Requiem aeternam I [3'45]
Requiem aeternam II [3'37]
Herbert Howells was acutely sensitive to the transience of life, having witnessed the loss of friends and contemporaries in the First World War and encountered deep personal tragedy when his son Michael died of polio at the age of just nine. And so a mood of elegiac yearning inhabits much of his choral music: the austere, lovely a cappella Requiem, and the elegant Take him, earth, for cherishing, commissioned to commemorate the death of President John F Kennedy, here lovingly performed by the young voices of Trinity College Choir, Cambridge, in Hyperion’s Record of the Month for April 2012.
And yet Howells could write magnificently thrilling music too, as demonstrated by the fresh brilliance of A Hymn for St Cecilia, the spine-tingling grandeur of the St Paul’s Service, or the life-affirming hymn ‘All my hope on God is founded’, here further sweetened with a descant by John Rutter.
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The music of Herbert Howells (1892–1983) is often associated with transience and loss. The elegiac strain in English music of the twentieth century is not confined to Howells; it is to be found in different ways in the music of Delius, Finzi, Gurney and Vaughan Williams, to name but a few. But Howells seems to have had a particularly acute sense of the impermanence, the brevity and fragility of life. That this arose out of experience from a very early age is beyond doubt. The bankruptcy of his father, a small town jobbing builder in rural Gloucestershire, and the family’s consequent loss of prestige, friends and social standing, was a formative experience. It led to a lifelong anxiety about money and income, which was one of the reasons why Howells never relinquished his teaching post at the Royal College of Music and hardly ever turned down a request to examine or adjudicate at music festivals to risk earning his living by composition alone.
As a student in London he lost friends and contemporaries to the carnage of the First World War. His Elegy for viola, string quartet and string orchestra, perhaps the first of his works composed explicitly as a memorial, was written in memory of Francis Purcell Warren, a viola player killed on 3 July 1916. One of his closest boyhood friends, Ivor Gurney, whose inherent mental instability was almost certainly exacerbated by his experiences in the trenches, was a later, longer drawn-out loss. Howells himself was exempt from military service on medical grounds due to the onset of Graves Disease, a condition that forced him to give up his first salaried position as sub-organist of Salisbury Cathedral (with a loss of income and independence) and for a time threatened his life—the ultimate loss.
The loss of income, security, employment, and of friends in the trenches, was not unique to Howells. Many suffered such setbacks and came to terms with them. But the loss of a child is always uniquely poignant and tragic. The death from polio in 1935 of his nine year-old son Michael was, needless to say, the most traumatic and devastating of Howells’ personal experiences. It is natural enough to expect a deeply personal loss of this nature to be reflected in any artist’s work. On Howells, with his already deeply embedded sense of the elegiac and transient, Michael’s death had a profound effect. It is arguable that everything he subsequently wrote was coloured in some way by it. Three of the works recorded here, including the substantial Requiem for unaccompanied voices, are connected in some way to Michael. None of the remaining pieces was specifically composed as a memorial, but everything on this disc comes from a mind that constantly reflected on the passing pageant of life, and is coloured by that process of reflection.
A Hymn for St Cecilia is a beautifully crafted occasional setting. Howells was an active member of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, one of the Livery Companies of the City of London with a history dating back to the middle of the fourteenth century. Once a powerful professional organization with complete control over musical performance in the City, the Company has long been a philanthropic and ceremonial organization and now supports musicians and musical education, awarding prizes, scholarships and medals. Howells was Master of the Company in 1959–60, and this tribute to the patron saint of musicians was commissioned by the Company in 1960. It was first sung in St Paul’s Cathedral on 22 November 1961 at an evensong to mark St Cecilia’s day. The text is a poem specially written by Ursula Vaughan Williams. She wrote: ‘My St Cecilia is a girl in one of those magical gardens from Pompeian frescoes, a romantic figure among colonnades and fountains; Herbert’s tune takes her briskly towards martyrdom.’ Howells’ tune is one of his most memorable. The descant to the third verse was a happy afterthought. Added at the request of John Dykes-Bower, the cathedral organist, it lifts this simple setting onto a higher plane.
