The Church Music Society

Registered Charity No. 1200306

President: The Most Reverend Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham

The Church Music of Herbert Howells

Address given at the Annual General Meeting, 16 June 1982

On 17 October 1982, Herbert Howells, the senior member of the fraternity of church musicians and the last of the great English romantic composers, will be 90. He was born in the small Gloucestershire country town of Lydney, in the Forest of Dean. He was the youngest of eight children and his father owned a building and decorating business – and he played the organ at the Baptist Chapel. It was not a particularly musical family, but the combination of a part-time organist and a sensitive mother produced, as has so often been the case, at least one musical and highly sensitive child. By the time he started school, HH was requesting leave to go home to write music, and by the time he was ten he had composed what might be termed his first real piece. That was 80 years ago, a time when, as we may remind ourselves, Brahms had been dead only five years, Tchaikovsky nine and Liszt sixteen. Dvorak had two more years to live and Mahler nine. Verdi had did the previous year. In world affairs, radium had recently been discovered, the Labour Party founded: Queen Victoria had just died and the Boer War just ended.

This conjures up another world, as indeed it was for a musical ten-year-old as compared with 1982. Even a ten-year-old today has had the chance to learn music at school and there is no lack of opportunity to see and hear world-famous musicians, and if he has the good fortune to be a cathedral chorister he will perhaps have an even better chance to hear as well as sing great music. Music – not least orchestral scores – may readily be borrowed or bought. But in 1902 the chance of a young lad in Lydney hearing anything by the great composers was virtually non-existent. Lydney, like most English towns of its size, lacked much in the way of musical activity outside the church, and the music of the church was mostly limited to hymns, and that in a period where neither words nor music were at their most inspiring.

Into such a situation was HH born; and it seems remarkable that before he was out of his teens he was to show outstanding talent as a composer, with a particularly sensitive response to English poetry and prose. To study music at all, it was necessary to go to London or at least some sizeable town. The family suffered from severe financial problems and his father’s eventual bankruptcy considerably reduced any local standing the family might have had. Only the local squire, Charles Bathurst (later Lord Bledisloe) offered any kindness or help, and he introduced the young HH to the organist of Gloucester Cathedral, Sir Herbert Brewer. At the rather late age of 14, HH received lessons from Brewer, ostensibly piano lesson but in fact much other ground was also covered. The Bathurst family helped with the finances, and eventually Charles Bathurst persuaded Brewer to accept HH as an articled pupil. This system, with which you may be familiar but which has now virtually died out in our cathedrals, enabled a young musician to receive a thorough grounding in church music and keyboard playing, as well as harmony and counterpoint leading to composition, and the pupil would assist the cathedral organist with his duties. Brewer was a fine musician and nothing could detract from the architecture and beauty of Gloucester Cathedral and the sound of the organ and choir in that superbly atmospheric and resonant acoustic.

Even before he went to Gloucester, HH had become aware of beauty in various forms. He would go with workmen from his father’s firm and often their work would be in churches where HH first became aware of beauty in architecture. At other times he would ride into the countryside with the local baker, and to this day he can recall an occasion when they witnessed a radiant sunset. This early sensibility to beauty is a quality that is so often apparent in his music. Sheer beauty of sound is a characteristic of just about all that he has written.

Among his fellow pupils at the cathedral were the Ivors: Ivor Gurney and Ivor Novello. Novello had a great gift for melody but he needed HH to help him with his harmony, and Gurney had a wide knowledge of English literature which he imparted to HH. Both these friends were influential in their way. Many composers have been able to recall an actual event of particular significance in the early part of their lives. With HH the occasion was in September 1910 in Gloucester Cathedral. A new work in the Three Choirs Festival of that year was, in the words of Brewer, ‘some queer, mad work by an odd fellow from Chelsea’ – the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallisby Vaughan Williams. In 1910 that was a new sound, and it had a startling effect on HH. After hearing it, he and Gurney paced the streets of Gloucester all night, quite unable to sleep. A few days later he heard Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for the first time. Both these composers were to have an influence on HH, though this must not be exaggerated as it has sometimes been.

