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

Albums

Howells: Choral Music
CDH55456Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Howells: Concertos & Dances
CDH55205Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Archive Service
Howells: Hymnus Paradisi & An English Mass
CDA66488Download currently discounted
Howells: In Gloucestershire; Dyson: Three Rhapsodies
CDA66139Archive Service
Howells: Lambert's Clavichord & Howells' Clavichord
CDH55152Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Howells: Music for violin and piano
CDH55139Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Howells: Psalm-Preludes & Rhapsodies
CDA66394Archive Service
Howells: Requiem & other choral works
CDA67914
Howells: Requiem; Vaughan Williams: Mass in G minor
CDH55220Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Howells: St Paul's Service & other works
CDA66260Archive Service
Howells: The Winchester Service & other late works
CDA67853
Hymns to Saint Cecilia
Studio Master: CDA68047NEWStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
A Christmas Present from Polyphony
NOEL2Super-budget price sampler — Download only
A Song of Farewell
Studio Master: SIGCD281Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Adeste fideles
CDA66668
Bach Arrangements
CDA67309
Bach: Piano Transcriptions, Vol. 9 – A Bach Book for Harriet Cohen
CDA67767
Christmas at St John's Cambridge
CDA67576
Clarinet Quintets
CDH55105Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Dyson: Three Rhapsodies; Howells: In Gloucestershire
CDA66139Archive Service
English Choral and Organ Music
CDH55009Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Archive Service
English Music for Clarinet
CDD220272CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1)
English Orchestral Songs
CDA67065Archive Service
Epiphany at St Paul's
CDH55443Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Incarnation
SIGCD346Download only
Journey into light – Music for Advent & Christmas
Studio Master: SIGCD269Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Music for oboe
CDH55008Helios (Hyperion's budget label) — Archive Service
Music for Remembrance
Studio Master: CDA68020Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
My spirit hath rejoiced
CDH55402Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
O magnum misterium
CDA66925Archive Service
On this Island
CDA67227Archive Service
Organ Dreams, Vol. 2
CDA67146
Organ Dreams, Vol. 3
CDA67317Archive ServiceDownload currently discounted
Parry: Songs of Farewell
Studio Master: SIGCD267Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Psalms from St Paul's, Vol. 3 30-40
CDP11003Archive Service; also available on CDS44101/12
Rejoice, the Lord is king!
Studio Master: CDA68013Best of 2014Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Songs to Shakespeare
CDA66480Archive Service
The English Anthem, Vol. 4
CDA66678Archive Service
The English Anthem, Vol. 7
CDA67087
The English Hymn, Vol. 1 – Christ Triumphant
CDP12101
The Feast of Michaelmas at Westminster Abbey
CDA67643
The Music of St Paul's Cathedral
SPCC2000Super-budget price sampler
The Psalms of David
CDS44101/1212CDs Boxed set (at a special price)
Trinity Sunday at Westminster Abbey
CDA67557
Vaughan Williams: Mass in G minor; Howells: Requiem
CDH55220Helios (Hyperion's budget label)
Bax: Choral Music
A66092Archive Service (LP transfer)This album is not available for download
English Cathedral Music of the 20th Century
A66018Archive Service (LP transfer)This album is not available for download

