'Howells's later works have failed to find their way into the regular repertoire but this recording by a radiant Winchester Cathedral Choir urges a thorough reappraisal. The long, fluid lines, startling cadences and massive chords which are so unique to Howells are all here in 'their' service' (The Observer)
'The performances of Winchester Cathedral Choir are so good you hardly register the need to 'assess' them - exactly as it should be in devotional music. That's a huge tribute to the state of the singing at the cathedral, and to Andrew Lumsden, who directs it. A marvellous CD, beautifully planned and executed' (BBC Music Magazine)
'These are uniformly excellent performances and the recording quality is detailed yet superbly spacious. It's the first release from a renewed relationship between Winchester and Hyperion and, although I will hope for more rare Howells, I look forward to whatever else is on the cards. I highly commend this disc' (International Record Review)
Thee will I love [5'47]
The fear of the Lord [5'46]
Hyperion’s previous recordings with Winchester Cathedral Choir are among the jewels in its choral collection. Now the label begins a new relationship with this ancient foundation and its latest director of music, Andrew Lumsden. Their new disc features a composer who was at the centre of the English twentieth-century choral tradition.
Herbert Howells’ is a unique and distinctive voice in church music and it is his lyrical anthem Like as the hart and his compositions of the 1940s and 50s for which he is most known and celebrated. However, his late works are equal in beauty and intensity and it is these that are featured on this superb recording. They are often over-looked as a result of their difficulty but Winchester Cathedral Choir reveal them as unjustly neglected gems.
The Winchester Service, written in 1969, has its roots in plainchant and demonstrates the composer’s chromatic sophistication and the incredible depth of his harmonic palette. The choir display a clear affinity with the composer. They perform with sensitivity and precision and their glorious sound is quintessentially English.
In the history of twentieth-century English music, the composer Herbert Howells (1892–1983) still presents something of an enigma. The youngest of eight children of a bankrupt builder in the Forest of Dean whose musical talent, spotted and nurtured by the local landed gentry, turned out to be musical genius; the articled pupil of a provincial cathedral organist who won a scholarship to study with Parry, Stanford and Wood at the Royal College of Music, and picked up most of that institution’s glittering prizes along the way; the promising young composer of chamber music, orchestral works and songs whose fluency was admired, whose handwriting was even envied and emulated, and of whom greatness was expected. At the beginning of the 1920s it seemed as if Howells was one of the golden boys of English music, destined to rank as one of this country’s leading composers, to be mentioned alongside Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Delius. Yet by the end of the 1930s all this promise seemed to have fizzled out. The great works were not flowing from Howells’ pen and he was beginning to be esteemed more as a teacher than as a creative artist.
Move forward to our own day, and it is not so much the earlier instrumental and orchestral music that we associate with Howells (though many of those early works have been revived to acclaim), but the extraordinary outpouring of church music that dominated his output after the Second World War, and on which his considerable reputation largely rests. As you would expect, there is a whole complex of reasons for this. Hyper-sensitivity to criticism was certainly part of it, as was Howells’ disinclination to promote his own music. Personal tragedy also played a part—the death of his son Michael from polio in 1935 was something that he never came to terms with—and so too did a fear of financial insecurity. His father’s bankruptcy and the social exclusion that resulted, together with a life-threatening illness in 1917 that forced Howells to give up his first job as sub-organist of Salisbury Cathedral (and the salary that went with it) were among the factors that made him reluctant to relinquish the teaching appointment at the Royal College of Music that he held well into his eighties, or to decline requests to examine or adjudicate. All of this activity paid the bills, but it left him with precious little time for composition.
But creative genius cannot be totally blocked or suppressed and perhaps it is not so surprising that in the end Howells’ creativity was channelled into church music. His potential in this area had been spotted early on in his career. Eric Milner-White, Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, and one of the Church of England’s more visionary priests, heard an early performance of A Spotless Rose in the college chapel in 1920 and immediately wrote to Howells to encourage him to do more for the liturgy of the Church of England. It was Milner-White again who, twenty-five years later, sowed the seed of an idea that bore fruit in the Collegium Regale settings made specially for King’s in the 1940s.
