for his nine-year-old son Michael and performed at the 1950 Three Choirs Festival (thence repeated in 1951 and 1952), Howells was immediately approached by David Willcocks, then-Organist and Choirmaster of Worcester Cathedral, to consider writing another work for the 1954 Worcester Three Choirs Festival. The score of the resulting Missa Sabrinensis was nearly lost when Howells’s bag was stolen and thrown from a train, but it was miraculously retrieved by police. Malcolm Sargent conducted performances in London and Huddersfield following the premiere conducted by Howells himself, but the piece was not revisited until October 1982 when The Bach Choir performed it at the Royal Festival Hall under Willcocks in celebration of Howells’s ninetieth birthday. Willcocks commented that such was the level of intricate detail in Howells’s counterpoint that he was like a medieval stonemason carving high in a cathedral, knowing that his details would be perceptible only to the composer. However, careful editing (by Paul Spicer and David Hill) and advances in recording techniques mean that, in a sense, we now have the chance to hear for the first time Howells’s Mass as he had originally intended, with all of the intricate detail.

The title Missa Sabrinensis, meaning ‘Mass of the Severn’, was a geographical and psychological link between the harbour-town of Lydney (Howells’s birthplace in Gloucestershire), Gloucester (where he received his earliest musical training) and Worcester, where, as Howells put it, the cathedral ‘stands sentinel on the banks of the same noble river’. The Three Choirs Festival had been seminal in his early musical education. His first visits in 1907 and 1910 not only exposed him to a tradition of orchestral music, but allowed him to form personal friendships with some of the leading British composers, including Elgar, Parry and Vaughan Williams. Howells continued to make an annual pilgrimage to Worcester, Gloucester and Hereford throughout his life and it played an important role for a composer who felt such a strong sense of heritage—a heritage that the festival and the cathedral tradition more generally provided, and to which he felt a significant duty.

One of the most significant musical experiences of Howells’s early years was hearing the ‘gravely arched phrases’ of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallisat its premiere in Gloucester in 1910. The 1954 festival included not only the premiere of Howells’s Mass, but also of Vaughan Williams’s cantata Hodie, which he dedicated to Howells. Vaughan Williams was one of a small group of close friends (along with Herbert Sumsion and Gerald Finzi) who had persuaded Howells to release the score of Hymnus Paradisi, and from the very beginning of the Missa Sabrinensis the listener will be aware that there are some very notable moments of homage to the other composers. Where Howells breaks away significantly from the English tradition is in the complexity of his counterpoint. In many ways the Mass can be heard as more of a choral symphony, in which he gradually builds up significant blocks of sound, using the soloists, chorus and orchestra as contrapuntal forces. This is the main reason that the work was considered so difficult, as the orchestra was not there to support the chorus in the traditional manner, but rather to build more and more lines of polyphony. The river metaphor is appropriate as Howells writes such long lines, which are subsumed into the overall mass of sound, surging forward through the first four movements and gradually dispersing in the final two; thus, despite the complexity and number of Howells’s parts, it is the overall symphonic arch that dominates.

In a letter to Walter Emery, Howells described his overall vision:

Each [movement] builds itself in obedience not only to the text but to the logical sequence of purely musical ideas. In each movement the composer seems to have sought a dominant mood and to [have] allowed such mood to stamp itself intensively upon thought and expression. Episodic phases serve to interrupt the mood, but only to a point necessary to the easing of tension. In broader terms, in the work as a whole, tension mounts throughout the first three movements and is maintained to the end of the ‘Sanctus’. From the climax at ‘Osanna’ there begins a lengthy, graded reduction of power extending into and throughout the ‘Benedictus’. ‘Agnus Dei’ looks back over the whole work. In its nature and function it is retrospective. Themes and mood link it closely with the ‘Kyrie’. The music of the sixth movement, though so largely identified with the first, is remoulded to permit gradual elimination of complexity and a final issue in the tranquility of ‘Dona nobis pacem’.