Complete works available for download

A Flourish for a BiddingSimon Bell (organ)
A Hymn for St CeciliaWells Cathedral Choir, Malcolm Archer (conductor), Rupert Gough (organ)
A Hymn for St CeciliaTrinity College Choir Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor), Simon Bland (organ)
A Hymn for St CeciliaRoyal Holloway Choir, Rupert Gough (conductor), William Mason (organ) NEW
A Hymn for St CeciliaSt Paul's Cathedral Choir, John Scott (conductor), Andrew Lucas (organ)
A Sequence for St MichaelWells Cathedral Choir, Malcolm Archer (conductor), Rupert Gough (organ)
A Sequence for St MichaelWestminster Abbey Choir, James O'Donnell (conductor), Robert Quinney (organ)
An English MassRoyal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley (conductor)
AntiphonWinchester Cathedral Choir, Andrew Lumsden (conductor)
Behold, O God our defenderSt Paul's Cathedral Choir, John Scott (conductor), Christopher Dearnley (organ)
Collegium Regale 'King's College Cambridge Service'St Paul's Cathedral Choir, John Scott (conductor), Christopher Dearnley (organ)
Collegium Regale 'King's College Cambridge Service'Wells Cathedral Choir, Malcolm Archer (conductor), Rupert Gough (organ)
Come, my soulWinchester Cathedral Choir, Andrew Lumsden (conductor), William Kendall (tenor)
Concerto for string orchestraRoyal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley (conductor)
Coventry AntiphonWinchester Cathedral Choir, Andrew Lumsden (conductor)
Cradle song, Op 9 No 1Paul Barritt (violin), Catherine Edwards (piano)
Exultate DeoWinchester Cathedral Choir, Andrew Lumsden (conductor)
Gloucester ServiceSt Paul's Cathedral Choir, John Scott (conductor), Christopher Dearnley (organ)
Gloucester ServiceTrinity College Choir Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor), Jeremy Cole (organ)
Hymnus ParadisiRoyal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, Vernon Handley (conductor)
I love all beauteous thingsWells Cathedral Choir, Malcolm Archer (conductor), Rupert Gough (organ)
InheritanceThe Donald Hunt Singers, Donald Hunt (conductor)
Jubilate Deo 'St Peter ad Vincula'Winchester Cathedral Choir, Andrew Lumsden (conductor)
King DavidLynne Dawson (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Lambert's Clavichord, Op 41John McCabe (piano)
Long, long agoCopenhagen Royal Chapel Choristers, Gabrieli Consort, Paul McCreesh (conductor)
MichaelWestminster Abbey Choir, James O'Donnell (conductor), Robert Quinney (organ)
MichaelWells Cathedral Choir, Malcolm Archer (conductor), Rupert Gough (organ)
MichaelTrinity College Choir Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor), Jeremy Cole (organ)
New College ServiceWells Cathedral Choir, Malcolm Archer (conductor), Rupert Gough (organ)
Piano Concerto No 2 in C minorKathryn Stott (piano), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley (conductor)
Psalm 37 'Noli aemulari'St Paul's Cathedral Choir, John Scott (conductor), Andrew Lucas (organ)
Psalm-Preludes Set 1, Op 32Christopher Dearnley (organ)
Psalm-Preludes Set 2Christopher Dearnley (organ)
RequiemGabrieli Consort, Paul McCreesh (conductor)
RequiemCorydon Singers, Matthew Best (conductor)
RequiemTrinity College Choir Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Rhapsodic Quintet, Op 31Dame Thea King (clarinet), The Britten String Quartet
Rhapsody No 4Simon Bell (organ)
SalisburyWells Cathedral Choir, Malcolm Archer (conductor), Rupert Gough (organ)
Siciliano for a High CeremonyChristopher Herrick (organ)
Sonata for clarinet and pianoDame Thea King (clarinet), Clifford Benson (piano)
Sonata for oboe and pianoSarah Francis (oboe), Peter Dickinson (piano)
Sonata No 1 in E major, Op 18Paul Barritt (violin), Catherine Edwards (piano)
Sonata No 2 in E flat major, Op 26Paul Barritt (violin), Catherine Edwards (piano)
Sonata No 3 in E minor, Op 38Paul Barritt (violin), Catherine Edwards (piano)
St George's Windsor ServiceWells Cathedral Choir, Malcolm Archer (conductor), Rupert Gough (organ)
St Paul's ServiceSt Paul's Cathedral Choir, John Scott (conductor), Christopher Dearnley (organ)
St Paul's ServiceTrinity College Choir Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor), Simon Bland (organ)
String Quartet No 3 'In Gloucestershire'Divertimenti
Take him, earth, for cherishingTrinity College Choir Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Take him, earth, for cherishingWestminster Abbey Choir, James O'Donnell (conductor)
Take him, earth, for cherishingCorydon Singers, Matthew Best (conductor)
Take him, earth, for cherishingSt Paul's Cathedral Choir, John Scott (conductor), Christopher Dearnley (organ)
Take him, earth, for cherishingTenebrae, Nigel Short (conductor)
Te Deum 'St Mary Redcliffe'Winchester Cathedral Choir, Andrew Lumsden (conductor)
The fear of the LordWinchester Cathedral Choir, Andrew Lumsden (conductor)
The ScribeThe Donald Hunt Singers, Donald Hunt (conductor)
The Winchester ServiceWinchester Cathedral Choir, Andrew Lumsden (conductor)
Thee will I loveWinchester Cathedral Choir, Andrew Lumsden (conductor)
Three Carol-AnthemsPolyphony, Stephen Layton (conductor)
Three Carol-AnthemsWells Cathedral Choir, Malcolm Archer (conductor)
Three Dances for violin and orchestra, Op 7Malcolm Stewart (violin), Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Vernon Handley (conductor)
Three Pieces, Op 28Paul Barritt (violin), Catherine Edwards (piano)
Three Rhapsodies, Op 17Christopher Dearnley (organ)
Under the greenwood treeAnthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano)
Westminster ServiceWestminster Abbey Choir, James O'Donnell (conductor), Robert Quinney (organ)
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685-1750))
O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde gross, BWV622Angela Hewitt (piano)
O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde gross, BWV622Jonathan Plowright (piano)
IVOR GURNEY (1890-1937))
By a biersideChristopher Maltman (baritone), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
In FlandersChristopher Maltman (baritone), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Alphabetical listing of all musical works

