The Music of Herbert Howells

PDF The Music of Herbert Howells January 10, 2014

Book author
  1. Byron Adams
  2. David Maw
  3. Diane Nolan Cooke
  4. Phillip A. Cooke

Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was a prodigiously gifted musician and the favourite student of the notoriously hard-to-please Sir Charles Villiers Stanford. Throughout his long life, he was one of the country's most prominent composers, writing extensively in all genres except the symphony and opera. Yet today he is known mostly for his church music, and there is as yet relatively little serious study of his work. This book is the first large-scale study of Howells's music, affording both detailed consideration of individual works and a broad survey of general characteristics and issues.
Its coverage is wide-ranging, addressing all aspects of the composer's prolific output and probing many of the issues that it raises. The essays are gathered in five sections: Howells the Stylist examines one of the most striking aspect of the composer's music, its strongly characterised personal voice; Howells the VocalComposer addresses both his well-known contribution to church music and his less familiar, but also important, contribution to the genre of solo song; Howells the Instrumental Composer shows that he was no less accomplished for his work in genres without words, for which, in fact, he first made his name; Howells the Modern considers the composer's rather overlooked contribution to the development of a modern voice for British music; and Howells in Mourning explores the important impact of his son's death on his life and work.
The composer that emerges from these studies is a complex figure: technically fluent but prone to revision and self-doubt; innovative but also conservative; a composer with an improvisational sense of flow who had a firm grasp of musical form; an exponent of British musical style who owed as much to continental influence as to his national heritage. This volume, comprising a collection of outstanding essays by established writers and emergent scholars, opens up the range of Howells's achievement to a wider audience, both professional and amateur.


The Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II is a û tting time to take stock of Herbert Howells9s compositional achievement and legacy. He was one of the distinguished British composers commissioned to write for the coronation ceremony; and his work for this occasion, the Introit 8Behold, O God Our Defender9(HH 276), composed by his account on Christmas Day in 1952, 2 seemingly epitomises his position. Aged sixty, he was a doyen of the English musical establishment. A professor at the Royal College of Music (RCM) since 1920, he was an accomplished and highly respected composer of church music who could be counted on to write something that would û t a state ceremonial occasion: music that would reü ect national pride and identity before the world; music that would blend with the ceremonial, being part of it and not raising its voice beyond the pageantry.

If the muted tone and warm sound- world of the piece seem on the surface to manifest the respectability that would be expected for such an occasion, they sit oddly with the ecstatic turn the music continually takes. There are just three clauses in the text (one and a half verses of Psalm 84), yet by taking each as the basis of a separate section of music, Howells stretches them into a piece of almost four minutes9 duration. In a way scarcely prompted by either the words or the occasion, each of the three sections builds from a soft initial dynamic to an eff ulgent climax before dying down again. Each one depends on an unexpected twist in the harmony: the û rst, at 8Behold9 in the û rst section, arrives on the anticipated supertonic, not in the root position of the harmonic sequence but on an unstable second- inversion chord; the second, at 8anointed9 in the second, substitutes a û rst- inversion C major chord for the expected E major in progressing from and back to A; and the third, at 8better9, releases a vocal stretto on the dominant of the supertonic, not into the anticipated F # minor but into B minor. | e last of these winds down with a cadence progressing between û rst inversions of G and F majors (both with added minor sevenths and major ninths) before settling on the tonic E, exercising a gift for cadences that its composer had revealed as early as 1919, with his carol 8A spotless rose9 (HH 109), in the same key. Yet such technical cataloguing seems to render the music in terms that could have been penned by any composer, when the eff ects they describe could only have come from one.​

What is striking about the sensuality of this music is that it manages not to jar: it does not û ght against the formality of the occasion and of its liturgical setting but blends perfectly with it. Yet what it blends into the stiff formality of a public ceremony is something highly personal and emotionally raw; and the fact of it constitutes a central and characterising paradox of its composer. Howells spent his whole career under the protection of the country9s most prestigious institutions, yet he was the product of a poor, lower- middle- class family from rural Gloucestershire, which was a cause of psychological insecurity to him throughout his life. Gifted with a prodigious compositional technique, he nonetheless left many pieces unû nished or in variant forms and took little trouble to maintain his output in any kind of order. Achieving early renown as a composer, circumstances deü ected him from this in the middle of his career, and it was teaching that constituted the backbone of his professional life. He composed extensively in all genres except the symphony and opera (though at one time entertaining ambitions for both of these), yet he became best known in the relatively peripheral sphere of church and organ music, even though this accounts for little more than a third of his output. 4 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.


I remember him so clearly: a sweet, silvery- haired gentleman, scarcely over û ve feet tall, still strikingly handsome in his eighties and always immaculately debonair in his attire, though you sensed that the beautifully cut suits had been made many years before and were carefully looked after. His speech was an elegant, expressive Oxford drawl; no trace remained of the west- country burr he must have had as a child. When a woman was present, his face would light up with a smile that had made many feminine hearts melt, and somehow his troubling deafness would disappear. He had charm, a now unfashionable quality, but it was so intrinsic to his personality that you never felt it was being switched on for eff ect.

