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Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

Choral Music

The Rodolfus Choir, Ralph Allwood (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: January 2009
St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: April 2010
Total duration: 69 minutes 0 seconds

A true master and exponent of the British choral music tradition, Herbert Howells' compositions and settings are brought to life in this collection of his secular and sacred works. Performances come from the youthful talents of The Rodlofus Choir, led by their director Ralph Allwood.

The Rodolfus Choir is made up of singers aged from 16 to 25 who have been chosen from past and present members of Eton College's summer choral courses for prospective choral scholars. Many members of the choir are choral scholars, some are at music college, and most hope to make a career in music. Ralph Allwood founded the choir in 1984, and has been Precentor and Director of Music at Eton since 1985. We have released two very well received discs with the choir previously—one of choral arrangements by Clytus Gottwald, and another of Vespers by Monteverdi.


'The choir's deftness and unobtrusive single-mindedness in this area adds an extra frisson of communication to even as brief a setting as 'God be in my Head'. Put simply, this disc has quality stamped all over it, and it's graced by Paul Andrews's exemplary notes' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'It's tempting for choirs to programme Herbert Howells's Requiem or his Take him earth for cherishing. Conductor Ralph Allwood charts a less obvious but no less satisfying repertoire course for his latest Signum Classics album. I could listen to the young singers of The Rodolfus Choir all day without tiring or losing my appetite for their collective musicianship and accomplished choral artistry. Listen, for instance, to the ringing intonation and blend in the tricky central section of The summer is coming and to the vigour of Antiphon. Allwood's choristers, the talented youth of austere times, provide good cause for future' (Classic FM Magazine)

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was one of the greatest 20th century composers of choral music and his work is now sung and loved by choirs all over the world. While he is perhaps most well-known for his sacred works, particularly his many settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis sung at evensong in the Anglican church, he also wrote a small quantity of no less fine secular settings. This recording presents a varied selection of well-known and less well-known pieces from both sides of his output, written for a variety of purposes; some commissioned, some occasional pieces and others composed simply for the love of what Howells called ‘the immemorial sound of English voices’ to which one might add, voices singing settings of finely wrought English words.

The summer is coming
In the latter part of his career, Howells became very much associated with church music and it is true that in his choral output, sacred works greatly outnumber settings of secular poetry. But in this part-song to words by the Irish poet Bryan Guinness (of the brewing family and later Baron Moyne) he shows his mastery of word setting and choral texture. It is a miniature masterpiece. The title might lead us to expect something light and full of happy expectation, but the mood is actually dark and complex, full of a heavy and sorrowful sense of loss (‘Dark is the turf / And grey is the stone / And sad is the sky for the wild geese gone’). Howells wrote this song in memory of Arnold Bax and there is much about it that is elegiac. Consider too, that it was written around the same time that he was composing the large scale Stabat Mater whose bleak pessimism was all bound up with thoughts about his long-dead son Michael, and the psychological background begins to crystallise. The word black recurs throughout the poem (blackthorn, black boats, black heifers) and Howells responds with sensuous bittersweet softly, sometimes sharply, dissonant harmony and sinuous and tonally ambiguous vocal lines. The composer’s biographer Paul Spicer has pointed out that Howells was a supreme creator of mood in his music and this is an outstanding example of mood evocation. The soprano monodies that open and close this wonderful piece catch the poem’s sense of restless, nostalgic longing perfectly. The summer is coming was composed for the Cork International Festival of 1965.

Sweetest of sweets; Antiphon
Towards the end of Howells’ composing career in the early 1970s, Sir David Willcocks suggested that he might write some unaccompanied music for the Bach Choir. Howells responded by going to the 17th century poet and divine, George Herbert, and Sweetest of sweets and Antiphon were the result. They were first sung by the Bach Choir in 1977. Both of these motets are written in Howells’ most advanced harmonic idiom, characterised by sinuously interweaving chromatic vocal lines that come together in exquisitely complex and dissonant harmonies, yet without ever losing that sure sense that Howells always has of the music’s forward momentum, and often coalescing in surprising common chords. The climax of Sweetest of sweets (‘But if I travel in your companie’) and its culmination on a soft affirming chord of F sharp major, are heart-warming and life-enhancing. By way of contrast, the affirming praise of Antiphon (‘Let all the world in every corner sing’) is all declamation and vigour, the voices ringing out bright fanfares and roulades. The middle verse provides a brief contrast (and a surprising quiet G major chord) before the fanfares propel us once more to the music’s ecstatic culmination marked fff. Howells knew he had a big choir to work with here!

Sing lullaby; A spotless rose; Here is the little door
These three Carol-Anthems (has any other composer used this title?) are among Howells’ most famous and best-loved choral pieces. Sung widely each Christmas they are familiar to many who would not otherwise recognise much of this composer’s work. They are early works, coming from a period in Howells’ life when he had been forced to give up the job of sub-organist at Salisbury Cathedral because of serious illness and when both his health and his finances were far from secure. You would not realise it though, listening to these sublime settings. Here is the little door is the earliest, composed in 1918 to words by Frances Chesterton (wife of GK to whom it is dedicated). It is a beautifully poised Epiphany piece, a song sung by the mysterious Magi who visit the Christ-child with their strange gifts. The printed score says that the setting was made in September 1918, but Howells’ friend Harold Darke claimed that it was composed ‘…in the kitchen of a friend’s house one Xmas Eve, amid the bustle and excitement of preparing a Xmas dinner’ which one would love to be true! Perhaps it was sketched at that kitchen table and tidied up for publication a few months later.