In the same year, aged 18, HH left Brewer to enter the Royal College of Music with an open scholarship, thus enabling him to fulfil his ambition to study with Stanford, who quickly perceived that his new pupil had quite outstanding talent – and there was indeed some talent about at the RCM at that time, including Arthur Benjamin, Arthur Bliss and Eugene Goossens. Bliss has remarked on how formidable he found these talented musicians, adding: ‘Among these, HH had the outstanding talent. His quickly-written scores, showing a beautiful, resolute calligraphy, with their technical maturity, simply disheartened me’.

So the really serious business of composing had begun in earnest. I have spent some time in leading up to this moment because there is no doubt that the four years under Brewer and the setting of Gloucester Cathedral were vital influences, never to be forgotten by HH. With a different background, he might possibly never have written any church music. It was fitting that forty years later that same Cathedral should be the setting for the first performance of his magnum opus, Hymnus Paradisi.

Over the next five years, HH studied with Stanford, Parratt, Walford Davies, and ‘less officially’ as he puts it, with Parry, Holst and Vaughan Williams. And on the day that HH entered the RCM as ‘the new Composition Scholar’, he was greeted by Sir Hubert Parry with what Parry called ‘supremely good news’: he had arranged for HH to go to Charles Wood for counterpoint. HH found Wood the most completely-equipped teacher of them all; and he was, of course, a prolific composer of church music. Over thirty anthems were published (half of them after his death) and twenty-four services (only thirteen in his lifetime) of which nineteen are Evening Services. To date, HH’s contributions are roughly the same: about thirty published anthems and just under thirty canticle settings, including eighteen Evening Services. It has been said that Wood could write a Service with the ease and speed with which anyone else might write a letter. HH has already lived half as long again as Wood but of course in general his writing has a more elaborate texture: the sheer writing out would take much longer. HH has said himself what a very quick writer he was in his youth. Composers tend to slow down as they grow older (an exception to this was Vaughan Williams) but HH was in his 50s when he wrote the Gloucester Service in a single sitting. Stanford wrote fewer settings than either Wood or HH but usually wrote settings to cover the entire Sunday services: Matins, Communion and Evensong. (Those in C, F, G, A and B flat are all like this). Only in the case of an early Unison Service and the Collegium Regale Service has HH imitated his teacher; and Wood, also a pupil of Stanford, never wrote a Complete Service. It should be added, however, that not in all cases did Stanford write all the parts of a particular Service at roughly the same time. There is a gap of fifteen years between the A major Evening Service and the rest of it. Likewise, HH added the Collegium Regale Communion eleven years after the Morning and Evening Service to which it relates.

The first of HH’s canticles to be composed would appear to be the Te Deum in E flat for unison voices. It is undated (not even a publisher’s date) and published with three ‘companion’ Services, as they are called on the copy, Morning, Communion and Evening, dedicated to Brewer and all in unison. There appears to be some confusion over the actual order of composition. The Te Deum is mainly in 2/2 and 3/2 time, with the occasional 7/4 or 5/4 bar, so we already have a recognisable feature of HH’s writing which has continued to this day. Although in unison and all within the range of a tenth, the markings indicate that it is intended for mixed voices. It is melodious and the organ part is quite elaborate and independent. Nevertheless, I suspect that the main point of interest in this Service is that the composer inadvertently omitted to set a line of the words! The only one of these early settings likely to be sung these days is the Evening Services, and only in cathedrals where a weekly ‘boys only’ service is sung. In all honesty, I can find little to commend it. My own choristers, generally, take to HH most readily (which is just as well) but they don’t respond at all to this early setting. Certainly, while bearing some familiar HH fingerprints, it is devoid of the flair and inspiration of the later settings.

