Howells – Three Anthems [now] with orchestra…

Here are some thoughts on the latest Venables/Howells release on Delphian, which includes my orchestration of one of Howells’ greatest anthems…

Herbert Howells saw himself in a long tradition of English composers who found their initial love of both music and language within the Anglican church, and in writing for that church he was continuing the work of his own composition teacher, Sir Charles Stanford. Howells often said that Stanford taught him two things: poetry and music. In reality, he was a passionate autodidact from a much younger age and his exposure to the ‘immemorial prose’ of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible at his local parish church in Lydney, Gloucestershire, along with his close friendship with the poet-composer Ivor Gurney, led to a lifelong passion for setting words to music in a variety of forms. He loved to recite poetry aloud to his students and one can imagine him, like an actor, exploring all the different ways in which a single line might be interpreted. Many have pointed to Howells’ period during the Second World War as acting choirmaster at St John’s College in Cambridge (from October 1941), and the influence of the Dean of King’s College, Eric Milner-White, who encouraged him to write the celebrated ‘Collegium Regale’Te Deum. However, it was really in the years before this that Howells forged a unique style with Hymnus Paradisi and the Four Anthems, which formed the basis of his musical language for the rest of his career.

The sudden death of his nine-year-old son Michael in 1935 was the defining tragedy of his life, but the depth, pathos and sophistication of the writing in his 1932 Requiem shows that Howells had already been drawn to writing church music and developing a highly original style. After Michael’s death, Howells reworked the unaccompanied Requiem into Hymnus Paradisi for soloists, chorus and orchestra, sketching the majority of his masterpiece in the late thirties, but not orchestrating it until a decade later. His daughter Ursula commented that the family ‘lived in church’ after her brother’s death and Howells spent days inside the church at Twigworth (where Michael was buried), eventually having to be physically dragged away by friends. This was a highly traumatic period for the family, and this was compounded by the additional anxiety of the Second World War. In September 1940 disaster struck once again when an aerial bomb destroyed their London home in Barnes. Fortunately, the family were away at the time, but this further attack on domestic life, and the resulting sense of his own mortality, had a profound effect on the composer.

In the wake of all these tensions, Howells began a frenzied period of composition in the New Year of 1941 when heavy snow prolonged a stay with his in-laws in Cheltenham. At the heart of this were the anthems which he initially called In Time of War, later amending it to Four Anthems on the realisation that they represented emotions that were always present in life. Today the lush modal harmonies and smooth melodic lines of the two most celebrated of these, O pray for the peace of Jerusalem and Like as the hart, may strike us as masterpieces in a very English form of understatement, but in their original context they form part of a set of anthems which concentrate on fear, pain, violence, vengeance and retribution. The dramatic setting of verses from Psalm 44 in We have heard with our ears (the second anthem) and Psalm 68 in Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered (the fourth) are amongst Howells’ most angry music. In contrast, the first and third anthems, O pray for the peace of Jerusalem and Like as the hart (setting Psalm 122, verses 6–7, and Psalm 42, verses 1–3), are significantly more reserved and only hint at an underlying devastation; however, this sense of unease is always there.

Both O pray for the peace and Like as the hart use a simple ABA structure to form an arch where the return of the opening melody is gently intensified in the final section, whilst at the same time drawing out their tranquil endings to fade into silence, leaving an indelible impression of calm. It is this elongation of time, with slow tempos, long melodic lines, expressive melismas and the near constant use of gentle dissonance in the accompaniment which give these anthems their hypnotic quality of ‘quiet intensity’.   Howells wrote at considerable speed and both anthems were completed in single sittings. In Like as a hart the chromatic dissonance on ‘desireth’ is often commented upon as a blues-like moment, but Howells detested all forms of popular music (taking particular aim at jazz in some radio talks around this time), and the dissonance here really comes from his love of false relations in English renaissance music, where a clash is formed between two different voice parts which have the same note in close succession, but with different accidentals. Howells uses this device in the second bar of the organ introduction as well. Overall, it establishes this immediate mood of unease; of the need for God in the face of suffering. In the context of his own personal struggles, the whole anthem can be heard as a cry for faith from a man who always stated privately that he didn’t believe in God, but was now desperate for the catharsis that faith might provide. Some have suggested that the solo voice in the final section could represent Michael, soaring above. Ultimately, the anthem only asks questions, but the richness of his setting of the final words, ‘the presence of God’, is enough to suggest emotional resolution. O pray for the peace has a similar protracted intensity which is developed into a sense of ecstatic warmth when Howells moves to the major mode for ‘Peace be within thy walls’, building through repetition into a brief ecstatic climax at the thought of ‘plenteousness’. In Howells’ own orchestral writing, Christopher Palmer likened the effect of his string accompaniments to the use of back-lighting on beautiful stained-glass windows, illuminating and intensifying the overall experience. The arrangement of ‘Like as the hart’ is by the American scholar Howard Eckdahl, who focused on being ‘as true as possible’ to the original organ part and, in doing so, to ‘yield a new clarity on Howells’ ‘masterful and personal style’. In contrast, O pray for the peace was freely arranged by the present author for solo viola, string quartet, string orchestra and organ, taking inspiration from Howells’own scoring in the Elegy for solo viola, string quartet, and string orchestra (1917), and The House of the Mind.

This later anthem, dating from 1954, is a setting of words by the seventeenth-century English cleric, Joseph Beaumont, imploring the reader to look inward for the presence of God. For Howells, this focus on the inner self triggers a quiet state of ecstasy, reminiscent of the Coronation anthem Behold, O God our Defender (1952), but which reaches new levels of harmonic richness in the six-part writing towards the end of the first verse: ‘There alone dwells solid rest’. The year 1954 saw, perhaps, Howells’ greatest achievement in the vast choral symphony that is the Missa Sabrinensis, and although this anthem is its antithesis in scale and interiority, it nevertheless manages to distil a similar sense of restless intensity. The anthem was written for the Incorporated Society of Musicians who were dedicating a new memorial chapel and book of remembrance at the London city church of St Sepulchre. Howells scored the anthem for choir, organ and string orchestra, but made an organ and choir reduction at the request of the publisher, by which the piece is mostly known. This is the first recording of all three orchestral versions.

© 2022 Jonathan Clinch

Benjamin Nicholas & Jonathan Clinch discussing Howells’ music and the latest recording from Merton.
This entry was posted in Herbert Howells, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.