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All through my life I’ve had this strange feeling that I belonged somehow to the Tudor period not only musically but in every way. Ralph Vaughan Williams even had a theory that I was the reincarnation of one of the lesser Tudor luminaries.
Thus Herbert Howells nailed his colours firmly to the mast and at the same time explained the raison d’être of the music on this disc.
For Howells, the process of discovery of the music of the Tudor period was one of natural evolution. Events seemed to put him in the right place at the right time. His early days as articled pupil to Sir Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral brought him into contact with it in the perfect surroundings of that great building very early in his creative life. The real watershed, however, the moment of revelation, as he felt it to be, was the first performance of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Tallis Fantasia’ in September 1910 at the Three Choirs Meeting at Gloucester. Nothing like this work had ever been heard before. For Howells it was a moment of seminal importance. As he said to Christopher Palmer, ‘It was after then that I felt I really knew myself, both as a man and artist. It all seemed so incredibly new at the time, but I soon came to realize how very, very old it actually was, how I’d been living that music since long before I could even begin to remember.’
Having won a composition scholarship to the Royal College of Music, Howells was straightaway packed off to Westminster Cathedral by Stanford, his revered teacher, to hear R R Terry’s pioneering performances of Italian Renaissance and Tudor church music sung by the fine choir there. The effect on Howells was instantaneous. Within weeks he had written his Mass in the Dorian Mode for Terry, which became his first professionally performed work. The Mass shows just how quickly Howells had absorbed the style of this earlier age into his own language. He achieved this without resorting to pastiche, however, and this is what also marks out the clavichord music recorded here. Howells absorbed his influences thoroughly and passionately. His own response, however, was always to recreate the spirit of the earlier age whilst remaining true both to himself and to his time.
The three collections on this disc date from different periods of his life. Lambert’s Clavichord was written in 1927, and the two books of Howells’ Clavichord date from 1941 and 1961 respectively. The common thread between them is twofold: the recreation of the spirit of the Tudor keyboard dance pieces, à la Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (right down to the titles), and the immortalizing of many friends and colleagues through the dedication of each piece to a different person. Only revered and beloved RVW is honoured with a pair of pieces (a ‘Pavane’ and a ‘Galliard’). The wonderful thing, also, is the gentle absorption into Howells’ pieces of certain stylistic characteristics of the dedicatee’s music where he is a composer. Thus Finzi’s piece (‘Finzi’s Rest’, written the day following his untimely death in 1956) has a gently moving bass line so reminiscent of a number of Finzi’s most characteristic scores (Dies natalis, for instance), and Walton’s makes reference to his Coronation-style music, the march Crown Imperial in particular. Personality traits of the dedicatees also feature strongly in the manner (though not style) of Elgar’s ‘friends pictured within’ (‘Enigma’ Variations).
The inspiration for Lambert’s Clavichord came from the harpsichord- and clavichord-maker Herbert Lambert of Bath. Lambert was an unusual man who was also a highly gifted photographer, famous for photographing England’s leading musicians. Howells described him as having ‘a genius for photography, and for friendship. Also, he had the skill and passion to make harpsichords and clavichords, and did so, when he wasn’t photographing the famous people who delighted in being his subjects.’ Howells went on: ‘In the summer of 1927 he lent me a clavichord – an entrancing instrument. I gave up a holiday, remaining in London with it. The only way to thank Lambert was to write a work for him. So I did ‘Lambert’s Fireside’ – actually written by his own fireside on the hills outside Bath.’
Howells, writing a note for the BBC in 1940, went on to say that he had added eleven other pieces, each named after a friend.