A spotless rose to anonymous 14th century words followed in 1919. Of all Howells’ compositions, this falls into that category of works that ‘need no introduction’. If there is perfection in choral music, this comes very close to it. The text has only two verses, but Howells turns it into a threefold structure as the full choir takes up and amplifies the words that the baritone solo has presented in the middle section. And of that heart-stopping final cadence perhaps the most eloquent admirer was Howells’ fellow composer, Patrick Hadley. ‘Dear Herbert’ he wrote, ‘that cadence to A spotless rose is not merely ‘one of those things’. Brainwave it certainly is, but it is much more than that. It is a stroke of genius. I should like, when my time comes, to pass away with that magical cadence. I expect you’ll say you hadn’t to think, it was already there. Love Paddy’.

Sing lullaby probably composed in or around 1920, sets words by F W Harvey, a poet who was both a fellow Gloucestershire man and a personal friend. The late Christopher Palmer likened the atmosphere of this setting to that of Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony of a few years later. The similarity that Palmer found is that of quietly oscillating common chords surrounding and supporting rather than accompanying a simple and beautifully asymmetric melody, creating a hypnotically peaceful soundscape, such as might lull a child to sleep. It is dedicated to Howells’ pupil Harry Stevens Davis.

One thing have I desired
It was not at all common in the 20th century for an individual churchman also to be a great patron of the arts, but an extraordinary exception to this was certainly to be found in the person of Walter Hussey (1909-1985). During a forty year career as vicar of St Matthew’s Church, Northampton and then Dean of Chichester Cathedral, he was personally responsible for commissioning a large number of paintings, sculptures and musical works from prominent artists, writers and composers including W H Auden, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Marc Chagall and others in the visual and literary arts and Gerald Finzi, Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein among musicians. Perhaps the two most famous musical works that resulted from this personal vision were Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. After Hussey moved to Chichester, St Matthew’s continued his tradition of commissioning works for its annual Patronal Festival and Howells composed One thing have I desired, a setting of verses from Psalm 27, to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the church in 1968. Once more, Howells proves himself to be a master of mood, skilfully manipulating texture, harmony and dynamics to express the quiet joy that the psalmist anticipates in dwelling in God’s presence, protected in the ‘time of trouble’.

Walking in the snow; Long, long ago
These two settings make a natural pair. They were both composed in September 1950 to poems by John Buxton, both dedicated to the Lady Margaret Singers, Cambridge, the mixed adult chamber choir that George Guest had formed when he became Director of Music at St John’s College, and both published by Novello in 1951 as supplements to The Musical Times (each issue contained a new, or newly edited piece of choral music). Both have been previously recorded yet, to the present writer’s knowledge, this is the first CD to contain both of them! They differ in one respect. Long, long ago, the first to be composed, is a sacred piece (another carol-anthem) while Walking in the snow is a secular part-song (a love song), but they both inhabit the same sound-world.

John Buxton (1912-1989), an Oxford academic, is little known now as a writer but he produced a small quantity of verse, some of it reflecting his years spent in a German prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. His book ‘Such Liberty’ had evidently come to Howells’ attention sufficiently to make him want to set some of the verses. With Buxton’s permission Howells combined two poems to make the text of Walking in the snow and the author seems to have been keen to have his poems set to music, telling Howells that some were written with musical setting in mind. These settings are full of incidental beauties of line and harmony but the impression they leave is once more of atmosphere, the creation of a perfect vehicle for the words, rather than of distinctive musical themes. There is one particularly lovely moment in Walking in the snow (just before the words ‘Oh let the snowflakes nestle’) where the music pauses after a complex chromatic passage on a harmonically ambiguous chord that could function as a dominant seventh chord in C. But after a momentary silence the pianissimo chord of B major that follows is magical.

A grace for 10 Downing Street
In 1972 Edward Heath was Prime Minister. Among his extra-political activities, Heath was an enthusiastic and competent amateur musician and during his occupancy of Downing Street he hosted a number of dinner parties for prominent figures in the musical world. One of the more glittering of these occasions was the dinner given on 29th March 1972 in honour of William Walton who celebrated his seventieth birthday that day, and the party was also graced by the presence of the Queen Mother and many other distinguished musicians. Heath and Howells were well acquainted and Howells was asked to write a choral grace to be sung before the meal was served. Robert Armstrong, Heath’s private secretary (later to become Cabinet Secretary) wrote the words. With a slight amendment to the words (‘May William Walton happy be, / In health and wealth and harmony.’ became ‘May those we welcome happy be, / In pastime with good company.’) the grace was sung at most of the subsequent dinners that Heath gave, and the piece was published with Edward Heath’s permission to mark Howells’ centenary in 1992. At the words ‘God save the Queen, preserve our host’, attentive listeners may detect a musical quotation from Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.

