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Remembering Herbert Howells, 1892-1983

On this day a gifted composer from Britain was born: Herbert Howells. Not being familiar with his work, I was happy to learn about him and his music.

Perhaps because of the acoustics of so many beautiful stone cathedrals in the British Isles, British composers have contributed many exceptional compositions, particularly vocal and choral. It’s not surprising that one performance can change a life and career path. Howells was an organ student at Gloucester Cathedral, but changed his focus after hearing the premiere of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, conducted by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. On a personal note, I can understand the effect of this on Howells. I’ve only experienced hearing it as a recorded work; to hear it live in a cathedral seems overwhelming.

Howells went on to compose in various mediums: vocal, choral, chamber music and orchestra. After losing his nine-year-old son Michael to spinal meningitis in 1935, grief kept him from composing. His daughter suggested he compose “music for Michael” to ease his pain. The composer outlined Hymnus Paradisi, but placed it in a drawer until Ralph Vaughan Williams and other composers encouraged him to complete it for the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival of 1950.

Howells continued teaching at the Royal College of Music until he was 80. He even composed a motet on the death of John Kennedy, “Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing,” written for a joint Canadian-American memorial service on November 22, 1964, the first anniversary of JFK’s death.  His music reflects the influence of modal counterpoint, and the entry from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians by Hugh Ottaway describes it as “a mastery of soft dissonance, variegated texture and refined sonority.”

The NLS Music Section has a number of songs for voice and piano which have become standard titles in the vocal repertoire; among them are “A Spotless Rose” (BRM 02579) and “King David” (BRM 23870). Listed below are more titles. Why not program a song from Howells for your next recital?

Vocal: “Before me, careless lying” (BRM 35752), “Like as the Hart Desireth the Waterbrooks: Psalm 42:1-3″ (BRM 35619) (tenor part only), “King David” (BRM 23870), “Mally o!” (BRM 09102).

Choral: “A Spotless Rose” (BRM 02579) and (BRM 10611), “Like as the Heart” (BRM 08116).

Organ (all titles in bar-by-bar format): Saraband (BRM 02889) Fugue, chorale and epilogue (BRM 02888), Master Tallis’s Testament (BRM 02722), Saraband for the Morning of Easter (BRM 02721), Preludio sine nomine (BRM 02464), Psalm-prelude: no. 1 from Three psalm-preludes for the organ, op. 32 (BRM 23985), Paean, no. 6 of Six Pieces for the Organ (BRM 23862), Psalm-prelude, op. 32, no. 3 (BRM 02401), Rhapsody, op. 17, no. 3 (BRM 23696), Psalm-prelude no. 2 from Three Psalm-preludes (BRM 23656).

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