A Flourish for a Bidding (Howells)
A Hymn for St Cecilia (Howells)
A Sequence for St Michael (Howells)
A Spotless Rose  
All my hope on God is founded  
All my hope on God is founded  
An English Mass (Howells)
Antiphon (Howells)
Behold, O God our defender (Howells)
Benedictus  
Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord  
By a bierside (Gurney/Howells)
Chosen Tune  
Collegium Regale 'King's College Cambridge Service' (Howells)
Come, my soul (Howells)
Concerto for string orchestra (Howells)
Coventry Antiphon (Howells)
Cradle song, Op 9 No 1 (Howells)
Exultate Deo (Howells)
Four Anthems (Howells)
Four Anthems to the Blessed Virgin Mary (Howells)
Fret not thyself because of the ungodly  
Glory be to God on high  
Gloucester Service (Howells)
Here is the little door  
Holy is the true light  
Holy Spirit, ever dwelling  
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts  
Howells' Clavichord (Howells)
Hymnus Paradisi (Howells)
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty  
I heard a voice from heaven  
I heard a voice from heaven  
I love all beauteous things (Howells)
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills  
I'm homesick for my hills again  
In Flanders (Gurney/Howells)
Inheritance (Howells)
Jubilate  
Jubilate Deo 'St Peter ad Vincula' (Howells)
King David (Howells)
Lambert's Clavichord, Op 41 (Howells)
Let all the world in every corner sing  
Lift up your hearts  
Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks  
Long, long ago (Howells)
Luchinushka  
Magnificat  
Magnificat  
Magnificat  
Magnificat  
Magnificat  
Master Tallis's Testament  
Michael (Howells)
Michael (Howells/Rutter)
Michael, Archangel, of the King of Kings  
My house shall be called an house of prayer for all people  
New College Service (Howells)
Nunc dimittis  
Nunc dimittis  
Nunc dimittis  
Nunc dimittis  
Nunc dimittis  
O lamb of God  
O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde gross, BWV622 (Bach/Howells)
O pray for the peace of Jerusalem  
O saviour of the world  
Pastorale  
Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor (Howells)
Psalm 121  
Psalm 23  
Psalm 37 'Noli aemulari' (Howells)
Psalm-Preludes Set 1, Op 32 (Howells)
Psalm-Preludes Set 2 (Howells)
Requiem (Howells)
Requiem aeternam  
Requiem aeternam I  
Requiem aeternam II  
Rhapsodic Quintet, Op 31 (Howells)
Rhapsody No 4 (Howells)
Salisbury (Howells)
Salvator mundi  
Salve regina  
Sanctus – I will lift up mine eyes  
Siciliano for a High Ceremony (Howells)
Sing for the morning's joy, Cecilia, sing  
Sing lullaby  
Sing we merrily unto God our strength  
Six Pieces for organ (Howells)
Sonata for clarinet and piano (Howells)
Sonata for oboe and piano (Howells)
Sonata No 1 in E major, Op 18 (Howells)
Sonata No 2 in E flat major, Op 26 (Howells)
Sonata No 3 in E minor, Op 38 (Howells)
St George's Windsor Service (Howells)
St Paul's Service (Howells)
String Quartet No 3 'In Gloucestershire' (Howells)
Take him, earth, for cherishing (Howells)
Te Deum  
Te Deum  
Te Deum 'St Mary Redcliffe' (Howells)
The fear of the Lord (Howells)
The Lord is my shepherd  
The Lord is my shepherd  
The Scribe (Howells)
The summer is coming (Howells)
The Winchester Service (Howells)
Thee will I love (Howells)
This is a sacred city, built of marvellous earth  
Three Carol-Anthems (Howells)
Three Dances for violin and orchestra, Op 7 (Howells)
Three Pieces, Op 28 (Howells)
Three Rhapsodies, Op 17 (Howells)
Under the greenwood tree (Howells)
Westminster Service (Howells)