In the meantime, Howells had rediscovered the organ loft. During the Second World War he was acting organist of St John’s College, Cambridge, deputizing for Robin Orr who was on active service with the RAF, and he entered fully into the musical life both of the chapel and of the college. Howells’ relationship with St John’s was to last to the end of his life. Here he discovered that there was a need and a desire for new music in the Anglican liturgy, music of the highest quality that only someone of his ability could write, and music that would be sought after, welcomed and performed. Thus began the body of work for which Howells is best known and which is justly celebrated. But although the last thirty years of his working life saw him compose more than twenty settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, several Te Deums, communion settings and many anthems, it is on the frequent performance of a relatively small proportion of that total output that his reputation rests. It is in fact mainly the earlier music of the 1940s and ’50s, music that includes the Collegium Regale, Gloucester and St Paul’s settings, and the Four Anthems (including ‘Like as the hart’) that people think of when they think of Howells. These are the pieces that are regularly sung in cathedrals and college chapels. Relatively little of the music written in the 1960s and ’70s has achieved a place in the regular repertoire. Much of this may well be due to the music’s difficulty and the demands it places on tight rehearsal schedules. This recording focuses particularly on the music of these later years and shows that, for all its trickiness of execution, it amply justifies a place in the repertoire.
It has been said that Howells’ church music appeals to those who prefer incense to sermons. In other words, it has the power to express or stimulate a depth and richness of spiritual experience that go far beyond the capacity of mere words or rational thought, although the rich language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible is at the heart of its inspiration. This music lifts the worshipper to heightened levels of mystical experience and, for the believer, it expresses something of the unfathomable mystery and beauty of God. But equally, it can be spiritually uplifting for those who have no use at all for the idea of God, and that is testimony to its mystical power. Howells’ is a unique and distinctive voice in church music. For all his years of teaching, he founded no school and has no successors (though he has had his imitators). The church and the musical world at large neglect music of this quality at their peril.
The Jubilate Deo—for the Chapel Royal (St Peter ad Vincula), H M Tower of London—is a setting of Psalm 100 (O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands). It was composed in 1967 for the distinguished organist and choirmaster John Williams and his choir at the splendid Tudor Chapel in the Tower of London. The psalm is a song of unrestrained joy, and all that is required of a composer is to rise to the mood of celebration. What is required of a really great composer, of course, is to avoid producing a work that merely shouts its head off in a series of musical clichés. Within the compass of this short work, Howells masterfully varies tonality and texture, building tension through the use of pedal points. The organ makes its own contribution in music that is joyful and extrovert. The pace broadens out slightly for the dramatic entry of the trebles on a high G flat at the opening of the Gloria, and the tension is maintained to the joyful conclusion.
Taking words from Robert Bridges’ own Yattendon Hymnal of 1930, Thee will I love was Howells’ response to a commission for a work to commemorate the 1100th anniversary of the massacre of the monks of the Abbey of Medehamstede in 870ad. At the dissolution of the monasteries, the Abbey became Peterborough Cathedral, and this motet was composed for a Solemn Requiem, sung in the Cathedral on 9 November 1970 by the Cathedral Choir under its director, Stanley Vann. The setting makes much use of the opening four-note quaver motif in various guises, and with an extraordinary variety of harmonic colouring, expressing much of the devotional quality of the words, but also alluding perhaps in harmonic ambiguity and dissonance, to the anguish of the event being commemorated.
The Winchester Service was composed in 1967. The centuries-old Three Choirs Festival of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford Cathedrals was an annual highlight of Howells’ musical world in his early years as an articled pupil of Herbert Brewer, organist at Gloucester. The founding of the Southern Cathedrals Festival in the second half of the twentieth century mirrors that older-established event in bringing together three cathedral choirs—those of Salisbury, Chichester and Winchester. Howells composed settings of the evensong canticles for each of these choirs in 1966 and 1967, the Winchester set being the last of the three. None of the three Southern settings has become established in the cathedral repertoire in the way that the earlier Collegium Regale, Gloucester and St Paul’s services have, yet all three have their unique characteristics. In the case of the Winchester set this includes an indebtedness to the influence of plainsong. The opening of the Magnificat is a long passage for trebles in whose melismas there is something of an echo of medieval chant. The alternating thirds and fourths in the melody seem to hark back to a much earlier style, and this establishes the mood for the whole work. The opening of the Nunc dimittis picks up the triplet rhythm, heard at the start of the Magnificat, and the trebles’ first phrase picks out the notes of a plainsong psalm tone. Howells is not being self-consciously archaic here; there is also the expected chromatic sophistication, such a trademark of this composer. The startling final cadences are vintage Howells: the Magnificat’s A major is approached by way of B flat minor, whereas the same route in the Nunc dimittis culminates in a fortissimo C major.
Howells composed four Rhapsodies for organ. The first three were all written during the First World War between 1915 and 1917, and published together as Op 17. Howells did not return to the form until 1958 for Rhapsody No 4. In the meantime his music for organ had included the monumental Sonata of 1932 and the Six Pieces of 1939–45. Although the title ‘Rhapsody’ suggests free form, all four of Howells’ examples are cast in the same extended ternary structure with a contrasting reflective middle section, framed by dramatic openings and endings. The difference in Rhapsody No 4 is that all the music is tense and nervous, much more extrovert than hitherto and full of short bursts of energy.
