New Recording of Herbert Howells’ Cello Concerto

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.

Visit their website.

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

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Organ Recital at Merton College Oxford

merton

Thursday 9th May – 1:15pm

Dr Jonathan Clinch

Music by Howells, Saxton, Byrchmore and Berkeley

 

Psalm Prelude, set 2, no.1. Psalm 130, verse 1: Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord. Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

Chorale Prelude ‘Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist’ (2019), Ruth Byrchmore (born 1966)

Psalm Prelude, set 2, no.2. Psalm 139, verse 12: Yea the darkness is no darkness with thee. Herbert Howells

Chorale Prelude In memoriam Oliver Knussen (Oxford Premiere), Robert Saxton (born 1953)

Psalm Prelude, set 2, no.3. Psalm 33, verse 3: Sing unto Him a new song: play skilfully with a loud noise. Herbert Howells

Three Pieces for Organ (op.72/1, 1968), Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)

i. Aubade, ii. Aria, iii. Toccata

 

Merton Website

 

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Westminster Recital: World Premiere

Robert Saxton & Oliver Knussen

Ruth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WESTMINSTER CATHEDRAL

7th April 2019 – 4:45pm, free entry.

Passacaglia on the name John McCabe (2015), Robert Saxton (born 1953)

Chorale Prelude ‘Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist’ (2019), Ruth Byrchmore (born 1966)

Chorale Prelude In memoriam Oliver Knussen (World Premiere), Robert Saxton

Three Pieces for Organ (op.72/1, 1968), Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)
i. Aubade, ii. Aria, iii. Toccata

Further details.

berkeley

 

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Herbert Howells: Chamber Music – String Quartet ‘In Gloucestershire’, Lady Audrey’s Suite, Piano Quartet

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NEW NAXOS RELEASE

This superb CD of some of Howells’ finest chamber music will be released on 12th April. Here are my programme notes for the disc.

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) defined the sound of English Cathedral music in the twentieth century with a style which is immediately recognisable for its long melodic lines, rhapsodic nature, rich harmony and ecstatic climaxes. His earliest musical education came from his sister within the family home at Lydney, Gloucestershire. He also heard the organ played by his father in the Baptist chapel next door and then progressed to Lydney Parish Church, where he had his first experience of choral music. Herbert’s headmaster encouraged him and a local squire funded more serious tuition with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, becoming an apprentice at the same time as Ivor Gurney and Ivor Novello. Crucially, the link with Gloucester also drew Howells into the world of the Three Choirs Festivals where he experienced not only the riches of the oratorio tradition but also some of the latest contemporary music. Howells’ writing from this time shows him grappling with these influences, as well as a heady mixture of the German Romantics. 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 entry for the scholarship examination transformed himself into a charming, dapper gentleman. Likewise with the move to London, Howells jettisoned so much of his early musical style in favour of a far more refined writing where every note mattered. This was almost certainly the influence of Charles Wood and Charles Stanford. 

The move to such a cosmopolitan city as London allowed Howells to soak up all of the latest music. Hubert 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 which had the greatest impact on Howells. Likewise, the wartime performances of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes were unmissable for the young composer and he made particularly detailed study of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Debussy’s L’Après-midi d’un faune and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. A terminal diagnosis in 1916 of Graves’ disease, a condition which caused Howells’ heart to race and his eyes to visibly protrude from his face, meant that he was spared active service in the First World War and thanks to Parry’s connections with the finest doctors in London, Howells became the first person in Britain to receive experimental radium treatment, supplemented with regular prescriptions of arsenic. Ultimately, the treatment was successful but it did require him to spend long periods convalescing. In many ways this was a golden period for Howells, filling his time with composition and producing some of his most celebrated works including the Elegy for Viola, String Quartet and String Orchestra (1917), the three Rhapsodies for organ (1915/18), several fine songs such as King David (1919), the carol-anthem A Spotless Rose (1919), and the three chamber works on this disc.

String Quartet No.3 ‘In Gloucestershire’

The revision of unpublished scores was a constant process for Howells: it was said that he could not copy a single bar of his own music out without changing some element. The String Quartet No. 3 (‘In Gloucestershire’) was begun in the summer of 1916 but the first manuscript was left on a train and Howells subsequently revised it several times. Like all the works on this recording, the quartet’s history was bound up with his friendships with Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott. The first performance took place at a private concert in March 1920 at Scott’s London home. Howells and Gurney would go walking in the countryside around Gloucester, frequently disappearing for days at a time. The third quartet captures what Howells described as the ‘real Gloucestershire’; ‘…I had the sort of heart-ache for Gloucestershire all the time, and chiefly when I think of Gloucestershire, of the Cotswolds’. The opening seems to capture that sense of nostalgia with a folksong-like theme which would not have been out of place in Stanford’s quartets, yet at the same time Howells’ fluid treatment of it, his rich modal harmony and the finesse of his textures (especially in the short pizzicato scherzo), makes this one of the most overt English homages to the chamber music of Ravel. The opening music returns at the end of the quartet, dispelling the nervous dance-like energy of the final movement, and closing in complete tranquility.  

