Herbert Howells

1892 1983

Herbert Howells

Composer • Organ


Howells was a 20th century English composer, organist and teacher. He rose to fame in the 1920s for his instrumental works, but then disappeared from the radar for a time, making a comeback with his outpouring of sacred music.

Herbert Howells was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire, England in 1892. He was the youngest of six children and showed much interest in music at a young age. His father was an amateur organist, and Herbert also took up interest in the instrument, studying with Brewer at the Gloucester Cathedral alongside Ivor Novello and Ivor Gurney. Howells then won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music to study composition with Charles Villiers Stanford and counterpoint with Charles Wood. He also followed studies with Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. Stanford was particularly encouraging of Howells and described him as his ‘son in music’ and conducted the premiere of his First Piano Concerto in 1913.

Howells was diagnosed with Graves’ disease in 1915 and give just six months to live, though he underwent an experimental treatment, radium treatment, and was able to live for nearly a century. Howells was appointed assistant organist at the Salisbury Cathedral in 1917, though his illness put an end to his service. Between 1917 and 1920, he served as an assistant editing Tudor manuscripts. He also became a teacher at the Royal College of Music, where he remained most of his life.

During these more restful years, he was very prolific, creating many more compositions than in the other periods of his life. Howells succeededGustav Holst as director of music at St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith in 1936 and was appointed assistant to Robin Orr at St John’s College in Cambridge in 1941.

Howells’ early works brought him much fame as a composer of songs and orchestral and chamber music. His most important influences were taken from Tudor models, including the use of modal counterpoint, and the elegiac styles of Elgar. The Tallis Fantasia and Pastoral Symphony by Vaughan Williams also greatly influenced Howells’ instrumental works, particularly his substantial string quartetIn Gloucestershire (1923). He was further influenced by English literature and the landscape of Gloucestershire. Interestingly, he combined these English traits with harmonies rich in French origin. His most notable early works include the Piano Quartet, Phantasy String Quartet (1916) and the Rhapsodic Quintet for clarinet and strings (1919), in addition toIn Gloucestershire.

At a high point in his composing career by the early 1920s, the musical community expected that he would achieve great fame. He was commissioned for some orchestral works,Sine nomine (1922) and the Second Piano Concerto (1925), which were both poorly received. Howells even withdrew the concerto from his output; it was revived after his death. Distraught over his failures, Howells entered a decade-long creative crisis and focused instead on teaching and adjudicating. Of the few substantial works he was able to produce, theRequiem for unaccompanied voices (1932) is the most important, though it was also not published until 1981.

Tragedy became an important aspect in Howells’ life. It is first present in Elegy (1917), a reflection on the losses of human lives in World War I, in memory of a friend that was killed in the war. Though, in 1935, after ten years of writing very little music, his nine-year old son died of polio, unlocking a stream of creativity and sadness that forms the basis of many of his most substantial works.Fantasia (1936) and Threnody (1935) for cello and orchestra are two movements of a cello concerto Howells was working on at the time of his son’s death, though he was unable to complete the work. Howells drew on his Requiem to compose his masterpiece Hymnus paradisi (1938) for soloists, chorus and orchestra, which shows many traits ofDelius and expresses his feelings of great loss. The first performance of the work was in 1950, after being convinced by Sunsion, Vaughan Williams andFinzi that it should be performed; it had remained a secret score since its near completion in 1938.

Hymnus paradisi was an unexpected success for Howells and led to other works with a similar setting, such as theMissa Sabrinensis (1954) and the Stabat Mater (1963-5).An English Mass is scored for smaller forces and is almost entirely in English. The gentle use of dissonance present in these works can also be found in works such asA Maid Peerless (1934) and The summer is coming (1964), in addition to his later church music.

Howells’ sacred music is almost always written for a specific church building, choir and soloists. His sacred output includes 16 settings of the canticles, the most successful of which are theCollegium Reale (1945) for King’s College in Cambridge and theMagnificat and Nunc dimittis (1964). His large-scale anthems are also impressive, especiallyThe House of the Minds (1954) and A Sequence for St Michael(1961). His choral anthems include Like as the hart Desireth the Waterbrooks(1931) and O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem (1941) which display a rhapsodic style. His motetTake Him, Earth, for Cherishing (1964) was written in dedication to President John F. Kennedy after his assassination and is considered his most brilliant a cappella anthem.

As a composer of songs, Howell was very successful. His settings of the music by the poet Walter de la Mare are his finest vocal works. These include the cyclePeacock Pie (1919) and the collection A Garland for de la Mare (1919-73) which he added to throughout his life.

Howells also wrote a lot of music for his own instrument including two sets of psalm-preludes, two sonatas and thePartita (1971-2). His Sonata No. 2 (1932) is without a doubt his most important solo work. He also composedMaster Tallis’ Testament(1940) to show his appreciation of the Tudor composers.

Though Howells experienced much success in the 1920s and again after Hymnus paradise, he is only remembered by the post-war generation for his late church music. After his death, his early instrumental works were rediscovered, revealing many impressive works worthy of performance.

Howells received many awards, including an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University, a Carnegie award and the appointment of Master of the Company in 1959.

Header image courtesy of Persoo.co.uk Other images courtesy of Music Sales Classical and Howells Singers