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Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

The house of the mind & other choral works

Queen's College Choir Oxford, Owen Rees (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: January 2017
Church of St Michael and All Angels, Oxford, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: June 2018
Total duration: 65 minutes 50 seconds

A programme celebrating the works and influence of Herbert Howells within the vibrant English choral tradition of the last hundred years.

Herbert Howells developed an instantly recognisable and distinctive voice in his choral music. That voice became and remains inextricably linked with Anglican liturgy, churches, and choirs, but rather than evoking formality or traditionalism it is marked by striking sensuality and apparent freedom. There is, as David Maw has put it, an essential paradox about Howells’s compositional output and reputation: ‘On one level, Howells successfully and self-consciously allied himself with the British musical establishment; on another level, everything about him—his background, psychology and musicality—resisted this.’ The current recording presents seven of Howells’s choral works within the context of music by composers who taught and/or influenced him (Stanford, Vaughan Williams) and worked alongside him (Patrick Hadley), and composers who have responded to his music in particular pieces (John Scott, Nico Muhly, David Bednall). These juxtapositions reveal some striking similarities and echoes, but they also serve to highlight contrasts of compositional language and ideals as much as proximity. For example, the piece on this recording which is at the greatest distance from Howells’s sound-world—Muhly’s Like as the hart—is the one which is most directly an hommage to Howells and a reflection upon Howells’s own setting of that text and his compositional methods more widely. The programme of the recording spans a century, from two Howells works composed during the Great War (Regina caeli and Salve regina) to pieces by David Bednall commissioned for this project and completed—as a complement to the two Howells items just mentioned—in 2016.

Born in Lydney, Gloucestershire, in 1892, Howells studied with Herbert Brewer, Organist of Gloucester Cathedral, before gaining a place at the Royal College of Music in 1912. His composition teacher there, Charles Villiers Stanford, described Howells as his ‘son in music’ and strongly supported his early career, but the influences upon Howells during this early period in London and before it were diverse, including Vaughan Williams, Elgar, and Ravel, and reflected also the revival of interest in Tudor (and other Renaissance) sacred music manifest famously in the work of Richard Terry with the Choir of Westminster Cathedral. It was Stanford who encouraged Howells to work with Terry, and in 1916 Howells wrote within the space of one week a set of Four Anthems to the Blessed Virgin Mary for Westminster Cathedral. Only two of these four anthems survive: Salve regina and the Eastertide anthem Regina caeli. In their rich and imposing textures—achieved with six voice-parts in Salve regina and two antiphonal choirs in Regina caeli—they provide early examples of Howells’s skill in exploiting the grandeur and atmospherically reverberant acoustics of such great ecclesiastical spaces as Westminster Cathedral. Despite the context for which they were written, neither setting draws upon the plainchant associated with its text, but Howells periodically and freely evokes chant through the shaping of lines and by having groups of voices declaim the text in unison or octaves, as at the start of Regina caeli and at the subdued plea for Mary to pray to Jesus for us (‘et Jesum benedictum …’) towards the end of Salve regina. He dramatises the most crucial word in the text of Regina caeli—the triumphant ‘Resurrexit’ (‘he has arisen’)—by bringing the two choirs together in monumental chordal declamation for the first time, and by employing a particular type of striking harmonic shift (related to a device found in certain Tudor works by Tallis and others) which reveals the influence of Vaughan Williams on the young composer.

In October 2016 I invited David Bednall, who describes Howells’s music as a particularly strong and enduring influence on his own, to compose settings of the other two Marian antiphon texts—Alma redemptoris mater and Ave regina caelorum—which had been included in Howells’s set of Four Anthems for Westminster Cathedral. Bednall conceived his responses not as pastiche but as inhabiting a ‘similar sound world’ to Howells’s settings, while also engaging with features of other and earlier repertoire. Ave regina caelorum—like Howells’s Regina caeli—is bound together by the reappearances of material, the most important in this case being the celebratory opening acclamation, which recurs periodically, both to the opening words and to set ‘Gaude Virgo gloriosa’. These chordal fanfares act as pillars of the structure, alternating with sections of energetic melismatic and contrapuntal writing. Gabriel’s word of salutation to Mary, ‘Ave’, ecstatically repeated by a solo soprano in what the composer describes as the central ‘oasis’ of this motet, is likewise given special emphasis in Bednall’s Alma redemptoris mater, where it summons an extended passage of polyrhythmic counterpoint between the voices, expanding on the triplet figures heard sporadically in the piece up to this point. Alma redemptoris, like Ave regina, reuses its opening idea as a ‘ritornello’, one which (as the composer notes) recalls ‘something of the atmosphere of Bax’s Mater ora filium’ and which ‘is intended to summon something of the chill of a cold chapel, and also the sense of mystery of Advent’, the season in which this Marian antiphon is sung.