On an altogether higher level is the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in G for full choir written in 1917. I have never understood why this has not been more popular with choirs, or at least with choirmasters. Compared with his more recent settings, it is not too difficult, it has a compelling rhythmic drive to it if not taken too slowly, and it is immediately attractive, with interesting lines for all the voices. Apart from two or three awkward places, it is not too difficult for the organist either. How I should love to hear it sung by 700 voices at a Diocesan Choirs’ Festival! Its most remarkable feature is that the Magnificat Gloria starts ‘out of key’ as it were. Stanford and Wood always had a fresh start in the home key and this had always been the practice, although S. S. Wesley, ever experimental, provides an organ link into one of his Glorias in the E major service, which was certainly a break with tradition. Dyson leads the voices in the Gloria of his D major Magnificat (1907) without a break, but the start is pure D major. Howells takes several bars to establish the home key clearly. The effect may pass unnoticed these days for we see things differently sixty years on: but in 1917 it was startling, as I was told years ago by a former cathedral organist who performed Howells in G shortly after its publication. WE now expect HH to write exciting Glorias. The closing bars of this particular Gloria are as thrilling as anything he was to write later.

Church musicians had to wait a long time before HH wrote any more Services, apart from the Evening Service in E for tenors and basses written for Ernest Bullock at Westminster Abbey in 1935. (Incidentally, this has just been re-issued in a version which includes altos, with the composer’s blessing, which will make it much more useful). Otherwise, there was a gap of 27 years between Howells in G and the Morning Service for King’s College, Cambridge, which begins the remarkable run of settings for various cathedrals and collegiate foundations. Most of HH’s church music is carefully dated. The general belief seems to be that the Collegium Regale evening canticles were written first, but HH’s dating gives November 1944 for the Morning Service and March 1945 for the Evening. The Communion Service, which is thematically linked to the others, was written in September 1956.

To say which is the finest of all HH’s canticle settings is difficult and it is obviously a matter of personal preference. I think there is general agreement, however, that three settings stand out above the others, namely St Paul’s, Gloucester and Collegium Regale Evening, and of these three I think that the Gloucester setting wins by a short head. It is, I believe, HH’s favourite. Of all the remaining settings, however – Morning, Communion and Evening – the Collegium Regale Te Deum is outstanding. Other composers have set that canticle with flair and originality, notably Britten, but there is no more inspiring and powerful setting than HH’s. Particularly impressive are the fine unison passages, especially if the altos sing with the trebles as directed and don’t treat these phrases as a rest for them, as cathedral lay clerks were once wont to do (admittedly often at the suggestion of the organist to avoid any excessive hooting). Equally effective are the moments of repose when the voices sing quietly without the organ, and there is a fine moment when the voices, after a build-up with the organ at the words ‘thou sittest at the right hand of God’ are left suspended high up on their own, without the organ, singing ff at ‘in the glory of the Father’.

The Evening Service is mostly gentle and reflective in mood, with a pronounced modal flavour, the composer having promised Boris Ord and Dean Milner-White that the mighty should be put down from their seat without a brute forced that would deny the Magnificat’s feminine association, and likewise that in the Nunc Dimittis the tenor soloist’s domination should characterise the gentle Simeon. Only in this setting and in the much later Chichester setting (1967) does HH write for a solo voice. The Collegium Regale Gloria, however, rises jubilantly in this, perhaps the finest of all HH’s Glorias, using a favourite HH device: trebles descanting over altos, tenors and basses in unison (altos at the octave). There is some adventurous writing for the altos again, for they twice sing up and down a D minorish scale. This caused quite a flutter among the King’s altos who first sang it after the war, as I was told by one of them.

Collegium Regale Evening Service was soon followed by the Gloucester Service. Again we have a predominantly restrained approach, with similar delicacy and beauty in the vocal scoring, but a superb high point in the Glorias on ‘As it was in the beginning’ when the trebles rise to top A (but why on the word ‘As’?). The two Glorias are not quite the same, and the second time round, the trebles’ top note, with everyone waiting for it, is delayed by two beats – a marvellous touch. I first heard this service in King’s Chapel in 1952 (it was unknown to me then) and I shall never forget the thrill and the surprise of that top A – and then again after the Nunc Dimittis it happened again! The closing bars of each Gloria (again not quite the same) are magical in their effect. This is the only Service where the Gloria ends quietly. One feels it retreats to the quietness of the more gentle monastic worship that Gloucester once knew, or perhaps that radiant Gloucester sunset was in the composer’s mind – not altogether fanciful ideas to associate with the romantic HH.

Two other morning settings followed, Canterbury (written in the same year as Gloucester) and Windsor, published in 1952. Both these are rarely heard and, indeed, as sadly more and more cathedrals abandon choral Matins, even on Sundays, they will presumably virtually die out. We sing the Windsor setting at Durham and it has a particularly felicitous Benedictus – light and flexible and without any of the stagnation of which HH is sometimes accused. Since both settings are products of what is perhaps the peak period of HH’s canticle settings, it is a pity that they are not more widely known. The writing, though testing to any choir, is of rather more spare texture than we sometimes find with HH, very much in line with the style of the Collegium Regale Evening Service, yet all the HH characteristics are three: the use of a main theme employed as a motive to give cohesion to the piece; the quasi-plainsong modal phrases; the fondness for the interval of a minor third; the variation in the vocal scoring (bars for trebles alone, or trebles and altos, contrasting with tenor/bass phrases); the careful regard for correct verbal stress; strong unison phrases breaking into harmony on key words; the easy moves from one key to another; the to-ing and fro-ing between major and minor tonality; and even a not infrequent hark-back to the use of the false relation so beloved of 16th century composers and 20th century choristers. (You will notice this last device in the organ introduction to the Nunc Dimittis at Evensong later this afternoon). Many of these finger-prints will be found on almost any page of HH’s choral writing, but used always with one end in view; creating a beauty of sound that is supremely apt for a church service. To use a much maligned word that is rather out of fashion these days – it is devotional music of the finest quality. Some of these devices would appear to have been learnt from Stanford – not the Stanford of the Te Deum in B flat, which marches on at one speed throughout, but the more sensitive Stanford if, say, the C major and G major Te Deum settings.

It is impossible within this talk to refer to particular points in all these settings. They each have certain characteristics of their own while generally conforming to HH’s inimitable style. Often the particular characteristics are dictated by the building for which a service was written – for HH writes these as much for buildings as for people. For example, the St Paul’s service, which we shall hear at Evensong shortly, is described thus by its composer:

Of the series of canticle-settings, this is the most extended in scale. With the great spaces of St Paul’s in mind, as well as the acoustical problems John Dykes Bower had experienced during our training in Gloucester Cathedral, the nature of this setting would be acutely influenced. Prolonged echo, notable in St Paul’s, would dictate a less rapidly-changing harmonic rhythm….harmonic and tonality changes are built more slowly. But with these conditions there comes a heightened volume of sound, and a tonal opulence commensurate with a vast church.

In view of these remarks, it is interesting to note certain similarities between this and the Gloucester service. They both have a sense of spaciousness about them, yet you are aware of the greater delicacy of Gloucester Cathedral as a building (excepted those great Norman pillars in the Nave).

To have set the word of Magnificat, let alone Nunc Dimittis eighteen times may imply that it has become automatic. Certainly the cynics say that once you have heard one of these settings, you have heard them all. True, HH’s vocabulary is limited. If almost any other composer who has also written many works in other forms had decided to write eighteen Magnificats, he would no doubt have been inclined to try and different approach each time. Wisely, perhaps, no one else has tried it, but supposing Britten had found the time and the inclination to do so, he would surely have been more experimental. Howells, though, has maintained a basically similar approach throughout these settings. I am glad he has. I have never actually considered them to feel repetitive in performance. Almost sixty years (and sixteen settings) separate the Evening Service in G and the Dallas canticles (composed 1975 and the most recently published) and there are no signs of either waning powers or mere re-statement in the latter. Indeed, they are particularly rich and inventive harmonically, with some novel touches in the word-setting. How would people feel if they favourite author suddenly decided to write in a quite different style. What disappointment there would be! We have six of the full choir Evening Services in use at Durham (including the splendid CMS Jubilee setting, again from the peak period, following the St Paul’s service) and I find a freshness in them each time. Also, I find that most of the choir and many of the congregation actually revel in these pieces and anything on the service sheet by HH is eagerly looked forward to. I am sure that if there are cathedral choirs as we know them now in 20, 30 or 50 years time, the best of these setting will still be sung, even if the accompaniment is on organs with no pipes. I don’t think the organ parts would sound too well scored for guitars, however. Still, I must not sound such a pessimistic note. Rather, I must leave the canticles and pass on to the anthems, but before I do so, let us hear the second Gloria of the Gloucester Service.


