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Howells, Herbert (1892-1983)

Herbert Howells

born: 17 October 1892
died: 24 February 1983
country: United Kingdom

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.

from notes by Paul Andrews © 2011

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