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ClassicsOnline Home » HOWELLS: Requiem / Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing
Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Herbert Howells is widely regarded as among the most
gifted English composers of the generation to succeed Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst
and Delius. His strong sense of place and unique sound-world set him apart, while
his contribution to the renaissance of English choral music during the course
of his long life is probably unparalleled.
The son of a local organist, Howells was born in 1892 in
deepest Gloucestershire, the beauty of which marked his musical personality as
indelibly as the Malvern Hills did with Elgar. Despite a Welsh name and,
indeed, an ethnically Celtic background, he always regarded his spiritual home
as being very much on the English side of the Welsh border.
As a young man studying organ and composition alongside
Ivor Gurney and Ivor
Novello at Gloucester Cathedral, Howells experienced the
thunderbolt of attending the premiere of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on
a theme of Thomas Tallis, seated next to the composer himself. Howells used
to recount how he and Gurney walked the streets of Gloucester for hours
afterwards, inebriated by the new sound-world this radical voice had
His musical ambitions burgeoned at London's Royal Academy
of Music, where he was widely regarded as the most naturally gifted student of his
generation and where he soon outgrew the disciplined tutelage of Stanford and
Parry. Later, Howells himself became one of the Academy's most distinguished
teachers for a remarkable 59 years. He also succeeded Gustav Holst in the prestigious
position of Director of Music at St Paul's School. Life-threatening illness
prevented his serving in the First World War (and so in effect probably saved
his life) and from this point onwards his music gained new maturity, perhaps from
the psychological scars of the ruins all about him. It is perhaps no
coincidence that his Fantasy for String Quartet, widely regarded as his
first work of great stature, dates from this period.
It is towards the end of the Great War that Howells wrote
the earliest work included here, the Rhapsody No.3 for Organ.
Remarkably, it was written overnight in a single sitting during a noisy Zeppelin
raid, which may explain the work's declamatory and tempestuous nature. The
third of a set of three Rhapsodies for Organ of 1918 which Howells
described as "serious attempts at a more freely-expressed music for the
instrument," the Rhapsody No.3 is an electrifying piece which shows his
skills as a composer for the instrument to best advantage. Howells was an
outstanding organist from early on, with a natural gift for improvisation and a
determination to use the sophistication of the twentieth century organ to the
full, as his Paean shows to startling effect.
In 1936 Howells suffered the sudden death of his
nine-year-old son Michael through polio, a harrowing event which understandably
left its mark on the man and his music. From here on, the intense spirituality
of Howells' music took on a more profound depth. Earlier speculation assumed that
the Requiem was composed after Michael's death as a personal tribute to a
dearly loved son. However, evidence has since emerged that the work was in fact
written three years earlier, in 1933, for Boris Ord and King's College Cambridge.
It is true to say that Howells later re-used some of the Requiem to
create his larger, longer Hymnus Paradisi, which was very much dedicated
to Michael. Other than that, Howells appears to have kept the shorter
masterpiece of the Requiem to himself. Perhaps like Mahler and the Kindertotenlieder,
which predated the loss of a daughter, Howells resented his own ominous prescience
in completing a Requiem so soon before his son's death.
The Requiem is a work of immense depth and a rapt,
hushed intensity. The text deserves comment in that only two movement uses the traditional
words of the Requiem as Verdi or Mozart employed them. Otherwise it is entirely
in English, based around Psalm texts.
Equally intense is the anthem Like as the hart, written
in a single day in early 1941 as one of a set of Anthems "In time of War".
This is perhaps the best-known of all Howells' anthems, and its haunting
melodies can be heard echoing almost daily somewhere in the Anglican realm.
In late 1941 Howells was appointed as Acting Organist at
St John's College, Cambridge and eighteen months later, spurred on by a sense
of mission to revitalise English choral music, he composed his famous morning
and evening Canticles for King's College, Cambridge, the Collegium Regale
service. Its immediate success marked a watershed for cathedral choral music. As
the Dean of King's College, Cambridge, later wrote to Howells: "You have
opened a wholly new chapter in church music. Of spiritual moment rather
than liturgical. It is so much more than music-making; it is
experiencing deep things in the only medium that can do it." Over the next
forty years Howells was to write no less than twenty settings of the Canticles
for cathedrals in both England and the United States.
The music Howells wrote for the Collegium Regale
service is here represented by the Communion Service. Written in 1956,
it re-uses the themes of his classic 1943 work in what is effectively a
"Parody" Mass. Like those famed Canticles, the Communion Service Collegium
Regale displays to excellent advantage Howells' natural facility with counterpoint,
his under- standing of how music works in the context of specific buildings and
their acoustical characteristics and, above all, his care to show the sheer beauty
of harmony with voices.
The setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis
which opens this recording is the St Paul's Service, perhaps unrivalled for the
sheer visceral excitement of its vast harmonic climaxes. The work has, in
Howells' own words, "a tonal opulence commensurate with a vast
church," while the "harmonic and tonality changes are deployed in a
more leisured, more spacious way."
Howells always had a gift for finding and setting unusual
poems to music. The Christmas anthem Long, long ago, for instance, sees
him respond with customary delicacy to a poem of faith and simplicity written
in 1940 by John Buxton while the latter was a prisoner of war.
In 1963 Howells heard with shock, along with the rest of
the world, of the death of President John F. Kennedy. It says much about his
standing that he was immediately commissioned to write a motet to be sung at
the memorial service in Washington Cathedral. Ever concerned to find precisely
the right text for this monumental occasion, he triumphed using Helen Waddell's
translation from Prudentius's Hymnus circa exsequias defuncti. The result,
Take him, earth, for cherishing, is quite simply one of the finest English
choral motets of the twentieth century. In a work which had to speak with
dignity of the world's loss, it achieves the integration of text and music at
the highest level. Perhaps for Howells the work brought again to the surface
some of the same feelings of loss which he himself had suffered in his life.
Appropriately, perhaps, this was the motet at Howells'
own memorial service twenty years later in 1983 in Westminster Abbey, Here the
composer took his place of rest in the north aisle alongside others who had
helped forge a character and identity in England's compositional life such as Vaughan
Williams, Elgar, Stanford and Walton. During the course of his long life, he
had been a distinguished teacher, examiner, scholar, broadcaster and critic,
widely admired and respected. Today his most audible legacy is a corpus of work
whose individuality and calibre mark Howells out as perhaps the single greatest
contributor to the re-birth of sacred choral music in Britain, a fact borne out
by a visit to almost any Anglican cathedral.
Barry James Holden
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HOWELLS: Requiem / Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing