The Winchester Service was composed in 1967. The centuries-old Three Choirs Festival of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford Cathedrals was an annual highlight of Howells’ musical world in his early years as an articled pupil of Herbert Brewer, organist at Gloucester. The founding of the Southern Cathedrals Festival in the second half of the twentieth century mirrors that older-established event in bringing together three cathedral choirs—those of Salisbury, Chichester and Winchester. Howells composed settings of the evensong canticles for each of these choirs in 1966 and 1967, the Winchester set being the last of the three. None of the three Southern settings has become established in the cathedral repertoire in the way that the earlier Collegium Regale
, Gloucester and St Paul’s services have, yet all three have their unique characteristics. In the case of the Winchester set this includes an indebtedness to the influence of plainsong. The opening of the Magnificat is a long passage for trebles in whose melismas there is something of an echo of medieval chant. The alternating thirds and fourths in the melody seem to hark back to a much earlier style, and this establishes the mood for the whole work. The opening of the Nunc dimittis picks up the triplet rhythm, heard at the start of the Magnificat, and the trebles’ first phrase picks out the notes of a plainsong psalm tone. Howells is not being self-consciously archaic here; there is also the expected chromatic sophistication, such a trademark of this composer. The startling final cadences are vintage Howells: the Magnificat’s A major is approached by way of B flat minor, whereas the same route in the Nunc dimittis culminates in a fortissimo C major.
from notes by Paul Andrews © 2011