The first anthem to be published was the carol-anthem Here is the little door, dedicated to G. K. Chesterton and with words by Frances Chesterton. This has a simple charm – as do the words – with, not surprisingly, some influence of Vaughan Williams. It was followed a year later by a much more original piece, however, A spotless rose, which remains one of HH’s loveliest creations. Dedicated to his sensitive mother and written in one sitting after watching some trains shunting from the window of a cottage in Gloucestershire which overlooked the Midland Railway, this setting of 14th century words has become as much a part of Christmastide as Harold Darke’s In the bleak mid-winter published eight years earlier, though it is much more difficult. The mood is set with the opening words ‘A spotless rose is blowing, sprung from a tender root’, and the music moves as gently as a soft breeze, floating on chords – mainly fourths – moving in parallel. The second verse is given to A solo male voice usually sung by a baritone but, since the range is one octave (E-E), equally suitable for a tenor: the point is that it is so beautiful it should be given to your most pleasing and sensitive singer. The chorus meanwhile, marked ppp and remotely, repeats words from the first verse. Irregular barring helps HH to achieve wellnigh perfection in attention to verbal stress here, and it all falls into place quite miraculously. The third and final section has the choir singing the soloist’s words to the music of the first verse and it ends with an exquisite extended final cadence. HH is renowned among singers for the beauty of his cadences but he has hardly surpassed this one. Every Christmas, Patrick Hadley, who also wrote a lovely Christmas piece to medieval words and dedicated it to his mother (I sing of a maiden), used to send HH a postcard on which he had copied out this cadence and added the words ‘Oh Herbert, that cadence!’. A third carol anthem (undated) was published the following year, Sing Lullaby, words by the Gloucestershire poet F. W. Harvey Here, too, there are floating parallel chords of the greatest delicacy (shades of Vaughan Williams here, one must admit) sung by the top three parts, with the full basses singing a gentle, soothing melody below, later taken up by the trebles as the lower parts sing the undulating chords. There are some daunting modulations in the middle of this piece before the return to the key and music of the opening. Not at all an easy piece to sing, but all so beautiful in the hands of a sensitive and capable choir.

A number of other short choral pieces followed in the 1920s including medieval texts again, and some George Herbert, but as with the Canticles there was quite a gap before any more substantive anthems appeared, and their appearance was fortuitous. In January 1941, HH and his wife were snowed up in a Gloucester cottage. To pass the time, HH wrote five anthems at the rate of one a day. Three of these were later published, plus a fourth, Let God arise, which was written on the Easter Day following the snowy January. The first of these, O pray for the peace of Jerusalem, has an unusually simple texture for HH, with long expressive unison phrases. Apart from a brief central climax at ‘and plenteousness within thy palaces’, it is a suitably restrained piece. The second, We have heard with our ears, again makes much use of unison writing but this is Allegro risoluto though chiefly in D minor, breaking into harmony and D major at ‘Thou art my King, O God’. A return to the minor and unison, with much of the excitement in the organ part, leads to a repetition of the major key and a final coda of alleluias. As a concise and not too taxing example of HH’s church music, this is a worthwhile piece, though its performances seem to be limited to the north-east. The best-known of these is the third, Like as the hart, marked with a quiet intensity and – equally important – not too slowly – a marking I mentally put on many of HH’s canticles and anthems. The longing of the Psalmist (all these anthems are set to words from the Psalms) is set most expressively. The phrases are so carefully shaped that one can hardly think of those words set in any other way. There is a touch of excitement at the words ‘Where is now thy God’, but the general mood of the piece is one of restraint and a quiet beauty, with another example of delicate treble descanting over the return of the opening theme sung by unison tenors and basses. It ends in the utmost serenity with one of those long drawn-out cadences, the organ having the final say with three chords over which I once swooned with the aforementioned Patrick Hadley. The fourth anthem, Let God arise, is fiery and dramatic, and considering how choristers seem to enjoy singing it, strangely neglected. The quiet central section ‘He is a Father of the fatherless’, is very moving in the way that, after two subdued unison phrases, it breaks into expressive, Howellsian harmony at the words, ‘even God in his holy habitation’ – a moment to treasure out of all HH’s church music.

