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Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

An English Mass, Cello Concerto & other works

King's College Choir Cambridge, Sir Stephen Cleobury (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: King's College, Cambridge
Recording details: Various dates
King's College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Simon Kiln
Engineered by Arne Akselberg & James Kiln
Release date: June 2019
Total duration: 103 minutes 37 seconds

Stephen Cleobury and the Choir of King’s College Cambridge celebrate the music of Herbert Howells with an album exploring the finest examples of his choral and orchestral music, as well as his writing for the organ. The little-known cello concerto is performed by Guy Johnston, who premiered the work shortly after its posthumous completion in 2016.


‘Impeccably judged sound and balance throughout; authoritative annotations, too, from Paul Spicer and Jonathan Clinch. All told, a hugely rewarding issue, and absolutely not be missed’ (Gramophone)

‘All of the works were recorded in the warmly resonant King’s College Chapel, with Cleobury conducting the beautifully shaped choral performances … it’s altogether a fine collection of unfamiliar music’ (The Guardian)

‘This now becomes my first choice for Howells’ An English Mass and the Cello Concerto and it comes with several attractive bonuses to boot. I hope that it will help to boost appreciation of Howells’ music’ (MusicWeb International)

‘The secret to performing Howells’s music … is to catch its very English way of expressing deep feeling, which works by repression and hints rather than direct statement. Guy Johnston does this especially well in his performance of the Cello Concerto, which emerges as a substantial piece. And it’s not all repression; with the surprisingly joyful and energetic Finale he really seizes the moment’ (The Telegraph)» More

‘This celebration of Herbert Howells (1892-1983) forms Stephen Cleobury’s final recordings from King’s College Cambridge where he has been director of music for thirty-seven years. Of particular interest are the rarely performed An English Mass and the Cello Concerto, although both are previously recorded … the rhapsodic first movement [of the Concerto] is given due respect to its spacious arch-like design and the central ‘Threnody’ is sculpted with warm expressivity, its elegiac ruminations fully explored. If this dark-hued lament reaches into the core of the composer’s heartache, then the colourful Finale with its Walton-like vigour is no-less tinged with melancholic lyricism … the recorded sound is excellent’ (Classical Source)» More

Howells’ personal relationship with the Christian faith was a complex one. He was brought up attending the Baptist church (next door to the house in which he was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire in October 1892) where his father played the organ. Howells described him as ‘a very humble businessman for six days of seven, and a dreadful organist for the seventh day’ and by the age of nine Herbert was helping out to far greater purpose. Soon he moved over to the Parish Church in Lydney and so began his life-long relationship with the Anglican Church. The local squire, Lord Bledisloe, paid for him to have piano lessons with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, and in due course he became one of Brewer’s articled pupils along with Ivors Gurney and Novello. He left that position to follow Gurney on a Foundation Scholarship to the Royal College of Music to study composition with Charles Villiers Stanford.

One of Stanford’s first acts was to send Howells to the new Westminster Cathedral to hear Richard Terry’s fine choir give ground-breaking performances of Tudor and Renaissance church music. This turned a key in Howells’ mind that unlocked an almost atavistic connection with music of that period, which later on caused Vaughan Williams to comment that he felt Howells to be the reincarnation of a lesser Tudor luminary. When, in September 1910 aged seventeen, Howells heard the premiere of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis in Gloucester he knew that in some way this music would be fundamental to the whole of the rest of his composing life.

Cathedral music in the Anglican tradition was still haltingly recovering from the doldrums of the Victorian period when standards of performance were often lamentable. Charles Stanford brought a much-needed injection of new life through his remarkable settings, and initiatives like Ouseley’s St Michael’s College, Tenbury, attempted to set new standards for the performance of church music. But Howells, relating a visit to Gloucester with Arthur Benjamin in 1919, noted that they had to endure the ‘childish absurdities of Clark Whitfield’s evening service in E’ demonstrating that there was still a long way to go before standards in both performance and the music chosen reflected the new aspirations.