I met him now and again in the 1970s, sometimes at the Royal College of Music, once at his home in Barnes, and memorably in Cambridge, a place of happy memories for him ever since his wartime stint as organist at St John9s College – this had sparked off his second career as the composer who, more than any other, gave the Anglican Church its musical voice in the second half of the twentieth century. He loved to tell stories; in an earlier life perhaps he had been a Celtic bard, a weaver of dreams. Many of us heard his tales of a long- ago lunch with Ravel and Stravinsky, his encounter with Elgar, his excitement at the 1910 premiere of the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia … but his meeting with 8dear George9 (he was referring to Gershwin) in America? Perhaps that one was just a dream.

I sensed that he always felt beholden to 8Uncle Ralph9 – Vaughan Williams had the wider reputation and more illustrious career, and years earlier he had gifted Howells an annuity, probably from a mixture of sincere regard for Howells9s work and guilt at his own more comfortable circumstances. Did that well- intentioned and generous act on the part of the senior composer perhaps inhibit Howells9s never- very- well- developed instinct for self- promotion? Certainly, his reputation has remained overshadowed by Vaughan Williams, but in Phillip Cooke and David Maw9s wonderful and wide- ranging book, he û nally receives the critical and analytical attention he has always deserved, adding a major study to the valuable but all- too- slender Howells bibliography.

If you can loosely divide composers into novelists and poets, Howells was one of music9s poets, but as the essays in this book reveal, this does not imply that his work was lacking in structural integrity or subtle compositional thought. Nor was his range narrow (though his style is instantly recognisable): for those of us who knew him best as a composer of exquisite cathedral music, it comes as a revelation to read about his work in so many other genres. And, as a composer so often pigeonholed as English, Howells is revealed as one whose non- English inü uences, not least Debussy, so powerfully shaped his style.

Howells the man, below the surface, was an enigma – the chapter on his spirituality explores this elusive aspect of him. | e music, too, is not always easy to get to know, often yielding up its essence only gradually, but this book takes us closer to its heart and deserves a resounding welcome from all of us who love and value it.


The first thing likely to strike a reader of this book is the superb photograph of Herbert Howells on its cover. Seated at the Broadwood grand piano in his habitual teaching quarters, Room 19 of the Royal College of Music, Howells is caught in a moment of reü ection. As ever he is smartly dressed, and the setting is an institutional one, but the illumination from the window bathes him in a mystical light, accentuated by the evocative chiaroscuro; and so the photograph brings out a dichotomy of formality and poetry that is a prominent theme in the discussions of the book. Poignantly, he often referred to the piano as 8Mick9s piano9, thus touching on another of the book9s themes, the inü uence on his creativity of his son9s tragic, early death. | e photograph was taken on 24 October 1972 by Joan Littlejohn, Howells9s pupil and assistant during the û nal decades of his life. We are very grateful to her for enabling us to obtain the image and for granting us permission to use it.

The book would not exist at all had it not been for the support and enthusiasm of the Herbert Howells Trust. We are especially grateful to Andrew Millinger, the Honorary Secretary to the Herbert Howells Society, and to Miss Caroline Marks of St John9s College, Cambridge, who facilitated our dealings with the Trust. | anks are due also to Martin Neary, Chairman of the Herbert Howells Society for his interest in the project and to John Rutter for so readily agreeing to write the touching Foreword that heads the volume.

We have been most fortunate in our publishers. Michael Middeke and Megan Milan, our editors at Boydell & Brewer, have shown an inspiring commitment to the book and unceasingly encouraged us towards a production of the highest standards. In the later stages, we have beneû tted from the consummate skills of Jo Bottrill and Robert Whitelock in the copy-editing and formatting of the text and contents. We are extremely grateful also to Florence Maw, for her fastidious and generously given assistance with the indexing, and to David Lee, for his tirelessly patient skill in realising certain musical examples of an unusual cast.

Lewis Foreman, Jeremy Dibble, Patrick Russill, Ronny Krippner and Jonathan Clinch all provided assistance of various kinds at crucial moments in the development of the project. Paul Andrews put in an enormous amount of time in assembling his comprehensive list of works, which will remain an essential tool to all future scholars of Howells9s music, and to addressing questions arising in relation to it. | e staff of the Royal College of Music Library, and especially Peter Horton and Michael Mullen, kindly facilitated our access to and use of the Howells archive that is kept there. We are grateful also to Adrian Partington and to all those involved in the Gloucester | ree Choirs Festival, 2013 for their interest in the book.

Our editors agreed to the use of a large number of musical examples. | is is especially important where the discussion concerns music that is less well known or unpublished, and the book is all the better for their inclusion. We are grateful to those who have granted us permission to cite works still under copyright. Our thanks are extended for the very generous permissions granted by the following.
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