Blog: Herbert Howells – Piano Music Volume 2

Volume 2 of Herbert Howells Piano Music is out on Friday 2nd December on the Naxos label.

Ahead of the release, here are my notes that accompany the disc. The recording includes the remaining pieces from my edited volume of Howells Piano Works.

Tunes and Childhood

Herbert Howells claimed that, as a student, his professor at the Royal College of Music in London, Charles Stanford, taught him two things, poetry and music, but these passions started earlier, during his childhood in the Gloucestershire town of Lydney. Herbert was the youngest of eight children and soon made a beeline for the family piano with the help of his eldest sister. The interest continued and alongside singing at the local school and Anglican church, a generous local landowner paid for Herbert to have piano lessons with the cathedral organist in Gloucester, Herbert Brewer. Such was his progress, that Howells was able to apply to the Royal Academy of Music and was offered a place to study piano at the age of 16, around the time that The Arab’s Song was written. Ultimately a lack of money and his growing interest in composition led him to decline the offer. By this point Howells had built up a remarkable piano repertoire (which he played from memory). This included major works by Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Grieg and Rachmaninoff, along with popular works that are less common today by composers like Anton Rubinstein, Édouard Wolff and Francis Thomé. The degree to which the young composer-pianist internalised all of this music is more than apparent in his student note book, in which piano miniatures with poetic titles, To a Wild Flower (1908), Romance (1908), Melody (1909) and Legend (1909), are to be found alternating with extracts from Wordsworth, vocal settings of Robert Louis Stevenson (from the 1885 collection A Child’s Garden of Verses) and Robert Herrick, and formal exercise in harmony and counterpoint.

Upon entering the Royal College of Music in 1912, Howells embarked on an ambitious Piano Concerto in C minor (inspired by Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto), with a virtuoso part for his close friend, Arthur Benjamin. It was followed by the award-winning Piano Quartet in A minor in 1916, dedicated ‘To the Hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it’. Both works demonstrate the degree to which Howells was moving away from his Teutonic nineteenth-century origins and embracing a style which drew on contemporary French, Russian and English music. The British folk revival which played such an important part in the development of other Stanford pupils, such as Vaughan Williams and Holst, was important to Howells too, but, unlike Vaughan Williams and Holst, as a working-class boy from the countryside, Howells was drawing on the music of his own childhood. Although Howells was not interested in setting the originals, folk tunes and dances became an important stylistic resource as he sought to reconcile the High Art of his conservatoire training with his own musical roots.

The ‘Chosen’ Tune (1920) was named after the hill and village of Chosen (also known as Churchdown) in Gloucestershire where Gurney and Howells would walk to admire the panoramic view of the countryside surrounding Gloucester. Howells claimed he could never write without a person or place in mind. Chosen was also the home of Howells’ fiancé, Dorothy, and this piano version was written for use at their wedding in August 1920 when the Elgarian hymn was combined with other tunes from friends as part of an improvisation by George Thalben-Ball. Likewise, A Mersey Tune was written in August 1924 and inspired by the River Mersey.

Howells had a close friendship with the poet Walter de la Mare (1873 –1956), who was particularly impressed by the song King David. De la Mare’s professional dedication to writing poetic miniatures for children had a profound influence on Howells, and piano sets like Country Pageant (1928) and A Little Book of Dances (1928) can all be heard as musical equivalents, all belonging to the same de la Mare tradition, committed to bringing high quality music and poetry to young minds. Their simplicity, often combined with a rhythmic and modal quirkiness, looks forward to the music of Poulenc, whilst the use of older dance forms mirrors Ravel.

In the summer of 1926, the photographer Herbert Lambert lent Howells a homemade clavichord, inspired by the instruments of Arnold Dolmetsch. For Howells, the clavichord represented not only an instrument and compositional tradition (particularly the English Tudor repertoire), but also a philosophy; its expressive and miniature sound providing an antidote to what Howells referred to as ‘our crushingly noisy world’. This diminutive form of quiet intensity became an integral part of his musical language, as Howells put it, ‘the work of a Tudor straying about this 20th century’. In this sense, Howells’ music represents a synthesis of de la Mare’s poetic miniatures of twentieth-century childhood and the Elizabethan musical miniatures of Byrd and Tallis. The individual pieces presented here inhabit this sound-world too, from the mock sea-shanty A Sailor Tune (1930), through the folk-inspired Three Tunes (1932, written for Diana, from ‘Herbert the Uncle’), and the Minuet for his daughter Ursula (1935, from ‘Father HH’), to the two Promenades (1938, written as test pieces for the Enfield Festival).

The programme opens and closes with works in Howells’ late style. Comme le cerf soupire, based on an old French chanson, is a transcription of his own improvisation at the piano that the composer made in 1963 for the pianist Margaret Bruce. The final two works were written for the pianist Hilary MacNamara. Et nunc, et semper is a short but profound minuet which presents a remarkable contrast to the two earlier dances in this genre, the title (coming from the Latin Gloria Patri, ‘is now, and ever shall be’) expresses the timeless quality.

The Sonatina (1972) was written concurrently with the Partita for organ, the former being commissioned for MacNamara’s Wigmore Hall debut recital, and the latter as a gift for the Prime Minister Edward Heath, whom Howells had known for many years. Both works centre on very intense sarabandes. Within the Partita we find the ‘Sarabande for the 12th day of any October’, which is a reference to the birthday of Ralph Vaughan Williams: Howells considered everything he wrote for 1972 (the centenary of Vaughan Williams’ birth) to be linked in some way to his older friend, who first introduced him to the modern compositional possibilities of Tudor music with the premiere of ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’ in 1910. In the Sonatina, we return to Howells’ miniature world with the overall condensed form and the musical material within, a distillation of intense melancholy with the constant, almost obsessional, development of small melodic and rhythmic figures. The title was probably a nod to John Ireland, whose own Sonatina for piano (1926–7), Howells admired, though the musical material is based on a scale that Howells identified in Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony. The major and minor thirds and the sharpened fourth can be heard from the outset in the mysterious whispered opening. The ‘restless’ first movement makes particular use of two-part imitation with frequent dramatic unison outbursts, rich cluster-chords and off-beat fanfares, all gestures familiar from Howells’ celebrated choral music. One reviewer of the Little Dances had described Howells’ style as ‘sad and humorous’, and the outer movements of the Sonatina both reflect something of that, but the level of anxious tension here far exceeds the earlier music. In the words of MacNamara, beneath the surface Herbert was ‘an emotional cauldron’, often held back with a peculiarly English form of restraint. The intensity is further increased in the middle movement with a highly intimate sarabande which not only looks back to the delicate clavichord style, but also to the desolation of the middle movement of the Concerto for String Orchestra and the ‘series of sarabandes’ of his Stabat Mater. The finale is a reworking of the bitonal Toccatina (another miniature form) which ends the Petrus Suite recorded on Volume 1 of this series.

c. 2022 Jonathan Clinch

An earlier interview with Matthew Schellhorn, discussing volume 2…

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