Not released for publication until 1980, the Requiem
for unaccompanied voices, an exquisite and deeply personal expression of loss in which appears much of the material that was eventually to be expanded and reworked into Hymnus Paradisi
, was initially thought to be a first draft of that work, composed soon after Michael Howells’ death in 1935. However, the researches of Howells’ biographer Christopher Palmer soon revealed that the Requiem
was in fact composed in 1932, some three years before Michael died, and was modelled on a little-known work, A short Requiem
in D major composed in 1915 by Walford Davies, one of Howells’ earliest teachers at the Royal College of Music, in memory of those killed in the war. Howells drew on this work first of all for its selection and ordering of texts, which he adopted almost without change. The only difference is that Davies set Psalm 130 where Howells has Psalm 23. It is an unconventional and original structure drawing on the Burial Service in the Book of Common Prayer, the Latin Requiem Mass, and the Psalms. But Davies’ work was more than just a template for the words. The musical structure of both works is very similar. Both composers set ‘Salvator mundi’, ‘Requiem aeternam (I) and (II)’ and ‘Audi vocem’ (‘I heard a voice from heaven’) in a more extended and complex way than the Psalms, which Davies sets to Anglican chants of his own composing, and Howells to simpler, more syllabic music. Similarities also extend to the structure of phrases and verbal rhythm, most markedly in ‘I heard a voice from heaven’, where the rhythm of Howells’s opening tenor solo matches almost exactly that of Davies’ baritone in ‘Audi vocem’. But these similarities are of course superficial. Howells may have had Walford Davies’ work in front of him as he planned his own Requiem
, but Davies’ workmanlike music is transmuted into pure Howellsian gold. This is a wonderful, heart-aching work of searing beauty. It may not have been written as a direct response to personal loss, but it is scarcely surprising that it was to this work that Howells returned just a few years later to find both the structure and much of the musical material he needed to make his own response to the deepest, most profound loss of his life.
from notes by Paul Andrews © 2012