It was exactly at this time that Howells composed his Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G and the Three Carol Anthems showing both his feeling for choral sound and pointing towards the impressionism which was to become such a hallmark of his mature style. But it was not until 1941 when Howells was appointed Acting Organist at St John’s College, Cambridge, replacing Robin Orr, who was on active service, that his vocation was to be fully realised. Dean Eric Milner-White of King’s offered Patrick Hadley and Howells a challenge, laying down a guinea as the ‘bet’, for a new setting of the Te Deum. Howells accepted and the result prompted Milner-White to reflect afterwards that ‘I personally feel that you have opened a wholly new chapter in Service, perhaps in Church, music. Of spiritual moment rather than liturgical. It is so much more than music-making; it is experiencing the deep things in the only medium that can do it.’ The Te Deum and Jubilate were first heard in King’s College Chapel in 1944. This opened the flood-gates and seemed to bring Howells’ whole creative mind into focus. The evening canticles for King’s and then Gloucester, St Paul’s and New College, Oxford, followed. What was very clear with these first settings was his absolute affinity with the places for which they were written and their acoustical properties. This was a completely new approach which, together with his uniquely personal harmonic language, added a powerful ‘sensuality’ to Milner-White’s ‘spirituality’. Howells’ orchestration of the Te Deum was made in 1977 for the Leith Hill Festival. This adds an entirely new feel to this iconic work as well as a wholly new introduction which, in its angular gesture, sets the work up in a very different way from the original. The overall effect is to take it from church into the concert hall.

Howells responded to text in a highly pictorial manner and thought deeply about imagery. For instance, he felt, in relation to his Collegium Regale Magnificat, that ‘the mighty should not be put down from their seat with a brute force which would deny the canticle’s feminine association’. It is difficult, too, to separate Howells’ almost obsessive feelings for women from his writing about them even in his sacred music. But this extremely human expression is part of what makes these settings so very powerful. John Rutter’s lifelong affinity with Howells’ music makes him the perfect composer to orchestrate this remarkable Magnificat and this is its first recording.

The ‘spiritual humanism’ thus far discussed takes us back to the complexity of Howells’ relationship with faith. He told his daughter Ursula at one point, ‘you know there is nothing’. Everything had changed for him after his son Michael’s death in 1935 from which emotionally he never recovered. He was both sentimental and superstitious, having, for instance, always to walk around the circular Royal Albert Hall in the same direction—not a characteristic of someone with almost any kind of faith. In fact, as his life wore on, his settings of sacred texts seem increasingly to mirror his state of mind. A powerful example of this was his deep concern over Russian nuclear testing in the mid-60s which he noted multiple times in his diaries.

The English Mass seems strongly to support this theory. It is extraordinary that Howells could settle down to write this work immediately following the massive labour of his large-scale Missa Sabrinensis. That complex work was premiered at Worcester Cathedral in September 1954. Harold Darke asked Vaughan Williams (A vision of aeroplanes), Howells (English Mass) and George Dyson (Hierusalem) for works to celebrate his 40th anniversary as organist at St Michael’s church, Cornhill, in London in a fearsomely challenging concert on 4 June 1956 sung by his St Michael’s Singers. The programme also included a work by Darke (A song of David) himself. Howells responded with one of his darkest religious works in which he seems to question almost every aspect of text. It is scored for flute, oboe, timpani, harp, organ and strings, a small orchestra for a limited space. The agonised string prelude to the Kyrie seems to epitomise his mood of hopelessness and the rising voice parts which beg for mercy are almost expressionless. The very long contrapuntal lines which develop as the movement progresses seem to have no resolution and the final sonorous Kyrie seems more like a demand than a supplication. There is a hopelessness in the quiet ending.

The Credo, which should be affirmative in its statement of belief, is darkly troubled in its harmonic ambiguity. Perhaps the most telling moment of all is ‘and was made man’ which seems, in one short phrase, to encapsulate all the horrors that Christ will face—and perhaps also reflect Howells’ own deep insecurities. After an outburst of positivity at Christ’s resurrection after three days (Howells’ hope for his son?) his affirmation of belief is muted to say the least. Whether or not Howells’ personal feelings are being mirrored in all this, no one can doubt the sense of ecstasy that is prevalent, and which comes most strongly into focus in the long-breathed Sanctus.

The Benedictus joins with no break and is begun by two soloists. The whole movement is sung by a semi-chorus of sopranos, altos and, later, tenors. The Hosanna is the most expansive and relaxed music in the whole work: a wonderful example of Howells’ ability to sustain a long paragraph of linear writing, which has an irresistible wrap-around warmth of expression. The Agnus Dei joins again without break and the movement opens with a group of soloists. After the warmth of the Hosanna the mood reverts to the hopelessness of the Kyrie as the words form the same supplication for mercy. The final ‘grant us thy peace’ shows Howells in no mood to believe it will be forthcoming. The Gloria is placed last as in the Book of Common Prayer and the opening section, while still highly dissonant, is an exuberant outburst. The contrasting middle section is taken by soloists and reduced tutti forces. The final section builds to a huge climax at ‘in the glory of God the Father’ before the work ends with an unusual repetition of the Gloria’s opening words sung by a tenor soloist and a final quiet Amen from the choir. The inclusion of the Sursum Corda after the Credo shows that Howells considered the Mass as suitable for liturgical use, though it is unlikely that it has been used in this way on more than a handful of occasions.

