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ClassicsOnline Home » HOWELLS: Hymnus paradisi / Sir Patrick Spens
Herbert Howells is known chiefly for his church music, arguably the finest by any English composer of the twentieth century. Sir Patrick Spens, Howells’ first attempt at writing a large-scale choral work, has received only one known performance until this recording. Hymnus paradisi was composed under heart-breaking circumstances following the death of the composer’s son, Michael, aged nine. As Howells later wrote: ‘The sudden loss of an only son … might impel a composer … to seek release and consolation in a language and terms most personal to him. Music may well have power … to offer that release and comfort. It did so in my case.’ Throughout this deeply moving work, in which the human tragedy of a boy’s death and a father’s grief are enshrined, Howells’ command of choral and orchestral polyphony is masterly.
By James McCarthy
Herbert Howells was the composer who, even more than Vaughan Williams, gave a contemporary 20th century sound to the Anglican liturgy. Hymnus paradisi is one of Howells’ most celebrated works. …the performance and recording are excellent…[Sir Patrick] Spens is a roistering, rambunctious piece for soloists, choir and orchestra. Naxos claims that apart from one performance by students in 1930, this is its first outing, certainly its first recording. Based on a Scottish ballad, it tells of the disastrous attempt to bring the daughter of Norway’s King to the King of Scotland. It’s a good piece.
Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Hymnus paradisi • Sir Patrick Spens
Herbert Howells is known chiefly for his church music, arguably the finest by any English composer of the twentieth century. He was a pupil of Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral from 1905 to 1911; then, from 1912 to 1916, he studied at the Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Wood. Apart from composing, he was an outstanding teacher and adjudicator. He taught at the Royal College of Music, succeeded Holst as director of music at St Paul 's Girls' School, and was professor of music at London University. His orchestral works include the Elegy (1917), the Fantasia for cello (1937) and the Concerto for Strings (1938); amongst chamber works are the Piano Quartet (1916) and the string quartet, In Gloucestershire (1916-c.1935). Large-scale choral works include his masterpiece Hymnus paradisi (1938, rev. 1950), Missa Sabrinensis (1954) and Stabat Mater (1963-5). On a smaller scale the motet on the death of President Kennedy, Take him, earth, for cherishing (1964) ranks high in his achievements as does his canticle settings Collegium Regale (1945) written for King's College, Cambridge. He also made a substantial contribution to organ literature and wrote many fine songs.
Sir Patrick Spens, for baritone, chorus and orchestra, composed in 1917 when Howells was 25, was his first attempt at writing on a large-scale choral canvas. Having won an award under the Carnegie Trust publication scheme for his Piano Quintet in 1916, Howells had high hopes of a similar success with his new work. This time, however, the judges had reservations. As the researches of Paul Andrews have revealed, some finance towards publication was offered, but nine years elapsed until the vocal score was finally published. The only known performance took place on 1 February 1930 in Newcastle with student performers conducted by William Gillies Whittaker. Given the freshness of the invention, it seems extraordinary that the work subsequently disappeared from the repertoire until this recording.
The text is a well-known traditional Scottish ballad dating back to medieval times. Howells's former teacher Brewer had had his version performed at the 1913 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival and it is possible that this was the spur to Howells's own wish to set it. He conceived it consciously as a dramatic choral scena, commenting that 'no phrase in the verse is ever repeated; all the lines in it might almost "belong to the soil and the sea"'. His model was Stanford's The Revenge and the influence of Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony is also apparent. The tale (which has its basis in historical fact) is of a master mariner charged by the King of Scotland to bring the King of Norway's daughter to him despite it being the worst time of the year to attempt such a voyage. The venture, unsurprisingly, ends in disaster!
Howells wished to write music that would reflect the 'essential swiftness of action' portrayed in the ballad which is told in colourful musical brushstrokes. After a few expectant bars the chorus plunges into the action with music that instantly portrays the sequence of events – the King's command, Sir Patrick's horrified response, the voyage to Norway, and the preparations for the return journey. With a slackening of tempo one of the crew voices his premonitions for the voyage and an ominous orchestral interlude presages doom. With the return of the chorus the tempest is unleashed, the orchestra portraying winds and waves as Sir Patrick valiantly tries to save the vessel. But all is in vain, and in the final section the keening laments of the Scottish women are heard in poignant music with the chorus divided into ten parts. At the end the music seemingly sinks into the waves, as if evoking the watery fathoms deep where the bones of Sir Patrick and the Scots lords lie.
The circumstances surrounding the composition of Hymnus paradisi are heart-rending. In the summer of 1935 Howells and his family were on holiday in Gloucestershire. On the 31 of August their nine-year-old son, Michael, felt ill; five days later he was dead, struck down by polio. In an attempt to help her inconsolable father, his daughter, Ursula, suggested he should commemorate Michael in music. As Howells later wrote: 'The sudden loss of an only son … might impel a composer … to seek release and consolation in a language and terms most personal to him. Music may well have power … to offer that release and comfort. It did so in my case.'
