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|Trinity College Choir Cambridge, Stephen Layton (conductor)|
|St Paul's Cathedral Choir, John Scott (conductor), Christopher Dearnley (organ)|
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 But now I used none of that unpublished setting.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 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?
from notes by Paul Andrews © 2012
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