An English Mass is a remarkable conception and underscores, like the Missa Sabrinensis before it, Howells’ feelings for spirituality rather than religiosity. His deeply ingrained sense of pathos and its flip side, spiritual ecstasy, informed his expression in a profoundly personal way which makes his style uniquely his own. After the first performance Howells wrote to Darke saying: ‘You will be so good as to thank your singers for me. They were grand: quick to learn the bulk of my strange notes, and inspired in finding better ones when mine didn’t fit. I was enchanted.’(!)

Of the three organ works recorded here Master Tallis’s Testament is perhaps the most personal. It was the third of Six Pieces for organ written in 1939 and dedicated to his old friend Herbert Sumsion, Brewer’s successor at Gloucester Cathedral. It was one of Howells’ own favourites and he thought of it as a ‘footnote’ to Vaughan Williams’ 'Tallis Fantasia'. The Paean is an exciting toccata and is the last of the Six Pieces, dated May 1940. The Rhapsody No 3 in C sharp minor comes from a much earlier period in his life and was composed in one sitting at Sir Edward Bairstow’s house at York Minster in 1918. It reflects a dramatic night when Howells was kept awake by a Zeppelin raid. He felt all three Rhapsodies were ‘serious attempts at a more freely-expressed music for the instrument’.

Herbert Howells’ early compositional success came not from the church music for which he is so widely known today, but from a golden period around the First World War when he wrote a string of chamber and orchestra works that earnt him a reputation as the leading composer of the younger generation. Charles Villiers Stanford, Howells’ composition professor at the Royal College of Music, made all of his students attend orchestral rehearsals to give them a practical understanding of orchestration and Howells responded with orchestral suites and two piano concertos in his early career. The critical reception to his second piano concerto (1925), which he withdrew from publication, led the composer to explore new stylistic areas. However, we can hear the roots of the cello concerto in works such as the poignant Elegy for solo viola, string quartet, and string orchestra of 1917, written in memory of his friend and fellow RCM student, Francis Purcell Warren, who was killed during the Battle of the Somme. The Elegy has an intense darkness and melancholy which seems to resurface in the cello concerto. A difficult childhood and a propensity for self-doubt made him an extremely private man, an outward refinement guarding a restless heart. The cello concerto, although never finished in his lifetime, gives us a unique window into the composer’s emotional world.

Howells began sketches for a cello concerto in 1933, which he continued intermittently thereafter. In September 1935 tragedy struck the Howells family while they were on holiday in Gloucestershire. Nine-year-old Michael, their second child, became ill and within the space of a few days died from polio. In the immediate aftermath, Howells turned to composition as a means of dealing with his grief, focusing on two works, the cello concerto and Hymnus Paradisi (reworking material from his earlier Requiem). Both became private ‘medical documents’. In 1950 a group of friends (including Herbert Sumsion, Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughan Williams) convinced Howells to release Hymnus Paradisi for its first performance at The Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral, a few miles from where Michael was buried. Both works are of major importance within Howells’ output, but what is special about the concerto is the direct focus on the individual that the concerto form brings. Howells saw the cello as ‘an extension of the male voice’ and in this highly personal work, that voice is markedly his own.

He completed the first movement and included it within his DMus submission at The Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1937. For examination purposes he gave the movement the title ‘Fantasia’ and it was subsequently deposited in the Bodleian Library. Although it came from the examination rubric, the title ‘Fantasia’ is particularly suitable since Howells often cited the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis as his most important formative experience, frequently adding that ‘all through my life I’ve had this strange feeling that I belonged somehow to the Tudor period not only musically but in every way’. Howells’ fascination with this period and his subsequent involvement with the Tudor Church Music series at the start of his career had a very direct influence on his own composition. In 1926 Howells started to experiment with Tudor compositional techniques in his collection Lambert’s Clavichord and this influence continued throughout his life to varying degrees. In the Fantasia, Howells’ love of modal harmony and, in particular, the colour of his chromatic alterations and false relations come to the fore in the frequent juxtaposition of major and minor triads (most notably at the end of the movement). Also of note is the way in which he wrote in very long lines (as though his mode of thinking was principally horizontal) and this is partly why the first movement is relatively long in length and rhapsodic in form, as Howells expands elements from the initial cello entry. Howells combines several formal elements: while the movement could be considered a theme and (continuous) variations, there are also two large arches to the form where he builds on each successive variation to create a major climax, which then gradually dies away to a central passage of relative calm and stillness; the whole arch-process is then repeated again, this time with greater intensity as he compresses the early variations. Despite such economy of musical material, Howells achieves a remarkable overall sense of pathos through his subtle development of texture, line and harmonic colour.