Howells’s first movement introduces a sound-world that fuses the French pastoral of Debussy and Ravel with a more English diatonic sound, more redolent of Vaughan Williams (particularly his own Kyrie from the Mass in G minor) and Parry. Early sketches suggest that the Kyrie may have formed part of Hymnus in an early draft, and the music treads a similar fine line between anguish and ecstasy. Overall there is a constant sense of searching, as though the composer wanted to believe, but ultimately (as we shall hear in the ending of the Mass) could not. The long smooth lines with their complex melismata seem to look back to Howells’s early Mass in the Dorian mode and his experience of hearing chant at Westminster Cathedral. Howells wrote thus:

This movement is almost uninterruptedly choral, passionate (rather than contemplative) in a degree that will mark so much of the work. It serves to bring into line all three main agents of the setting, assembling these in a close union of themes and texture. In the first ‘Kyrie’, Soprano and Tenor ‘soloists’ act in extension of the chorus. The Baritone is for a while almost identified with the choral basses. In ‘Christe eleison’, Tenor and Soprano are more nearly soloist, sharing the climax. In the return of ‘Kyrie eleison’, the Contralto sings briefly in the quietude of the coda.

Initially the ecstatic fanfares and constant dotted rhythms of the ensuing Gloria invigorate Howells’s long lines with the small energetic fragments that we associate with Walton and Holst, creating a texture teeming with life, reinforced with bright high brass and percussion. Despite this constant activity on the surface of the water, Howells’s music moves relatively slowly, and the building-up of so many competing parts betrays an overwhelming and very modern effect as the words become incomprehensible in the overall volume of sound. Howells wrote of the Gloria:

This movement easily admits the soloists as associates in the general flow of counterpoint. Later, in ‘Qui tollis’, first the Contralto then the Tenor and Soprano give leadership to the semi-chorus and (in ‘Qui sedes’) to the full choir. Their mission includes the summoning of all forces to recapitulation (‘Tu solus sanctus, tu solus Dominus’). The ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ becomes a fugal texture growing in movement and size up to the high-lying ‘in gloria Dei Patris’.

The great statement of faith, Howells’s Credo is the heart of the Missa Sabrinensis. The power and confidence of the unison theme at the opening, and its frequent return, are set in tension against a backdrop of dissonance and bitonality. Again this gives an overall impression of hope, but against significant strife. Howells writes:

Marked ‘Maestoso, ma con moto’, this movement is begun in full cry, chorally and orchestrally, using a theme that will return at all cardinal moments (‘Deum de Deo’, ‘cuius regni’, ‘Qui cum Patre et Filio’, ‘Confiteor’, ‘Et vitam venturi’ and the ‘et exspecto’). At ‘in Spiritum Sanctum’ the theme of ‘Qui sedes’ and that of ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ are quoted. Thereafter the movement’s climax is reached through the style of opposed diatonic chords (‘et apostolicam Ecclesiam’), recapitulation (‘Confiteor’) and coda (‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’).

Howells’s Sanctus begins with a solemn procession, emphasizing its ritual nature with echoes of the finale of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, a work that he frequently referenced in his own teaching.

A brief, sombre, slow-moving orchestral prelude over an ostinato-like bass precedes and leads to the choral return. When the soloists are heard again, their text is the ‘Pleni sunt’; the chorus’s, ‘Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth’. There is no separation between ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Osanna’. ‘Osanna in excelsis’ is used for the gradual simplification and tranquilizing of the ‘Sanctus’ as a whole.

The delicate Benedictus contrasts all that has gone before, and its use of solo voices and significantly reduced orchestral forces echoes Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor, giving the movement a transcendent quality.

This, almost wholly quiet music (‘Piacevole, con tenerezza e felicita’), is for the four soloists, semi-chorus of women, and small orchestra. A flute becomes a fifth solo ‘voice’ in the earlier phase, and again at the end. There is no return to music of ‘Osanna’. Here ‘Osanna’ and ‘Benedictus’ are inseparable in music that makes the movement self-contained.

Howells writes of the final movement, the Agnus Dei:

This, on the contrary, bears witness and relationship to the ‘Kyrie’ in a large way as well as returning to the Benedictus theme in the ‘dona nobis pacem’. The injunction ‘Lento appassionato’ indicates (and in great measure governs) the nature of the music. But the last phase is of a constantly diminishing intensity.

The return of the opening music in Howells’s final movement reinforces the symphonic nature of the work, giving the listener such a strong sense of returning home. The nostalgia of this retrospective could be linked to the composer’s personal sense of ‘home’ in the area, but it is also tinged with sadness. The countryside of his childhood around the Severn was now also associated with the loss of his son on a family holiday, and of Michael’s subsequent burial at Twigworth, outside Gloucester—quite the opposite of the English pastoral idyll. For Howells, as in Hymnus Paradisi, the Missa Sabrinensis was about the memorializing of a lost son (personalizing the work’s biblical origins), and that he was able to combine these elements within such a grand symphonic plan makes it one of his greatest achievements.

from notes by Jonathan Clinch © 2020

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