Salve regina comes from a much earlier period of Howells’ life, and is partly inspired by his student exposure to church music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. One of the most influential and important figures in the early twentieth-century revival of this music was Richard Terry, who transcribed, edited and performed much of this music with his choir at the newly built Westminster Roman Catholic Cathedral. Stanford, Howells’ composition teacher at the Royal College of Music, was in the habit of recommending that his pupils go to Westminster to hear ‘Palestrina for tuppence’ (the cost of the bus fare). It was through Stanford and Terry that Howells’ Mass in the Dorian Mode, a student work of 1912, was sung at the cathedral—his very first professional performance. Terry was impressed with Howells’ work and requests for more liturgical pieces followed. Four Anthems to the Blessed Virgin Mary were composed in the space of one week and sung at Easter 1916 in the cathedral. The manuscripts are now lost and only two anthems survive (Regina caeli and Salve regina) in transcripts made by members of the cathedral choir.
The music of the Salve regina has moved away from the style of Palestrina that Howells was required to parody in the Mass, and the language is more personal without giving much indication of the complexity of Howells’ mature idiom that we hear in the other works on this disc. Perhaps he had been looking at the unaccompanied motets of Bruckner (or even Stanford), as well as Terry’s transcriptions of Tallis and Byrd. Writing in the Westminster Cathedral Chronicle in 1922, Terry described Howells’ Four Anthems as ‘… quite the finest by any modern Englishman’.
The Gloucester Service is an early fruit of the wonderful and rather extraordinary outpouring of music for the Anglican cathedral tradition with which Howells revived his flagging career as a composer after the Second World War. Over three decades Howells composed some twenty settings of the evensong canticles. The set for Gloucester Cathedral was one of the first, written as his mother lay dying in his home town of Lydney in 1946. His diary entry for 6 January reads: ‘A lovely day with Mother. F# Magn. and N. Dim. finished while talking to her.’ She died three weeks later. Although the dedication is to Gloucester Cathedral, it was not composed to fulfil a commission, but in the wake of the success of the Collegium Regale set, written for King’s College, Cambridge in 1945. In 1950, Eric Milner-White, the visionary former dean of King’s who had encouraged Howells to compose for the church, wrote of having heard the Gloucester canticles twice in ten days at York Minster: ‘The Nunc Dimittis left me in inward tears for the rest of the day; it is true to say that no piece of music has ever moved me in the same way or so much. At that first hearing, the Magnificat interested rather than moved me—though the Gloria I think tuned my spirit for the Nunc Dimittis. On the second hearing the Magnificat produced the same effect upon me as the N[unc] D[imittis] at the first; and the N. D. even increased its power. We, not I only, found it overwhelming. […] I personally feel that you have opened a new chapter in church music. [It is] of spiritual moment rather than liturgical. It is so much more than music making; it is experiencing deep things in the only medium that can do it.’
In his own sleeve note to the 1967 recording by King’s College Choir of Take him, earth, for cherishing Howells wrote: ‘Within the year following the tragic death of President Kennedy in Texas plans were made for a dual American-Canadian Memorial Service to be held in Washington. I was asked to compose an a cappella work for the commemoration. The text was mine to choose, Biblical or other. Choice was settled when I recalled a poem by Prudentius (AD 348–413). I had already set it in its medieval Latin years earlier, as a study for Hymnus Paradisi. But now I used none of that unpublished setting. Instead I turned to Helen Waddell’s faultless translation […] Here was the perfect text—the Prudentius ‘Hymnus circa exsequias defuncti’.’
So far, so objective, but this cool, elegant account scarcely begins to probe Howells’ long relationship with a text that was intimately bound up with the life and death of his son, Michael. Howells’ setting of the Latin, dating from around 1932, is an incomplete fragment. When, after a period in which he found himself unable to work following Michael’s death in 1935, Howells was moved to compose a work in the boy’s memory, he drew on an existing Requiem for unaccompanied voices (see below) in planning what was to become his masterpiece, Hymnus Paradisi. He intended that it should include a setting of Prudentius’ words of mourning and consolation until a very late stage in the process of composition, but in the end they did not find a place in Hymnus. Nevertheless, this text was often in his mind. In May 1958 he wrote in his diary: ‘Rain and Gloom. But the rain turned away with a sheer beauty of light. Prudentius’ ‘Hymnus Circa Exsequias Defuncti’ kept my mind in safe refuge—as once it did in Sept. 1935 for love of Michael.’
