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Howells: Requiem

Some notes on Herbert Howells's music and his Canadian connection

  • program note

Notes commissioned by Chronos Vocal Ensemble’s for the concert ‘Requiem: War and Peace | Life and Death’.

Herbert Howells (1893–1982) studied at the Royal College of Music (hereafter RCM, not to be confused with the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto) in London as a pupil of Charles Villiers Stanford, whose Three Motets, op. 38 are in Chronos’s repertoire and who described Howells as his “son in Music”; and Charles Wood, whose Hail, gladdening light opened the “Vespers” program last season. The composer and organist Sir Walford Davies also taught at the RCM during Howells’s studies there. Held in high enough esteem to have been named Master of the King’s Music after Elgar’s death, his influence is most felt today in BBC Radio 3’s longest-running series “Composer of the Week.” Davies wrote and hosted the BBC series “The Foundations of Music” and “Music and the Ordinary Listener” in the 1920s and 30s.

A grant from the Carnegie Trust afforded Howells the opportunity to edit, with RR Terry at Westminster Cathedral, a great deal of sacred music by William Byrd (1543–1623) and his contemporaries. Byrd’s importance to English cannot be overstated and was recognized by his peers. Even the normally taciturn Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal styles him “A Father of Musick.”

Howells’s early trajectory seemed to have him poised to be mentioned alongside Vaughan Williams and Elgar, and his early reputation as composer stemmed largely from his chamber and symphonic works—not for the church music for which he is principally known today. The first major shift in his output was prompted by the controversial reception of Piano Concerto No. 2, commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society and premiered under the baton of Sir Malcolm Sargent. Howells was very sensitive to criticism: he withdrew the concerto from the latter stages of preparing for publication with Curwen, and all but stopped composing for several years.

Any discussion of Howells is bound to involve the influence on Howells’s music of the sudden death of his only son, Michael, from polio in September 1935. Numerous sources, even today, suggest that the Requiem was written in response to Michael’s death.

In fact, it was completed in 1932 while Michael was still very much alive and well, although it was first performed only in November 1980, and published in 1981, after being discovered and reassembled by Joan Littlejohn. Another common misconception and false causation: the hymn tune Howells wrote to the text “All My Hope on God is Founded” was indeed renamed and published as “Michael” by the composer in honour of his son, and remains well known as such. But the tune was written in 1930, originally with the very dry title “A Hymn Tune for Charterhouse.”

Howells described the Requiem in an October 1932 letter as “a brief sort of ‘Requiem’ (on the Walford Davies model, but more extended.) … It’s done specially for King’s College, Cambridge—otherwise I might not have dreamed of it.”

The “extending” that Howells mentions can only refer to harmonic complexity—in fact, the Davies Short Requiem comprises 9 movements. According to Howells scholar Christopher Palmer, “the similarities between nos. 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6 in [Davies’s and Howells’s requiems] are striking, particularly in ‘I heard a voice from heaven.’” Palmer’s is perhaps an understatement. The texts and their ordering are identical, except the second movement: where Davies set Psalm 130, Howells selected Psalm 23. The works also share the key of D major; the Davies score bears the subtitle “in Memory of Those Fallen in the War.”

The Requiem may properly be viewed as a study for Hymnus Paradisi. Arguably Howells’s greatest work. Hymnus Paradisi (1936–38, premiered 1950) bears the heading “To my son MICHAEL KENDRICK HOWELLS in remembrance. ‘Nunc suscipe, terra, fovendum, gremioque hunc concipe molli.’” The relationship between composing, revising, and memorial functions for Howells is not at all limited to those two works.

When discussing Hymnus Paradisi, Howells described Michael’s death as “a loss essentially profound and, in its very nature, beyond argument, [that] might naturally impel a composer, after a time, to seek release and consolation in language and terms most personal to him. Music may well have the power beyond any other medium to offer that release and comfort. It did so in my case, and became a personal, private document.” With such a moving statement, it is understandable why Michael’s death has been retroactively applied to virtually everything Howells wrote. To give credit where due, it was his daughter, Ursula, who impelled Howells to resume his writing in earnest when she suggested that it may help him grieve.

Michael wasn’t Howells’s only important loss. His dear friend and colleague, Francis Purcell ‘Bunny’ Warren, was killed in battle in 1916. Warren was one of The Bs—a group of five musicians, including Howells himself—studying together at the RCM, to whom Howells dedicated his 1914 orchestral suite of the same name “with love.” Howells’s Elegy (1917, publ. 1938) for viola, string quartet, and string orchestra is dedicated to Warren’s memory. The slow movement of the Concerto for String Orchestra (1938) is dedicated jointly to the memory of Michael and of Elgar. (The first movement of this concerto is a heavily revised version of an earlier, withdrawn, suite for strings; the second movement of that suite became the Elegy.)

Howells would later revisit the Latin epigraph to Hymnus in Helen Waddell’s “faultless translation” for the a cappella motet Take him, Earth for cherishing, commissioned for a joint Canadian-American Memorial Service soon after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was premiered by the St. George’s Cathedral Choir from Queen’s University in Kingston, ON, directed by George N. Maybee.

It is fitting that this program should feature the Howells Requiem as its centerpiece and carry the subtitle “British and Canadian composers.” The JFK Memorial service wasn’t Howells’s only Canadian connection by any stretch. Howells first visited Canada in 1923 as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.

His career at the RCM spanned some 59 years; of the many students he would have tended to in that time, three are of particular significance for our Canadian context:

Both Burritt and Healey have a number of works that set First Nations texts—perhaps a transplanted echo of Howells’s interest in folk music, which Howells claimed was for that music’s “modal colourings”, not its “human associations.”

Although Howells’s music is generally understood to be conservative today, he was deeply influenced by and well-versed in the modal and octatonic languages more readily associated with his Parisian contemporaries. (Howells discussed the music of Ravel, Stravinsky, and others in the six-part special he wrote and hosted for Davies’s BBC series in 1937.) His singular synthesis of the Tudor polyphonic influence and twentieth-century continental harmonic practice that Paul Andrews alludes to when aptly describing what you’ll hear this evening: “pure Howellsian gold.”