Lady Audrey’s Suite for String Quartet

Again, the folk-element of Howells’ string writing is immediately audible in Lady Audrey’s Suiteof 1915. Finished on Christmas Day, it was a present for Marion Scott’s young niece, Audrey, who was raised in the Scott’s home following the death of her mother in childbirth. Howells was fond of writing character pieces for young listeners and the titles are clearly inspired by Debussy’s Children’s Cornersuite. Howells’ own programme note elaborates on the stories:

‘1. The Golliwogs – poor stiff things! – hated dancing; and they wereso sleepy. But some horrid, spiteful “Mugician” goaded them with sharp words and a prickly fork. So they danced as best they could; bowed; and ran away.

2. In the fields and woods the little girl had little else to think of than the flowers, and the solitary old shepherd who, among his flocks close by, piped the only scraps of tune he cared for. She often pitied his loneliness.

3. On Sundays this same little girl would go into the big,quiet Church, and hear the solemnest things sung by the Parson in a low up-and-down voice. And of these solemn words, and of coloured windows, she would think at Prayer-time each evening in the week. But thoughts would come, too, of the doings of each day – of a quiet, lonely Monday; a five-finger exercise Tuesday; a tale of Saints-and-Organs Wednesday; a dancing tea-party Thursday; a fairy-tale Friday; and a Sabbath-eve Saturday.

4. Once the old shepherd told her a tale – of himself years ago, and of his friends. He was not always slow-going and lonely.’ 

Piano Quartet in A minor

Written in 1916, Howells’ Piano Quartet received significant attention when it won a Carnegie Trust award which secured its publication. Such was Stanford’s respect for his ‘son-in-music’ that he had submitted the score on Howells’ behalf and, in turn, Howells submitted Stanford’s own winning entry, his opera The Travelling Companion. The Piano Quartet bears an unusual dedication: ‘To the Hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it’. Howells and Gurney frequently climbed the vantage point outside Gloucester, with its magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. ‘Chosen’ (or Churchdown) was also the home of Howells’ fiancé, Dorothy Dawe. ‘When the first movement opens it is dawn, and the hill wind, pure externally free, and uplifting, is blowing…The second movement is the Hill upon a day of midsummer, and the thoughts are those which come as a man lies on the grass on his back gazing upward into the vast vault of sky…The Finale is the Hill in the month of March, with splendid winds of Spring rioting over it’. Howells revised the score in 1936, altering the second subject of the first movement; the result was a much darker work. Given the work’s associations with Ivor Gurney (who by this time was severely ill and living in an asylum), it is hard not to hear these reworkings as a personal reference to that lost friendship.

 

Copyright 2019, Jonathan Clinch – http://www.jclinch.com

 The recording was supported by the Herbert Howells Trust, the Herbert Howells Society, and The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

 

 

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Robert Saxton commission in memory of Oliver Knussen

Saxton

Jonathan has commissioned a new organ piece from Robert Saxton (Oxford University). The piece will be in memory of the composer Oliver Knussen (1952-2018), Richard Rodney Bennett Professor of Music at the Royal Academy of Music. Jonathan will give the first performance at Westminster Cathedral on Sunday 7th April 2019.

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Hubert Parry and the Past, Present and Future of Music History Teaching

Hubert Parry

Jonathan will be speaking about Hubert Parry’s legacy at the Royal College of Music on 28th October.

Full programme here.

This study day, co-organised by the Royal College of Music and the University of Southampton, will examine Parry’s work at the RCM and his legacy throughout the 20th century. Parry was the RCM’s first Professor of Music History and his approach to the subject – driven by active student participation and shaped by contemporary doctrines of evolution – was visionary in its time. The day will conclude with a keynote address on the past and present of music history pedagogy in higher education by Alexander Rehding, Fanny Peabody Professor of Music at Harvard University.

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Westminster Abbey Talk

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To mark the centenary of the death of Hubert Parry, Jonathan will be discussing the relationship between Herbert Howells and Hubert Parry with Professor Jeremy Dibble at Westminster Abbey on Saturday 6th October. Details from the Herbert Howells Society.

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