Howells is best known for his output of chamber music, solo song and church music. Amongst the last-named, his most popular works, aside from the canticle settings, include the motet Take Him Earth for Cherishing (written in memory of John F. Kennedy), Hymnus Paradisi and the Requiem. The last two were written in response to the death of his son Michael, aged 9, in the back of an ambulance, an event from which Howells never totally recovered. Howells was born in Gloucestershire and, as an organ pupil at Gloucester Cathedral with Herbert Brewer (alongside Ivor Gurney and Ivor Novello), began to compose at an early age. In 1912 he won a scholarship to the RCM, 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, and the necessity of full-time medical treatment in London. This excused Howells war duty and, in 1920, he followed in Stanford’s footsteps and began teaching composition at the RCM where his pupils included Britten, Tippett, Imogen Holst and Gordon Jacob. He held this post for over 60 years. Other concurrent appointments included Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School (in succession to Holst) and Professor of Music at the University of London. During the Second World War, he deputised as organist and Master of the Music at St John’s College Cambridge, for Robin Orr, who was away on war duty. Howells was a close friend of Vaughan Williams and Walter de la Mare (much of whose poetry he set to music), and his work was inspired not by religion but by poetry, the countryside, and the magnificent architecture of the great mediaeval English cathedrals. Howells’ 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. As well as influence from the above, Howells was also fascinated by the music of Tudor composers, and modality is never far from the surface in his music. He wrote a number of keyboard pieces, including an entire suite called Lambert’s Clavichord, which are pastiches of Tudor composers, as well as a Mass in the Dorian Mode; and, with R.R. Terry, the Organist of Westminster Cathedral, he edited a great deal of Latin Tudor music for modern performance. He died the day after his good friend Sir Adrian Boult, and his ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey.


Like as the Hart       Herbert Howells

Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks,

So longeth my soul after Thee O God.

My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God.

When shall I come to appear before the presence of God.

My tears have been my meat day and night,

While they daily say unto me, Where is now thy God?


Psalm 42, vv 1-3

‘Like as the Hart’ is the third of a set of four motets written in 1941 using texts from the Psalms (the others being ‘O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem’, ‘We Have Heard with our Ears’ and ‘Let God Arise’). The sustained opening melody, full of longing and wistfulness, is a beautiful and rhapsodic expression of the text, and the middle section, begun by the sopranos, is truly plaintive in its nature. The piece is in a developed ternary form with the opening words and music returning to conclude the anthem.