A Spotless Rose [3'08]
Sing lullaby [3'28]
Here is the little door [3'51]
Recorded as Malcolm Archer’s farewell from Wells Cathedral prior to his prestigious appointment to St Paul’s in London, this generously filled album presents some of Howells’s best choral works, some well known, others less so.
In 1944 Howells wrote a set of Morning Canticles for King’s College, Cambridge. With the Evening Canticles recorded here coming the following year, the ‘Coll. Reg.’ settings immediately set the benchmark for twentieth-century liturgical composition and led to the composer being besieged by requests from cathedrals and collegiate chapels for other such ‘custom-built’ settings. It was the composer’s innate understanding of the individual characteristics—acoustic, architecture and choral timbre—of each foundation which made these works so successful and popular. This programme includes the Morning Canticles written for St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle and the Evening Canticles which constitute the ‘New College Service’.
Ever the master of the choral miniature, the Three Carol-Anthems are among Howells’s most perennially popular works, having been recorded and performed across the globe. Several of the other pieces included here are less famous, but all display their composer’s inimitable mastery of form and choral technique.
‘I have composed out of sheer love of trying to make nice sounds.’ Howells’s credo-like statement made in a BBC programme towards the end of his life sums up so clearly what is at the heart of his pulling power—the sheer sensuousness of his harmonic language. It is obvious to any listener or performer that this love of sound and the mystical weaving of counterpoint draws us in and builds pictures in the air. But Howells was involved in the creation of something which was far more than nice sounds. One of his great gifts was an ability to create moods. He noted how mood-creation could be an end in itself as part of musical form when describing Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony:
He neither depicts nor describes … he builds up a great mood, insistent to an unusual degree, but having in itself far more variety than a merely slight acquaintance with it would suggest … if you like, it is a frame of mind. (Music and Letters, April 1922)
This mood-creation is critical to Howells’s sacred (and organ) music and, consciously or subconsciously, the buildings in which this music was to be heard were ‘written in’ and became a fundamental element of the equation. This is a far from fanciful notion. Howells loved buildings—he grew up under the tutelage of Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral and was often taken to St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, by his father. Early exposure to such architectural and acoustical drama was bound to affect a young susceptible mind. Part of the success of Howells’s unique canon of Canticle settings for many cathedrals, collegiate chapels and churches was founded on his knowledge of the ‘feel’ of the buildings for which they were intended. He said in another BBC programme:
I have never been able to compose a note of music without either a place or a building in my mind. I was commissioned to write a work for St Albans Cathedral. But I didn’t tell the Dean that one day I, as it were, sneaked into the Cathedral at St Albans because I hadn’t been in it for nearly fifty years. And there I sat hoping that no one would recognize the chap who was going to write some music for them and who wanted to hear the choir, but more than that, I wanted to hear what it felt like—the feeling of that room in which something of mine was going to be sung.
There is another quality which Howells professed as being critical to his musical make-up—pathos. He acknowledged that it was one of music’s most powerful points of communication and used it to extraordinary effect in much of his music. And so a picture of Howells’s creative mind is emerging—a mind whose linear music traces the intersecting arches of a great building and which uses the acoustic to amplify and carry this sensual music as if to the verge of heaven itself. He transports his listeners to a plane of spiritual ecstasy not known since the very different but equally conscious world of the music of Palestrina. It is often said that Evensong in a great cathedral on a dusky November evening with candles flickering in the choirstalls and casting long shadows is one of the most powerfully emotive experiences. Howells knew that instinctively and wrote to embrace and enhance that important element in this uniquely English tradition.
But there is one other inescapable element in Howells’s creative make-up which, however many times it is related, cannot be overlooked, and that is the loss of his son Michael at the age of nine in 1935. This recording begins with A Sequence for St Michael and with two agonized cries of ‘Michael’. Many have been drawn to paint the Archangel Michael in music and on canvas, but for Howells, aided and abetted by the miraculous quality of Helen Waddell’s translation of the medieval Latin of Alcuin, this was simply an opportunity for externalizing a feeling which in 1961 was still as raw as it had been when Michael had died twenty-six years earlier.
The Sequence is a big piece effectively in three sections, the central one being a sensuous tenor solo which mirrors the ‘censer of gold’ in its sinuous musical line which seems to waft like the incense which rises from it. The heart of the poem is the image to which Howells will have felt instinctively drawn: ‘Then was there a great silence in heaven, And a thousand thousand saying ‘Glory to the Lord King’’. It is the feeling of vastness, space, silence and mystery conjured up by that image which never fails to impress. Howells’s musical response is to begin the words of those ‘thousand thousand’ like a quiet rumour, beginning very low with the basses and tenors in counterpoint and placing the sopranos high above like hovering angels. This is arch-Impressionism of a high order.
A Hymn for St Cecilia, commissioned by the Livery Club of the Worshipful Company of Musicians to mark Howells’s Mastership of the Company in 1959–60, sets a poem in praise of the Patron Saint of music by Ursula Vaughan Williams as a three-verse hymn. The wonderful dancing-on-tiptoe nature of this piece takes its cue from the syncopated first vocal entry and each phrase finds increasingly high notes as the verse goes on. It is a classic ‘cumulative’ tune which carries the singer along on a tide of increasing emotional energy and leaves an impression of being a piece much bigger than its constituent parts.
