Towards the end of Howells’ composing career, in the early 1970s, Sir David Willcocks suggested that he might write some unaccompanied music for the Bach Choir. Howells responded by going to the seventeenth-century poet and divine George Herbert, and two pieces—Sweetest of sweets
and Antiphon—were the result. They were first sung by the Bach Choir in 1977. Both of these motets are written in Howells’ most advanced harmonic idiom, characterized by sinuously interweaving chromatic vocal lines that come together in exquisitely complex and dissonant harmonies, yet without ever losing the sure sense that Howells always has of the music’s forward momentum, and often coalescing in surprising common chords. The affirming praise of Antiphon
(‘Let all the world in every corner sing’) is all declamation and vigour, the voices ringing out bright fanfares and roulades. The central section provides a brief contrast (and a surprising quiet G major chord) before the fanfares propel us once more to the music’s ecstatic culmination marked fff.
from notes by Paul Andrews © 2011