In the early 50s HH wrote some part-songs for the Lady Margaret Singers in Cambridge, one of which is classed as a carol-anthem, Long, long ago. This has some importance, I think, although one never hears of it being sung, because it is one of a group which shows HH making greater demands on his singers in the ways of more intricate rhythms, wider intervals, increased dissonance – and an expectancy that the singers will be able to pitch awkward notes with absolute assurance. These are, of course, post-Hymnus Paradisi pieces and showed HH demanding more from choral singers than previously (the difficulties in earlier pieces like Sing lullaby are chiefly over intonation: generally, the actual notes are not too difficult.

Just prior to this group, HH had written King of Glory which we are presently to hear at Evensong. I am mentioning this after Long, long ago however, because although HH calls this No 3 of Three Motets for chorus and organ, the first and second were actually published eight and nine years respectively after No 3. These three motets are HH’s most extended works for choir and organ and they actually appeared in Novello’s old oratorio yellow-and-brown-covered format. The other two are The House of the Mind and God is gone up, and all three provide a taxing sing for the choir, the only respite out of all three coming in King of glory where a treble soloist is heard briefly at the words ‘Wherefore with my utmost art I will sing thee’ and a tenor soloist is heard equally briefly, following that with ‘And the cream of all my heart I will bring thee.’ Long sustained phrases abound, notably in the final verse, no less taxing for having unison phrases intermingled with the polyphonic writing. George Herbert’s great poem of praise and thanksgiving, which most of the hymn commentators appear to underrate or even ignore, has certainly inspired HH. He extends Herbert’s three verses into an anthem of considerable stature by frequent repetition of the words, far more than in any previous anthem.

The high point of the first verse is at the fourth occurrence of ‘Thou hast spared me’ and in verse two the climax comes on the word ‘Thou alone didst hear me’. The third verse begins majestically but increases in animation through the closing pages. ‘King of Glory’ (2 August 1949), coming as it does after an eight year break in the writing of anthems, is the herald of a long line of fine pieces, some twenty in number, which have appeared at regular intervals since. Most of these are with organ, though more recently, HH, having stated in his mid-sixties that he wanted to write more unaccompanied pieces, has kept to his word, and three of his most recent publications (all 1978) are in this category: Come, my soul, dedicated to an old friend, the late Richard Latham, and two settings of George Herbert poems: Sweetest of sweets and Let all the world. For one of his finest unaccompanied pieces, however, we must hark back to 1964 and the motet dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy, Take him, earth, for cherishing. Not for the first time, HH turned to words of Prudentius in Helen Waddell’s poetic translation. The texture varies from four to eight parts, there is much telling use of chromaticism and some abrupt changes of key to heighten particular dramatic moments, and, as ever, some of the most effective writing is in the occasional gentle unison phrases. It is 23 pages of taxing unaccompanied singing, and with a low B for the basses at the very end, it is vital to maintain the pitch.

There is not time to dwell any more on the virtues of other anthems, but brief mention must be made of HH’s ability to illuminate many fine texts, obviously chosen by a man with a wide knowledge of literature and an ear for the beauty of the words. Some sources have already been mentioned: there is the medieval verse and the poems of Chesteron, F. W. Harvey and Robert Bridges, and, most of all, George Hebert. His favourite poet is actually Walter de la Mare but the numerous settings of de la Mare are all secular: part-songs and solo songs. All these must take second place to the Psalmist however, a source unlikely to be exhausted by any one composer.

A brief comment, too, on HH’s use of the organ, which is masterly, as one would expect of a musician who is also an organist and held the positions of Sub-Organist of Salisbury Cathedral for a brief period in 1917 and Organist of St John’s College, Cambridge, during World War II. The late Walter Stanton told me once of how on several occasions at Salisbury in 1917 he went into the cathedral of an evening with HH and that HH would pour forth the most remarkable improvisations. It is said, too, that while at St John’s, HH never actually played a printed piece of music but always improvised. Many of his pieces are rather in the manner of improvisations. The Psalm-Prelude to be hear at Evensong is a particularly fine example, dedicated to John Dykes Bower with St Paul’s Cathedral in mind. While we are not today concerned with his organ works, mention must be made of his considerable contribution in this field, from the 1st Organ Sonata written while he was an articled pupil under Brewer to the Partita composed in 1971, a span of over sixty years. In the accompaniments to service-settings, HH has developed the role of the organ and its independence, developed [in their day] by S. S. Wesley and T. A. Walmisley, and continued by Hugh Blair, Dyson and Bairstow. The organ never over-rides the voices but nor does it merely double the voice parts. It gives the necessary support but it also provides considerable additional interest and has its own character, not unlike the orchestra part in, say, a romantic piano concerto, though on a smaller scale.

