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Howells’ ‘Coll Reg’ is one of the glories of the Anglican repertoire—a relative outsider to the church providing one of its greatest adornments of the twentieth century. Stephen Layton and his award-winning choir took the trip to Coventry Cathedral for this very special recording.
By 1941, Howells’ career as a composer was in the doldrums. His early brilliance, the award-winning chamber works, orchestral miniatures, songs and piano music of the 1910s and ’20s were a long way behind him. He was still reeling from the tragic death from polio of his son, Michael, in 1935 and, though highly regarded, he was now thought of mainly as an eminent teacher of composition at the Royal College of Music. This new opportunity marked the beginning of an association with St John’s that lasted for the rest of his life. When the war ended Howells was made a fellow commoner, and in 1966 the college granted him an honorary fellowship. The university conferred an honorary doctorate on him in 1961. But it wasn’t just running the chapel music at St John’s that inspired Howells to begin composing in a big way for the church. King’s College and a former Dean had their part to play and it was at King’s that a famous meeting of minds took place. Eric Milner-White had been Dean of King’s from 1919 to 1941 and he had a sharp ear for talent. In 1920, the chapel choir having sung Howells’ newly published carol-anthem A Spotless Rose, Milner-White wrote to Howells suggesting that he might be the man to revitalize English church music composition. Whatever he may have made of this, Howells didn’t write any significant church music in the 1920s or ’30s, but towards the end of the war a famous meeting took place at King’s between Howells, Milner-White (by this time Dean of York Minster), Patrick Hadley (Professor of Music) and Boris Ord (organist of King’s). Milner-White had clearly not forgotten about Howells, and now the seed that he had sown in 1920 was about to flower. Recalling that meeting, Howells referred to Milner-White’s ‘challenge’ to the composer to write settings of the liturgy for King’s chapel. He also remembered his own promise that ‘if I made the setting of the Magnificat, the mighty should be put down without a brute force that would deny this canticle’s feminine association. Equally, that in the Nunc dimittis, the tenor’s domination should characterize the gentle Simeon. Only the Gloria should raise its voice. The given promise dictated style and scope.’ In other words, if Howells was to rise to the Dean’s challenge, it would be on his own terms—which must after all have been what Milner-White was hoping for.
In fact, of the settings that Howells made for King’s College Choir, all embraced by the Latin style of the College, ‘Collegium Regale’ and the only foundation for which he composed a full set of morning and evening canticles and the order for Holy Communion, it was the Te Deum and Jubilate, sung at Matins, that came first, in 1944. Unlike some of Howells’ later church music, the mood of these two canticles is wholly unclouded and optimistic. Should we find this remarkable, considering that they were written in wartime, or are they perhaps symptomatic of a renewed enthusiasm and sense of purpose in Howells’ life? Clearly his time in Cambridge was happy, and Howells was feeling more fulfilled and optimistic about his own future. The Te Deum is the longest of all the canticles and Howells is alive to the need to create contrasts of mood and colour and to craft a convincing musical shape out of a disparate text. His setting has poise and structure, and builds convincingly to a final peroration. The Jubilate exchanges the Te Deum’s E flat major for the much darker minor, but Howells is able to write joyful music, even in this sombre key. The text is dispatched quickly and efficiently and Howells reserves his most expansive music for the concluding Gloria.
About the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis of 1945, little needs adding to Howells’ own account of their gestation, except to say that all the features of Howells’ mature style are present in these, the first, and surely the most celebrated of all his many post-war settings of the Evensong canticles. From the gentleness of the trebles’ opening, through the impressionistic and atmospheric interplay of voices, organ and acoustic, the plangent beauty of Simeon’s tenor solo, to the rich and exultant Gloria, these are the works that proclaimed a new voice and established a new aesthetic in English church music.
Roughly a decade after the composition of the morning and evening Collegium Regale canticles, Howells returned to King’s with a setting of the order for Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer, in whose linguistic richness he had been soaked since boyhood. Howells’ use of thematic material from the morning and evening services helps to bring the three elements of the complete Collegium Regale settings together as a unified and composite whole. The Kyrie reprises the opening chords of the Magnificat, and the Gloria (sung as a closing hymn of praise in the Book of Common Prayer rite) makes extensive use of music from the Te Deum. But Howells is not raiding earlier scores because of a shortage of inspiration: this work looks both backwards and forwards. The Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei are all new and in their leaner, less sensual and impressionistic textures, demonstrating sharper melodic concentration, they achieve the real sense of unity that Howells was aiming for, but seem to move away from the opulence of the earlier canticles to anticipate the more astringent music that Howells was to write in the settings of the late 1950s and ’60s.
It is a long way from the complexity of Howells’ mature style to the pared down simplicity of the Anglican chant, that formulaic sequence of twenty or so chords into which, in the right hands, the verses of Coverdale’s psalter seem to find their perfect musical expression. Howells was not a major contributor to this repertoire, but the examples recorded here—Psalms 121 and 122—possibly dating from as early as his student days at the RCM, have just the right balance of fulfilled and confounded harmonic expectation to bear the repeated hearings that the form demands, and justify their place with the very best.
Long before Cambridge, long before it was even suspected that Howells would become the composer of the church music with which he is now pre-eminently associated, even before the Piano Quartet and Rhapsodic Quintet for clarinet and strings, prize-winning works that marked him out as a force to be reckoned with in modern British music, Howells had begun to contribute with distinction to the repertoire of the cathedral organist. This was the tradition in which he had served his apprenticeship as an articled pupil of Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral in his teens, the tradition in which he began his working life in 1917 as sub-organist of Salisbury Cathedral (ill health obliged him to relinquish this post after only a few months). 1915 saw the composition of the first set of Psalm-Preludes, and also of the first of the three Rhapsodies for organ that date from this period in his life when Stanford’s star pupil was emerging from the safety of the Royal College of Music to make his way as a mature artist. This D flat major Rhapsody establishes the template for all of Howells’ exercises in this form: a quiet, reflective opening builds in intensity and passion leading to a massive climax of power and strength, before subsiding back into the quietude with which it began.
In November 1952, Howells was invited to compose a short Introit for the Coronation Service of Queen Elizabeth II. The text was to be verses from Psalm 84, beginning ‘Behold, O God our defender’. He completed this quiet, reflective prelude to a great state occasion at the end of that year, on Christmas Day. For the Coronation itself the combined choirs were large and Howells provided a fully orchestrated score, but this sensitive anthem is more usually heard, as here, with smaller forces and organ accompaniment.
Right at the very end of his creative life (1977 was the last year in which he brought anything to completion) Howells wrote a number of exquisite short choral pieces including ‘I love all beauteous things’, a setting of words by the one-time Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, whom he had known personally. It was composed in response to a commission from The Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Albans for the ‘Festalban’ festival in 1977 and was sung in conjunction with the ‘Hands of the Craftsman’ exhibition in the cathedral. In the context of his own art, no finer craftsman than Howells could have been chosen: for more than thirty years, he had been crafting his ‘beauteous things’ for choirs and organists to sing and play to the glory of the God in whom Howells himself perhaps did not believe, but whose houses of prayer he was happy to beautify for their own sake and for the sake of the musical and liturgical tradition that they sustain. Howells’ response to this text is quietly ecstatic and seems to articulate something of his own artistic credo, setting words that go to the heart of his own spirituality: ‘I love all beauteous things, / I seek and adore them … / I too will something make / And joy in the making!’
Paul Andrews © 2016