So there came into the book ‘Fellowes’s Delight’ (for Dr E H Fellowes, the great madrigal authority), ‘Hughes’s Ballet’ (for the Irish composer-critic), ‘Samuel’s Air’ (for Harold Samuel, pianist), ‘De la Mare’s Pavane’ (for Walter de la Mare, the poet); ‘Sir Hugh’s Galliard’ concerns Sir Hugh Allen, Professor of Music in Oxford University; ‘Sargent’s Fantastic Sprite’ is for Dr Malcolm Sargent, conductor; and ‘Foss’s Dump’ for Hubert Foss of the Oxford Press. ‘My Lord Sandwich’s Dreame’ is for the Earl of Sandwich – poet as well as Peer of the Realm. H E Wortham (most famous now as ‘Peterborough’ of London’s Daily Telegraph) has ‘Wortham’s Grounde’; and ‘Sir Richard’s Toye’ was for Sir Richard Terry of Westminster Cathedral fame.
After Lambert’s early death his work was continued by Thomas Goff (the dedicatee of the later Howells’ Clavichord). Howells wished to commemorate Lambert’s life and work in a ‘garland’ of tributes consisting of a series of twelve pieces written by composers who had been photographed by him. All who were approached agreed, but in the event none put pen to paper. Howells therefore decided to write the whole collection himself.
Tributes following the composition of this work were many and fulsome. Walter de la Mare wrote that ‘it was a quite unexpected joy that awaited me inside the package’. John Gardner wrote of ‘De la Mare’s Pavane’ (always the most popular piece of the set): ‘I was absolutely spellbound by it & have had its stately, sad & tender first phrase running thro’ my head for the past hour. A gem if ever there was one, & proof t., granted the genius & skill, artificial rubies are a possibility!’
Sir Richard Terry writing in The Queen (7 November 1928) made the most searching observations when he wrote:
Sooner or later it was bound to come that some modern English composer would set himself or herself to write music for these resuscitated instruments of the past. The danger would have been considerable, had the first attempts been mere imitations of the old idiom.
Luckily the first attempt has been made by one whose creative musicianship cannot be called into question; whose sympathy with both the Tudor instruments and Tudor composers is undeniable, and above all it has been made by one who is content (out of the plenitude of his critical knowledge of Tudor music) to reproduce the spirit of the old music rather than to give us a mere reproduction of its mannerisms or a repetition of its cliches.
Mr Howells has absorbed all the wealth and variety of Tudor rhythms, but keeps his own individuality intact. His music is modern inasmuch as he uses chords and progressions unknown in Tudor times, but the spirit of the old composers is there all the while. In other words, he and his instruments are one.
Howells’ Clavichord has a rather different feel to it from the earlier publication. As the composer said: ‘This time it is really Goff’s Clavichord … In 1929 I had sat at Lambert’s fireside (in the Somerset hills), and thirty years later at Thomas Goff’s, in Chelsea.’ It would perhaps be natural that in that time Howells’ own ideas would have moved on – even in relation to his recreation of the spirit of the Tudors. He articulates this by saying, ‘I accepted the clavichord as a challenge, especially the challenge of its restricted compass of four octaves. Within that narrow range it seemed to me a compromise was possible, as between the natural clavichord language and that of the high-powered modern pianoforte. Thus, among twenty pieces comprising Howells’ Clavichord I have dared to (as it were) “raise my voice and kick my heels”.’
It is this ‘raising of the voice and kicking of the heels’ which emboldened the present performer to make the first complete recording of these works on a piano rather than a clavichord. The use of a medium-size grand and judicious use of the sustaining pedal show that the often complex and bittersweet harmonies can benefit from the greater tonal resources of the modern instrument, whilst the contrapuntal lines which are so integral a part of Howells’ style are not lost in a jangle of multiple strings and an over-resonant acoustic. There is, of course, still the case to be made via a recording using a clavichord, which would be a fascinating juxtaposition to this one.
The twenty pieces of Howells’ Clavichord took twenty years to reach their final form in one volume, and also went through a fascinating evolution during which pieces came and went, dedicatees changed, and some (such as Finzi) had more than one completely different version of their piece written.