Richard O Latham was a distinguished organ teacher at the Royal College of Music, a choir director of some repute and a very close friend and colleague of Howells. In the latter part of his life Howells turned to writing more for unaccompanied choir, and his sublime 1972 setting Come, my soul, to words by the eighteenth-century hymn writer John Newton, was composed for and dedicated to Latham ‘in affection’. Newton’s words urge the ‘soul’ to prepare itself to meet Jesus; Howells lifts the soul with the impressionist harmonies of the motet’s opening invitation to approach the throne of God. This is a positive response to a supremely optimistic text, yet ends shrouded in mystery as the soul begs Christ to ‘Lead me to my journey’s end’. Perhaps Howells, already eighty years old, was thinking about his own journey’s end, but he still had another decade to live. Latham responded to the musical gift by writing that ‘in years to come I shall be remembered as the man for whom Herbert Howells wrote his loveliest motet’.
When the great church of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, planned a service of thanksgiving in October 1965 to mark the completion of major restoration work, Howells was commissioned to write a Te Deum. This setting makes no concessions at all to amateur voices, and the choir that gave the first performance with its organist, Garth Benson, was augmented by singers from Bristol Cathedral. The writing is chromatic, harmonically complex and on a big scale, the tone for the whole work set by its arresting and dramatic opening. The tessitura is extremely wide for all the voice parts. The organ part, too, demands an exceptional player, no doubt written with Benson in mind.
Inscribed on a tablet set into the face of the ruined tower of Coventry’s old cathedral, reduced to a burnt-out shell in the German bombing of the city during the night of 14 November 1940, are verses from the Old Testament prophecy of Haggai: ‘The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former, saith the Lord of hosts: and in this place will I give peace …’ In the Coventry Antiphon, composed on Christmas Day 1961 for the service of dedication of Basil Spence’s new cathedral in May 1962, Howells frames these words with a verse from Isaiah 56: ‘My house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.’
The celebratory organ piece A Flourish for a Bidding was composed in aid of the Royal College of Organists in 1969 and the manuscript was auctioned (hence the ‘Bidding’ of the title). George Thalben-Ball gave its first performance at the RCO and the manuscript was bought by Novello for £21. This piece is in Howells’ later organ style, with short declamatory phrases and much sparer writing than in his early organ music.
Towards the end of Howells’ composing career, in the early 1970s, Sir David Willcocks suggested that he might write some unaccompanied music for the Bach Choir. Howells responded by going to the seventeenth-century poet and divine George Herbert, and two pieces—Sweetest of sweets and Antiphon, recorded here—were the result. They were first sung by the Bach Choir in 1977. Both of these motets are written in Howells’ most advanced harmonic idiom, characterized by sinuously interweaving chromatic vocal lines that come together in exquisitely complex and dissonant harmonies, yet without ever losing the sure sense that Howells always has of the music’s forward momentum, and often coalescing in surprising common chords. The affirming praise of Antiphon (‘Let all the world in every corner sing’) is all declamation and vigour, the voices ringing out bright fanfares and roulades. The central section provides a brief contrast (and a surprising quiet G major chord) before the fanfares propel us once more to the music’s ecstatic culmination marked fff.
The catalyst for The fear of the Lord, a setting of words from Ecclesiasticus, one of the apocryphal books of the Bible, seems to have been a service of choral evensong in the chapel of Clare College, Cambridge, on 23 May 1976, when the music sung by the choir under its director John Rutter was exclusively by Howells. The composer attended and afterwards noted in his diary his delight at a ‘wonderful evensong’. This occasion clearly sparked a desire to write music specifically for the choir that had so impressed him, because a few days later, on 6 June, he wrote in his diary that he ‘began anthem for Clare College’. The fear of the Lord was completed by mid-September and was sung for the first time in the College Chapel on 30 October. Howells’ late choral style—fearsome on the page, but perhaps less so in performance—is much in evidence here too. The optimism and hope expressed in this valedictory text seems to have inspired a man who in a long life had suffered the death of those closest to him, and was now perhaps anticipating his own ‘happy end’.
In 1974, Howells was commissioned to write the anthem Exultate Deo for the enthronement service of the new Bishop of Lincoln, the Right Reverend Simon Wilton Phipps. It was first sung on that occasion on 18 January 1975 in Lincoln Cathedral. The text is a cento, compiled from various different sources, in this case verses drawn from a number of different psalms. It is a setting of exultant praise, as befits the occasion for which it was written.
Paul Andrews © 2011