Thoughts of his son’s death were never far away and these beautiful words were there waiting to be set. Is it too fanciful to suggest that in responding to the shock that the whole world felt at the assassination of John Kennedy, a young man in whom much hope for the future had been invested, Howells found the motivation for what must surely be another memorial for Michael?
The St Paul’s Service is one of Howells’ most celebrated settings of texts that he returned to time and again. Fashioned specially for a building with a spectacular acoustic, consequently employing a less rapidly changing harmonic rhythm than would be possible in a less resonant building, this is a work in which Howells seems at his most confident and optimistic. It is the biggest boned, the most expansive of all his treatments and justifies its reputation as one of the best of his settings for the Anglican liturgy. The Magnificat sets off sturdily, without introduction, and never looks back, surging forward with just an easing of the pace at the beautiful ‘He remembering His mercy’. The Nunc dimittis, though quiet, is also expansive, building slowly and majestically to its climax. The Glorias in both canticles sweep all before them and make a big feature out of Howells’ characteristic use of the ‘Lydian’ fourth, stretching the tonality before pulling it back to the tonic to almost cataclysmic effect.
Not released for publication until 1980, the Requiem for unaccompanied voices, an exquisite and deeply personal expression of loss in which appears much of the material that was eventually to be expanded and reworked into Hymnus Paradisi, was initially thought to be a first draft of that work, composed soon after Michael Howells’ death in 1935. However, the researches of Howells’ biographer Christopher Palmer soon revealed that the Requiem was in fact composed in 1932, some three years before Michael died, and was modelled on a little-known work, A short Requiem in D major composed in 1915 by Walford Davies, one of Howells’ earliest teachers at the Royal College of Music, in memory of those killed in the war. Howells drew on this work first of all for its selection and ordering of texts, which he adopted almost without change. The only difference is that Davies set Psalm 130 where Howells has Psalm 23. It is an unconventional and original structure drawing on the Burial Service in the Book of Common Prayer, the Latin Requiem Mass, and the Psalms. But Davies’ work was more than just a template for the words. The musical structure of both works is very similar. Both composers set ‘Salvator mundi’, ‘Requiem aeternam (I) and (II)’ and ‘Audi vocem’ (‘I heard a voice from heaven’) in a more extended and complex way than the Psalms, which Davies sets to Anglican chants of his own composing, and Howells to simpler, more syllabic music. Similarities also extend to the structure of phrases and verbal rhythm, most markedly in ‘I heard a voice from heaven’, where the rhythm of Howells’s opening tenor solo matches almost exactly that of Davies’ baritone in ‘Audi vocem’. But these similarities are of course superficial. Howells may have had Walford Davies’ work in front of him as he planned his own Requiem, but Davies’ workmanlike music is transmuted into pure Howellsian gold. This is a wonderful, heart-aching work of searing beauty. It may not have been written as a direct response to personal loss, but it is scarcely surprising that it was to this work that Howells returned just a few years later to find both the structure and much of the musical material he needed to make his own response to the deepest, most profound loss of his life.
All the world knows and sings the great hymn All my hope on God is founded. All the world knows too that the tune is named ‘Michael’. Less well known is that, like the Requiem, it is not a direct response to Michael’s death, although Howells published it in his son’s memory.
In a broadcast to mark his ninetieth birthday in 1982, Howells recounted how he received the words of this hymn by Robert Bridges in the post one morning whilst in the middle of breakfast. Almost immediately a tune suggested itself to him and the hymn was apparently composed on the spot (in the composer’s words) ‘while I was chewing bacon and sausage’. The words had been sent by his friend T P Fielden, director of music at Charterhouse, and the hymn, composed in 1930, was originally called simply A Hymn Tune for Charterhouse, where it was regularly sung. Fielden was one of the editors of The Clarendon Hymn Book, and when that book was published in 1936, the year after Michael’s death, it included Howells’ hymn, now christened ‘Michael’, in his memory. The descant to the final verse on this recording is by John Rutter.
Paul Andrews © 2012