Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

Herbert Howells is best known for his output of chamber music, solo song and church music. Amongst the last-named his most popular works are settings of the canticles and the Mass for King’s College Cambridge, and canticles for the cathedrals of St Paul’s, Gloucester, Hereford, Winchester, York, and Chichester, as well as for the chapel choirs of St George’s Windsor, St John’s College Cambridge and Magdalen College Oxford, and for several American choral establishments. Larger scale choral works include the Hymnus Paradisi and the Requiem – both written in response to the death of his son Michael, aged 9, from meningitis, an event from which Howells never totally recovered. Howells was born in Gloucestershire, the son of a plumber, painter and decorator, the youngest of six children. As an articled pupil2 of Herbert Brewer, the organist of Gloucester Cathedral, he began to compose at an early age. In 1912 he won an open scholarship to the R.C.M., where his teachers were Stanford and Wood, and, in 1913, Stanford himself conducted the premiere of Howells’ piano concerto. An early appointment as sub-organist of Salisbury Cathedral was short-lived because of ill-health, but in 1920 Howells followed in Stanford’s footsteps and began teaching composition at the R.C.M. – a post he held for over 60 years, during which time he taught Britten and Tippett. Other appointments included that of Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School, in succession to Gustav Holst, and King Edward VII Professor of Music at the University of London. He stood in for Robin Orr as Organist of St John's College, Cambridge during the war years of 1941-1945. He was appointed CBE in 1953 and a Companion of Honour in 1972. Howells, a close friend of Vaughan Williams and Walter de la Mare (much of whose poetry he set to music), was inspired not by religion but by poetry, by the magnificent architecture of the great mediaeval English cathedrals, and by the countryside. His style fuses skilful melodic writing with a unique approach to harmony, pushing tonal and modal boundaries and creating a truly distinctive soundworld. The music shows influence from Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Delius and Walton. It is unique and highly charged, serene and subtle and yet very complex.

The present Te Deum Collegium Regale (King’s College) was written for the chapel choir at King’s College Cambridge, and is part of a set which also includes a Jubilate Deo, a Magnificat, a Nunc Dimittis and settings of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. These movements share many musical themes, motifs and chord progressions, and effectively provide most of the music required for Matins, a Eucharist and an Evensong. The Te Deum was the first movement of the set to be composed and dates from 1944. It was the result of a bet (one guinea) between Howells and the Dean of King’s College at the time – the gloriously named Archibald-Rollo Graham-Campbell. After a rousing opening section for SATB, much of which is in unison, the texture is broken down and smaller groups of voices interplay in a call and response style. The mood subsides briefly at verse 13, but becomes strong again at verse 14, changing again at verse 16 where a more contemplative section begins. From verse 26 a beautifully wistful style emerges, and pairs of voices (SB and AT) work separately before coming together for a mighty conclusion.

Howells wrote three sets of psalm preludes for organ between 1915 and 1960. Each set has three pieces, and each piece is based programmatically on the text of one verse of a psalm, and is a musical meditation and reflection on its meaning. In the case of the present Op. 32 no. 1, it is Psalm 34, verse 6 from which Howells takes his inspiration. The poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles. Op. 32, was published in 1921, although it was written in 1915. It is dedicated to Sir Walter Parratt. The piece unfolds slowly, in a modal D minor, but its conjunct, wandering melodic line modulates freely to more colourful tonalities. After a half-remembered echo of a moving motif from the slow movement of Elgar's first symphony, the music builds in volume, texture and urgency until, over a pedal C, it reaches a central climax. This gradually subsides, and the Elgarian chords are heard again before trouble and supplication are finally resolved onto a hushed chord of D major.

2Articled pupils to cathedral organists were a relatively common occurrence during the late Victorian period and into the early twentieth century. Today the equivalent title is an organ scholar. Articled pupils were organ students of the cathedral organist, who did not pay for their lessons, but in return were under a contract to play for services, and carry out musical tasks such as the organist allocated; a kind of musical apprenticeship.