Herbert Howells was possibly one of the most self-effacing composers of the century, seemingly content to devote his energy to encouraging others through his teaching, in particular at the Royal College of Music and St Paul’s Girls’ School, rather than to promoting his own composing career. And yet he developed a style and language which are intensely personal and immediately identifiable. Although he spent only a short part of his working life as an organist he left a substantial body of music for the instrument, including two sets of Psalm-Preludes, four Rhapsodies and two Sonatas. Siciliano for a High Ceremony
was written in 1953 and is one of his last works for the instrument. It has that lilting rhythm so typical of the old dance, but with three beats to the bar rather than the usual two or four. After a brief, harmonically enigmatic preamble the right hand plays a long-breathed melody marked to be played tenderly. This is immediately repeated with the addition of the pedals and subtle alterations in the harmony. From then on the piece takes off in a free-flowing rhapsodic way demonstrating Howells’ ability to spin seemingly endless melody from a few telling shapes. The most curious thing about this piece is that the high ceremony of the title was a wedding, possibly of an old flame, in St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Clearly the composer felt the need to concentrate on the serious aspect of the occasion, rather than provide a piece of musical confetti. In any case, this is one of the composer’s most gravely beautiful and expressive works.
from notes by Stephen Westrop © 2000