In September 1940 the Howells’s house in Barnes was bombed in the Blitz with the loss of his library and many manuscripts. The family moved temporarily to Cheltenham and Howells was given a bed in the basement of the RCM on teaching days. New Year 1941 saw the family snowed in. Remarkably, Howells produced a new work every single day until 15 January when he had to return to London. This burst of activity included the composition of a set of anthems which he called In Time of War. O pray for the peace of Jerusalem was written on the 5th, the missing Ponder my words followed the next day and Like as the hart was written in a single sitting on the 7th. Great is the Lord, Let God arise, and We have heard with our ears followed. The music of O pray for the peace of Jerusalem barely raises its voice and is a gentle meditation on the word ‘peace’.
One of the unfortunate effects of the great liturgical reforms which have taken place in the Church of England over the last thirty years has been the almost complete disappearance of choral matins. This has meant that a large part of the repertoire has become forgotten through disuse. Howells wrote a number of settings of the Te Deum, Jubilate and Benedictus of which the Collegium Regale settings are by far the most well known. This is a shame, for as with Howells’s choral output as a whole, conductors tend to stick to familiar repertoire and ignore the riches which exist in other, less well known works. The Te Deum and Benedictus written in 1952 for St George’s Chapel, Windsor, are just such examples of outstanding settings of these great words which are almost completely neglected and therefore doubly welcome in a programme such as this.
Howells’s visit to St Albans Abbey quoted above was in connection with his commission to write an anthem, I love all beauteous things, for a Festival Service celebrating the Hands of the Craftsman exhibition in St Albans Abbey in 1977. The wonderfully apt poem by Robert Bridges manages both to imply the material things celebrated in the festival exhibition and Howells’s own ‘credo’ quoted at the beginning of these notes. The anthem opens with an extended pedal point with staccato pedal notes which brings to mind other great pedals in Howells’s output such as the last movement of Hymnus Paradisi and, perhaps more closely, the last organ Psalm-Prelude in the First Set which suggests the beating of a heart as the valley of the shadow of death is traversed. But here there is little of that nervousness as he produces a work of such sensuousness that when the three upper voices make their first entry followed almost canonically by the tenors one senses that those repeated pedal notes represent a heart beating a more personal tune.
Salve regina is a very early work written in 1915 when Howells was still a student at the Royal College of Music. Stanford, Howells’s composition teacher, had sent him to Westminster Cathedral to hear Terry’s pioneering choir singing Renaissance church music. Howells’s response was instantaneous and, starting with a Missa sine nomine later renamed Mass in the Dorian Mode, he continued to write a number of a cappella anthems for the choir. Salve regina was one of Four Anthems to the Blessed Virgin Mary which he wrote at this time. While showing clear signs of stylistic things to come, his debt to Palestrina and other composers of that era is obvious and moving.
Howells wrote his settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for New College, Oxford, in 1949 immediately after finishing the Gloucester Service which itself followed hard on the heels of Collegium Regale. It is interesting to return to the issue of acoustics here in order to see how very differently Howells knew his music would sound in the comparatively ‘dry’ acoustic of the medieval Oxford chapel compared with the enormously reverberant Gloucester spaces. Howells makes a setting which has much less of the Impressionist flavour of the two earlier settings. It still has its moments of ecstasy—‘He remembering his mercy’ to ‘Abraham and his seed for ever’ is as spine-tingling as anything in the Gloucester and Collegium Regale—but the heart of the matter is the totally different feeling engendered by acoustical properties. Similarly, the kind of mystical treble-voice meditations which begin both the Collegium Regale and Gloucester settings would simply not work as effectively in New College. The result is a ‘new look’ setting which is wonderfully effective in its range and directness.
The Three Carol-Anthems, A Spotless Rose, Sing lullaby and Here is the little door were written between 1918 and 1920. Here is the little door sets a tender little poem by Frances Chesterton. Sing lullaby was the last to be written and sets a poem by the Gloucestershire poet F W Harvey. A Spotless Rose, the most celebrated of the set, was, according to the composer, written:
after idly watching some shunting from the window of a cottage … in Gloucester which overlooked the Midland Railway. In an upstairs room I looked out on iron railings and the main Bristol–Gloucester railway line, with shunting trucks bumping and banging. I wrote it for and dedicated it to my Mother—it always moves me when I hear it, just as if it were written by someone else.
Howells’s unique contribution to the music of the Anglican Church began in earnest in 1944 when he won a bet (one guinea!) from the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, which provided the College choir with a new setting of the Te Deum. This laid down a template in sound which was to see cathedral organists queuing up to secure their own piece of Howells. The Collegium Regale Magnificat and Nunc dimittis have rightly become the most celebrated settings of the twentieth century. They follow Howells’s stated feelings to the letter: ‘… if I made a setting of the Magnificat, the mighty should be put down from their seat without a brute force which would deny this canticle’s feminine association. Equally, that in the Nunc dimittis, the tenor’s domination should characterize the gentle Simeon. Only the Gloria should raise its voice.’ The Magnificat opens with upper voices (suitably representing Mary) singing in an almost recitative-like way. The altos are scored to enrich the texture at ‘For behold, from henceforth’, and the tenors and basses only join at ‘He hath shewn strength with his arm’. The ‘Gloria’, surely amongst the most ecstatic utterances we possess, does indeed raise its voice in the manner of a true doxology.
Paul Spicer © 2005