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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.
from notes by Paul Spicer © 1994
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