The second movement acts as a sort of song-without-words for the soloist and was completed in short score in the summer of 1936. Howells made no attempt at a full score, continuing instead with sketches for the final movement. Evidence from letters and diary entries suggests that he returned to the sketches for the concerto as a sort of mourning ritual, each year around the anniversary of his son’s death. At various stages friends tried to get him to finish the work, but he felt unable, possibly because of the highly personal nature of this particular work. In 1992, Christopher Palmer unearthed the second movement from the Howells estate and orchestrated it to match the preceding movement. It was then performed in a centenary concert in Westminster Abbey, where Howells’ ashes had been buried. Following Palmer’s untimely death in 1995, the concerto sketches were returned to the Royal College of Music library.

The project to complete the concerto, which was supported by the Herbert Howells Trust, began in 2010 when I started to study the sketches and was particularly struck by the quantity of material (thirty-four pages in total) and the contrast it provides to the other two movements. The chance to hear what the finished concerto might have sounded like as a whole seemed a particularly interesting ‘what if’ and, after a few months of working on the sketches, I realised that the page numbering (that had been subsequently added) was incorrect. This allowed me to reorder them, giving twenty-four pages of continuous music in short score (sometimes just outlined). The other ten pages demonstrated Howells’ ‘working’, including the reworking of several ideas from the initial twenty-four pages. From this I created a single edition of the material, incorporating his later changes and adding an ending based on the earlier material in a manner which matches Howells’ form in several other works. I also ‘filled out’ the bars in the earlier sketches where he left only a single part (without harmony) in order to indicate his intensions. Finally, I orchestrated the movement to match the forces of the preceding two, particularly noting Howells’ own orchestration of similar material in the Fantasia. I am particularly grateful for the advice and support of John Rutter, Robert Saxton, Anthony Payne, Christopher Robinson, Julian Lloyd Webber (Howells’ godson) and Jeremy Dibble.

It was typical of Howells that the piece should only ever see the light of day as an examination exercise (such was his uninterest in self-promotion). As one of the ‘medical documents’ that he used to come to terms with his son’s death, it is a tremendously special work in which you can hear the emotional backdrop in the music itself. Such turmoil unlocked a new stage in his compositional career, giving Howells a new reason to write and an active release from the critical self-doubt that had plagued him in the decade following the second piano concerto. The chief influence is that of Vaughan Williams (especially in the allusion of the opening to The lark ascending) with their shared love of modal harmony, soft diatonic dissonances (with frequent sevenths and ninths) and false relations, but Howells’ own love of writing in long lines, which rework a small number of short motivic ideas, allows the distinctive syntax to stand out in his inimitable way, far beyond mere pastiche. Howells considered the second movement as possibly his finest work and the finale in particular shows a side very different from the composer’s Anglican Church music. The finale is much more angular and energetic (with elements of Walton), so one might assume a focus on the anger and pain caused by his loss, but then the remarkably jaunty second subject in 7/8 enters (a theme which would seem much more likely in Holst’s music) and suddenly there is a child-like sense of fun. Overall, the restless tension and richness of aesthetic seem to match Howells the man so well, transforming the concerto into a soliloquy on grief and the associated mixed emotions, which we, through music, are privileged to share. The concerto received its public premiere at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival in Gloucester Cathedral played by Guy Johnston and the Royal College of Music Philharmonic Orchestra under the conductor Martin André.

Paul Spicer & Jonathan Clinch © 2019

I am particularly pleased as the recently appointed President of the Herbert Howells Society, in succession to my distinguished predecessor, Sir David Willcocks, to be presenting this Howells album. I would like to express my thanks to my friends and colleagues Christopher Seaman (distinguished Kingsman) and Ben Parry (conductor of King’s Voices) for taking over the direction of the Cello Concerto and the Creed, respectively, when I was undergoing heart surgery. One of the intentions behind our own record label, in addition to presenting the Chapel Choir, is to promote the work of King’s musicians, and it is therefore particularly pleasing that Guy Johnston (a former chorister of mine here at King’s) and Christopher Seaman feature so prominently on this disc.

Stephen Cleobury © 2019

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