Howells’s music for the heart of Catholic devotion in England—the new Westminster Cathedral, and the four evening antiphons of the Blessed Virgin Mary—contrasts with Stanford’s near-contemporary Lighten our darkness, one of the texts which most powerfully evokes Anglican Evensong, where it is the final collect. Stanford’s setting was composed three years after Howells’s motets for Westminster Cathedral, in March 1918, a few months before the end of the First World War. The text of Thomas Cranmer’s famous collect ‘against all perils’ carried particular weight in this context: Stanford had moved temporarily from London to Windsor to avoid the air raids on the capital, and wrote this piece for the Choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor. The music simply but powerfully juxtaposes the ‘dangers of this night’ with the sure comforts of faith in Christ.

Howells spent the bulk of his career teaching in London, at his alma mater the Royal College of Music and as Professor of Music at London University. Early in 1941 he wrote a set of Four Anthems (originally titled ‘in the time of war’) on psalm texts, of which two have attained enduring popularity, O pray for the peace of Jerusalem and (third in the set) Like as the hart, the text of which is the opening verses of Psalm 42. The modal and jazz- and blues-influenced language of the piece creates an atmosphere of longing and even melancholy that emphasises the yearning of the text and the bitterness of its central section (‘My tears have been my meat day and night …’). Howells was friends with Patrick Hadley, a colleague of Howells’s at the Royal College of Music and also Fellow and Director of Music at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge: Howells was acting Organist at nearby St John’s College from the autumn of 1941 until 1945. Hadley’s anthem My beloved spake, written for the wedding of one of his RCM students in 1936, is an equally evocative and sensuous setting of words from the great love-poem of the Old Testament, the Song of Songs. In the passage of text chosen by Hadley, the opening exhortation—‘Rise up, my love, and come away’—is repeated at the end of the passage—‘Arise, my love, and come away’—and Hadley’s setting duly has an ABA structure reflecting that of the text, with a hushed middle section between opening and closing passages of great majesty and power. Howells likewise produced an ABA structure in Like as the hart (and in other anthems from the 1941 set, O pray for the peace of Jerusalem and Let God arise), but here the composer himself inserted the textual repetition of the opening text. For this repetition, the ‘free’ declamation of the tenors and basses is intensified by means of a soprano descant.

Nico Muhly writes that his own setting of Like as the hart, for choir, solo violin, and percussion, ‘is my response to Herbert Howells’s more famous setting of this Psalm paraphrase. I have always been obsessed with the length of Howells’s melodies and the way that the harmonies trail behind the tunes like halos. In my version, I invert this relationship, with massive elongated harmonies dragging melodic fragments behind them. I arranged the harmonies in a large arch form with shrinking and expanding rhythms on either side of the central point (on the word “God”).’ Muhly sets just the first two verses of the Psalm, marking the division in the first verse by the appearance of a solo soprano at ‘so longeth my soul’. Although the choir emerges dramatically at the central point (‘God’), for much of the piece the foreground character is a solo violinist (on this recording, Elizabeth Nurse, a student at Queen’s and Choral Scholar), accompanied by percussion (triangle and tam-tam at the opening): the effect suggests improvisation on a melodic fragment until the choir enters voice by voice, its slowly evolving harmonies counterpointed with the rhythmic impetus of the instruments.