In 1932 Howells had composed a Requiem, although it remained unperformed until almost the end of his life. It was also around this time that he discovered Helen Waddell's Medieval Latin Lyrics which included Prudentius's Hymnus circa exsequias defuncti. It begins: ' Nunc suscipe, terra, favendum, gremioque hunc concipe molli ', and in her translation reads 'Take him, earth, for cherishing, To thy tender breast receive him'. He set them as part of an uncompleted motet and later they became the inscription at the head of the score of what was to become Hymnus paradisi. Later still, he was to set them memorably in his motet commemorating President Kennedy.
Howells drew on some of the texts and music of the earlier Requiem in the new work he began to write at his daughter's prompting. Referring to it as the 'Revised Requiem', the Latin and English texts are taken from the Psalms, the Missa pro defunctis and the Salisbury Diurnal which he described as 'immemorial reflections upon the transient griefs and indestructible hopes of mankind'. He explained that he 'used only two sentences from the Latin Requiem Mass, at the beginning and the end, knowing that one of them – " et lux perpetua luceat eis " – would govern the work – especially that one word 'lux ', "light"'. Howells wished to end the work in a mood of optimism rather than tragedy; he needed to summon 'an even more intense degree of the work's pervasive radiance'. For some time, however, he could not find a suitable text, until a friend suggested ' Holy is the true light ' at the end of Robert Bridges's anthology The Spirit of Man. For Howells, this was the perfect solution.
Having completed the work in short score by 1938, and achieved through its composition a personal catharsis in relation to his sorrow, it was put away as a private and personal document. In 1949 Herbert Sumsion, master of the music at Gloucester Cathedral, approached Howells for a work for the 1950 Three Choirs Festival. Howells played through his 'Revised Requiem' to him; Sumsion realising that here was a work of immense quality offered to perform it; it was, however, only after Gerald Finzi, Vaughan Williams and Boult expressed similar views that Howells agreed. He then orchestrated the work and probably composed the orchestral Preludio at this time. The title was Sumsion's inspired suggestion. Howells conducted the first performance of Hymnus paradisi on the 7th of September 1950; Isobel Baillie and William Herbert were the soloists.
Throughout, Howells's command of choral and orchestral polyphony is masterly and in the description of the music that follows, extracts from the composer's own programme notes are quoted. In the 'brief, concentrated' Preludio two important themes are heard at the outset, sombre and grief-laden. There is a dramatic eruption of anguish in the middle, leading to a climax that bursts like a shaft of consoling light. Despite its contemplative nature, the ' Requiem aeternam' that follows has 'moments of intense feeling', as when the words at the crux of the whole work ' Et lux perpetua ' are introduced. With the soprano soloist's entry, the tempo quickens and her tender, soaring melody is set to limpid, delicate orchestration.
The setting of ' The Lord is my shepherd ' is 'touched by the brooding, darker colours of the Preludio'. In tranquil phrases the soprano and tenor soloists sing of the ' waters of comfort ', before the chorus, in nervous, intense music, reflects the fear of the ' valley of the shadow of death '. A fervent climax is reached at ' I will dwell in the house of the Lord ', before the tenor and chorus conclude the setting with a typically Howellsian aching, melting cadence, on the word ' nothing'.
In the Sanctus Howells sets a combination of Psalm 121 in English and the Latin Sanctus to music that simply blazes with light. The opening seems to evoke the heavenly hosts and a climax is reached on the word ' Sanctus' with the soloists riding high above the chorus in an ecstatic paean of praise. Almost immediately afterwards, the first major climax of the work occurs and with it a 'point of departure at which the work turns away from initial brooding contemplation, and takes on an almost defiant activity.' After a further heady climax at ' Pleni sunt coeli ', the tempo slackens bringing music of consolation.
After this energy, ' I heard a voice ' is 'a temporary easing of tension … its restraint and quiet give it the character of an interlude'. The final movement, ' Holy is the true light ' unfolds in three great surges of luminous choral and orchestral writing. Over a deep pedal-point, distant ethereal trumpets are heard above an ever swirling orchestral texture until the chorus enters. The tension rises until a sonorous climax and an exultant change of key. As this material regenerates with each succeeding appearance, Howells carefully introduces the next part of the text to which he added a series of ' Alleluias'. These, he said, 'finally prepare and launch the climax of " the unfailing splendour wherein they rejoice with gladness evermore "' as the music becomes transfigured with 'pervasive light and warmth of consolation'. With the return of 'immemorial Requiem aeternam ', the music turns reflective and tranquil, bringing to a close, this deeply moving work in which the human tragedy of a boy's death and a father's grief are enshrined.
Andrew Burn acknowledges with gratitude the assistance of Paul Andrews and Andrew Millinger in providing information about Sir Patrick Spens.
Sung Text are available online at www.naxos.com/libretti/570352.htm
Further information on the music of Herbert Howells is available from the Herbert Howells Society (Andrew Millinger, Hon. Secretary), 32 Barleycroft Road, Welwyn Garden City, Herts AL8 6JU. Tel: 01707 335315 • firstname.lastname@example.org
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HOWELLS: Hymnus paradisi / Sir Patrick Spens