Despite this, however, HH’s directions for the organist are the absolute minimum. The simplest of manual changes are indicated, with an occasional marking of Swell or Choir, or perhaps Swell to Choir. As to the actual registration, this is almost entirely omitted: just the very occasional Full Swell, or Trumpet, or Tuba, or 32 ft, with more specific request in the Sequence for St Michael, written for St John’s College, Cambridge, that the 32 ft is only to be used for the quiet ending if appropriately subdued. Perhaps he had less than happy memories of the St John’s 32 ft. The frequently linear music of HH cries out for the organist to solo out a particular part. There are many opportunities but very few are actually specified by the composer. As it happens, solo is indicated in King of Glory in four places, no less. It is one of the delights of accompanying HH’s church music to discover possible phrases for soloing out.

I can do no more than just mention some of the items other than Services and anthems that HH has contributed to church music. Most memorable are some of his hymn tunes, and particularly Michael  to Robert Bridges’ poetic paraphrase, All my hope on God is founded. In recent years this has become immensely popularly, appearing frequently on weekly hymn progress on radio and television. ‘In recent years’, note, yet that hymn first appeared in The Clarendon Hymnal in 1936 and was neglected for over thirty years. There have been some distinctive chants, too, and the rarely-heard Preces and Responses, written for Canterbury Cathedral in 1967. They are beautifully scored for voices but their difficulty and the somewhat over-elaborate approach to this particular part of the Anglican service has weighed against their use.

That, then, is a somewhat sketchy survey of HH’s church music. Surprisingly little has been written about HH and his music. But is it so surprising? He has never wanted to be in the public eye. In his own words:

I have gone out of my way to avoid publicity, and the writing of potential pot-boilers has certainly never appealed to me in the slightest. One or two works have brought me some acclaim and have gone the rounds, but in general I have always written first and foremost because I wanted and needed to write: performance, publication and the rest I tend, rightly or wrongly, to leave to others. I earn my bread and butter as a teacher, not as a composer.

Well, I suppose we must accept the composer’s words, if feeling he is a little over-modest in assessing the acclaim he has received. It is sadly true that hardly any of his secular compositions (of which there are many in just about all forms apart from symphony and opera) have reached through to the general public. There is no major book on HH. Indeed, apart from several brief articles (the best of which was written in 1954 by Gerald Finzi), there are, so far as I know, only two slim booklets; one a tribute to HH on his 80th birthday by Robert Spearing, elegantly produced by the Trio Press in a limited edition of only 150 copies, but there are only fifteen pages of text! The other is a more substantial study by Christopher Palmer, published by Novello in 1978, which has about seventy pages of text. One reviewer said of this book that it has ‘more masochism and sex than one expects to encounter in a book about music. All I can say is that far this intriguing side of Mr Palmer’s book has passed me by. Anyway, we should be grateful to the author for he is out on his own in this field – I mean Howells and his music.

To those of us in the more narrow field of church music, however, HH must be placed at the highest level, surely a worthy successor to the line of Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, Wesley, and Stanford. HH said of Stanford, in a tribute written in 1974, fifty years after Stanford’s death:

Let no shadow fall upon him, or upon the sheer beauty of immemorial texts he loved and set to music of an equal beauty.

We may well say this one day of HH. Yet Howells, who through his long life has always had the feeling that somehow he belonged to the Tudor period, would probably be grateful if we simply echoed the words that Thomas Morley wrote about his teacher, William Byrd:

            A man never without reverence to be named of the musicians


…‘Oh, Herbert, that cadence!’

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