In his collection of musical cameos, Howells’ Clavichord, of the 1950s, Howells included one musical gift to Patrick Hadley (‘Patrick’s Siciliano’) and two to Ralph Vaughan Williams (‘Ralph’s Pavane’ and ‘Ralph’s Galliard’). Vaughan Williams’s music had been one of the most important early influences on Howells, as is apparent in the latter’s Regina caeli. The seventeen-year-old Howells had been deeply struck by the premiere of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910: ‘I was moved deeply. I think if I had to isolate from the rest any one impression of a purely musical sort that mattered most to me in the whole of my life as a musician, it would be the hearing of that work.’ Howells was also to comment that ‘Ralph and I felt and reacted to things musically in a very similar way, and if some of our works are alike in any respect, it’s not, I think, merely a question of influence but also of intuitive affinity.’ As Howells notes, part of that affinity lay in both composers’ fascination with the modes, and modal writing strongly characterises the chant-like soloists’ lines in Vaughan Williams’s motet The souls of the righteous, composed for the dedication service of the Battle of Britain Chapel in Westminster Abbey in 1947. After a chant-like opening sung by soprano soloist and then choir, the repeated words ‘but they are in peace’ are quietly highlighted through telling harmonic shifts, while the Lydian mode is used to give brightness to the triumphant cascading peals opening the final section at ‘For God proved them’.

From the mid 1940s onwards Howells produced the body of Anglican liturgical music for which he is most remembered, and for the Queen’s coronation service at the Abbey in 1953 he composed the Introit Behold, O God our defender. Half a century later John Scott (then Organist of St Paul’s Cathedral) set the same text for the service held at St Paul’s in June 2002 to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Scott wrote: ‘In a service characterized by pageantry, rejoicing and high celebration, the opportunity was taken to contribute something of a more gentle and reflective nature. As a devotee of the music of Herbert Howells, I was drawn to set these beautiful words from Psalm 84, which shamelessly evokes Howells’s choral palette. Howells set these words for the Coronation Service in 1953, and I’ve always felt his little masterpiece has been unduly neglected. My Royal tribute also ends in homage to Howells; the final tenor phrase, with its Lydian inflection, draws directly on Howells’s setting.’ Scott’s treatment of the text evokes Howells’s also in some of its ecstatic and melismatic prolongations of words, but Howells’s setting is on a much larger scale, each of its three sections capped by a dramatic climax: at the third statement of ‘behold’; at ‘thine annointed’, with striking chordal shifts of the Vaughan-Williams variety once again; and finally at ‘is better than a thousand’.

The largest-scale work by Howells on this recording is his motet The house of the mind of 1954, a meditation on a seventeenth-century poem by Joseph Beaumont concerned with the mind as a place of inward refuge in which God can dwell. Howells contrasts the quiet introspection advocated in the poem’s opening stanza with a stirring evocation of the unconquerable power of the mind (‘a close immured tower’) to withstand ‘all hostile power’ in the second stanza. The third stanza opens with an evocative sample of the ethereal manner of writing for upper voices and organ which Howells had exploited in the famous openings of his Magnificat settings for King’s College, Cambridge, and Gloucester Cathedral. To represent the mystery of God inhabiting the human mind at the beginning of the final stanza (‘Th’infinite Creator can dwell in it’), Howells employs unaccompanied chordal declamation possessing an exquisite harmonic intensity and density suggestive of the sound-worlds of parts of his Requiem and Take him, earth, for cherishing. The theme of Beaumont’s poem chimes with that of Howells’ setting of God be in my head, a beautiful miniature which—as the owner of the manuscript copy, Christopher Eaton Smith, revealed—was ‘written by Dr Howells in some spare minutes before the end of a theory lesson at the Royal College of Music in June 1966, following a “rather fair” attempt at the same words by me!’ The psalm text set in David Bednall’s O Lord, I am not haughty, likewise echoes this theme of the interior life of quietude and faith. This work was commissioned by Lady Susan Budd to celebrate the seventieth birthday of Sir Alan Budd (then Provost of The Queen’s College) in 2007, and was premiered by the Choir in that year.

The latest Howells piece on the disc—A Hymn for St Cecilia—shows a very different side of Howells’ style. This setting of a poem by Vaughan Williams’ wife Ursula in praise of the patron saint of Music was commissioned by the Worshipful Company of Musicians (of which Howells was Master in 1959/60), and was first sung on St Cecilia’s Day 1961 in St Paul’s Cathedral. All three verses are sung to the same exultant melody. Howells evokes celebration particularly in the first verse (sung by all voices in unison or octaves) and the last, where a soprano countermelody rings out above the ensemble, suggesting the joining of earthly and heavenly music which the poem here describes.

This recording has been made with generous support from Sir Alan Budd.

Owen Rees © 2018

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