The final list has the same mixture of household and less familiar names as Lambert’s Clavichord. Thus Book I features ‘Goff’s Fireside’ (Thomas Goff, clavichord-maker), ‘Patrick’s Siciliano’ (for Patrick Hadley, composer and Director of Music at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge), ‘Jacob’s Brawl’ (for Gordon Jacob, composer), ‘Dart’s Sarabande’ (for Thurston Dart, harpsichordist and Professor of Music at London University), ‘Arnold’s Antic’ (for Malcolm Arnold, composer), ‘Andrews’ Air’ (H K Andrews, organist of New College, Oxford), ‘Boult’s Brangill’ (for Sir Adrian Boult, conductor), ‘Rubbra’s Soliloquy’ (for Edmund Rubbra, composer), ‘Newman’s Flight’ (for Max Newman, FRS), and ‘Dyson’s Delight’ (for Sir George Dyson, composer and Director of the Royal College of Music).
Book II opens with ‘E B’s Fanfarando’ (for Sir Ernest Bullock, organist of Westminster Abbey) and continues with the pair of pieces for Ralph Vaughan Williams, ‘Ralph’s Pavane’ and ‘Ralph’s Galliard’. ‘Finzi’s Rest’ (subtitled ‘For Gerald, on the morrow of the 27th September, 1956’) is followed by ‘Berkeley’s Hunt’ (for Lennox Berkeley), ‘Malcolm’s Vision’ for George Malcolm (organist, harpsichordist, and one of Terry’s successors at Westminster Cathedral), ‘Bliss’s Ballet’ (for Sir Arthur Bliss), ‘Julian’s Dream’ (for Julian Bream – was the pun on the surname intentional?), ‘Jacques’s Mask’ (for Reginald Jacques, founder of The Jacques Orchestra), and finally ‘Walton’s Toye’ (for Sir William Walton).
Vaughan Williams, on receiving his pair of pieces from Howells, wrote on 8 March 1958:
Now the Passion is over [one of the Bach Passions with the London Bach Choir which he conducted] – though very tired I went through the clavichord pieces, or tried to: naturally I can’t play them, or always understand them, so you must come and play them to me. It is all nonsense to say you can’t! THANK you a thousand times for the ‘Pavane’ and ‘Galliard’. I love the ‘Pavane’ – I haven’t got hold of the ‘Galliard’ quite, yet, that is chiefly because I can’t play it, and as you know I can’t read music, so you simply must come and play them to me, and also the Mass and the beginning of the Concerto.
The range of colour and emotion in these wonderful little cameos shows Howells’ creative imagination at full stretch. It is almost as if one can tangibly sense the challenge he had set himself in addressing the limitations imposed by the clavichord. From the utter simplicity of ‘Goff’s Fireside’ he moves to one of his favourite dances, the siciliano. This one, for Patrick Hadley, is reminiscent of his Siciliano for a High Ceremony for organ and yet still in a different world from the opulence of the cathedral organ loft. ‘Jacob’s Brawl’ is one of the ‘kicking of the heels’ pieces, like those for Walton, Arnold, Bliss, Berkeley and Bullock. These pieces stand in complete contrast to the lighthearted numbers for Jacques, Dyson, Newman and Boult. The emotional hub of the cycle are the pieces for Finzi, Rubbra, George Malcolm and Vaughan Williams. Altogether, the two Clavichord works represent a remarkable and original achievement.
In Christopher Palmer’s book on Howells (H H: A Centenary Celebration) he reprints the text of a talk Howells gave for the BBC in the early ’60s about English keyboard music. Howells told of having tea with Bartók in the early ’40s during the course of which Bartók had played him some ‘exciting percussive pieces of his own. It was thrilling: a tornado of sound. He invited me to play to him anything I wished.’ The pieces he chose to play were in stark contrast: Giles Farnaby His Rest, a pavane by Byrd, and The Carman’s Whistle and Tower Hill. ‘Bartók listened,’ Howells said, ‘almost as subdued as the slender pieces themselves. He was impressed.’
Shut out the ‘crushingly noisy world’ of which Howells goes on to speak, and enter his world of the miniature in these exquisite pieces. The art of spanning the centuries has rarely been so convincingly achieved.
Paul Spicer © 1994