God be in my head
This simple setting was composed within the space of an hour. In 1965 Christopher Eaton Smith was a composition pupil of Howells at the Royal College of Music. One day, Smith took a setting he had made of these well-known words to a lesson and Howells within the time available, sketched out how he would have approached the text and handed the manuscript to his pupil for his own instruction. Recently released for publication, this is a straightforward and undemanding piece but no less valuable for being a chipping from the master’s workbench.

Te Deum and Jubilate (Collegium Regale)
The account of the conversation that took place between Howells, Patrick Hadley and Dean Eric Milner White, and the challenge that led to the composition of the ‘Collegium Regale’ Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, was one of Howells’ favourite stories. In fact, the Evensong canticles were not the first fruits of this meeting. The first settings composed for the choir of King’s College, Cambridge were these morning canticles, Te Deum and Jubilate, completed in November 1944 while Howells was still deputising for Robin Orr as acting organist at St John’s College. They were first sung in King’s College Chapel on 20th May 1945.

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 symptomatic of the sort of communal brightness of spirit that prevails in times of national emergency? Clearly they emanate from a period in Howells’ life when he was feeling happy and fulfilled, re-discovering himself as a composer after the fallow years of the late 1920s and 30s. He was also extremely happy in his new association with the University of Cambridge, where he entered fully and enthusiastically into the musical life of St John’s. This was an association that was to continue for the rest of his life. Here too, he had found a renewed enthusiasm for church music and a new outlet for the sort of music he wanted to write. In cathedral and collegiate chapel choirs he also found a market eager to take whatever he was prepared to give them. In these canticle settings there is plenty of rhythmically strong, forward moving writing, often in unison (listen to the opening of both canticles), and the music is largely driven by harmonic rather than contrapuntal considerations, without the more extreme contrapuntal convolutions that characterises some of Howells’ later liturgical music. In the Te Deum, Howells is alive to the need to create contrasts of mood and colour, and to create a convincing musical shape out of a long and somewhat disparate text. This setting has a poise and structure that he did not always achieve elsewhere. The Te Deum ends triumphantly with the sort of peroration that is a characteristic Howells ‘fingerprint’ and the mood of optimism continues in the Jubilate even though the E flat major of the Te Deum is exchanged for the much darker E flat minor—Howells is one of a select band of composers (Mendelssohn was another) able to write joyful music in a minor key. Here the text of the canticle is despatched quickly and efficiently. Howells reserves the most expansive music for the Gloria, where the texture opens out magnificently and is enhanced by the use of a solo reed stop in its middle register at the very end.

Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (Dallas Service)
In a sequence of settings of the evensong canticles, the majority of which were written for the great English choral foundations, one is somewhat surprised, nonplussed even, to find a set called the Dallas Canticles. This slight sense of incongruity is hardly helped by the fact that for many British listeners the name Dallas conjures up memories of a popular American TV soap opera, or of the city where John F Kennedy was assassinated. The prosaic truth is that Howells wrote this set because he was asked to do so by a former pupil, Larry Palmer who was a distinguished American organist and director of music at St Luke’s Episcopal Church, Dallas. The commission fee was put up by a wealthy local philanthropist. There was by the mid 1970s, a growing number of Howells devotees among Anglican Episcopalians (the Anglican Church in the USA), and his music often graced their liturgy. This was to be the last of over 20 settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis that Howells composed, and there is even some evidence to suggest that Dallas poached the setting that he was planning to write for Durham Cathedral! The work was composed at a time of sadness for Howells. His wife Dorothy was gravely ill and she died a few weeks after its completion.

An innovation in the Magnificat, found nowhere else in Howells’ many settings is the repetition of the opening words, sung by a solo soprano just before the Gloria. At the other end of Howells’ musical spectrum, the ‘blues’ chord on D, juxtaposing F sharp and F natural, that leads into the Gloria is identical with the chord that closes the Nunc dimittis of Howells’ first post-war setting, the Collegium Regale of 1945.

A Hymn for St Cecilia
The Worshipful Company of Musicians, one of the livery companies of the City of London, is an ancient body with its roots in the London Fellowship of Minstrels, accorded guild status in 1500. Originally a powerful organisation akin to a modern trades union which controlled musical activity in London, its present day functions are chiefly awarding prizes, scholarships and medals. Howells was Master of the company in 1959-60 and A Hymn for St Cecilia was commissioned by the Company’s Livery Club to commemorate his term of office. The poem was also newly commissioned from Ursula Vaughan Williams, the composer’s widow. Her description of the Hymn encapsulates its mood:

“My St Cecilia is a girl in one of those magical gardens from Pompeian frescoes, a romantic figure among colonnades and fountains; Herbert’s tune takes her briskly towards martyrdom.”

The delightful descant for the final verse was a musical afterthought, added at the suggestion of Cedric Thorpe Davie (for the Company) and John Dykes Bower, organist of St Paul’s Cathedral where the first performance took place at a Company Festival on St Cecilia’s Day, 22nd November 1961.

Paul Andrews © 2010

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