Herbert Howells – The Composer Who Channelled His Grief Into Beautiful Music

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

The atmospheric Carol Anthems were just the start of this British composer’s remarkable outpouring of choral music, writes Paul Spicer

‘I have composed out of sheer love of trying to make nice sounds’. So said Herbert Howells in acknowledgement of his instantly recognisable, rich harmonic language and his seemingly endless streams of melody woven together, more often than not, in timeless contrapuntal textures.

What is Howells most famous for?

Howells is known more for his choral and organ music than for his songs, piano, chamber and orchestral music. This is really because of a wholly serendipitous event at King’s College, Cambridge in 1943. Howells was standing in as acting organist at St John’s College, along the road, for Robin Orr who was on active service.

One afternoon he was having tea with Eric Milner-White, dean of King’s, Boris Ord, the college organist, and Patrick Hadley, who was later to become professor of music at the university.

Milner-White lay down a challenge to Howells and Hadley to write a setting of the Te Deum for the King’s Choir, offering one guinea to whoever took up the ‘bet’. Howells responded and his now iconic Collegium Regale Te Deum was heard in King’s chapel the next year.

But it was far more than just another setting of these well-known words. ‘[It] opened a wholly new chapter in service, perhaps in church music. Of spiritual moment rather than liturgical. It is so much more than music-making; it is experiencing deep things in the only medium that can do it,’ said Milner-White, adding that Howells could create ‘masterworks’. This is exactly what the composer went on to do.

When was Howells born?

Howells was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire, on 17 October 1892, the youngest of eight children. His father was a jobbing builder and decorator who was simply too nice to collect the money owed to him and he thus slid into bankruptcy.

That was so serious a social issue at the time that when Herbert was asked to tea at the local squire’s house with the other town children he was sent to the kitchens. But Herbert adored his father who, as the boy noted, was ‘a very humble businessman for six days of seven, and a dreadful organist for the seventh day’ at the Baptist church which was next door.

When did Howells start learning music?

But despite these initial setbacks Herbert’s talent was recognised and the squire, Lord Bledisloe, helped to get the boy piano lessons with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral.

Before long Howells was accepted as one of Brewer’s formidable trio of articled pupils at the cathedral alongside Ivor Gurney and Ivor Novello. Gloucester cathedral was one of the hosts of the Three Choirs Festival, which attracted audiences from far and wide and featured significant new music.

One of these premieres was Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in September 1910 which Howells felt was ‘the supreme commentary by one great composer upon another’. He also felt that he and Vaughan Williams reacted to things in a musically similar way: ‘We were both attracted by Tudor music, plainsong and the modes. We felt we needed to write in these modes and in the pentatonic scale’.

Where did Howells study?

Howells left Gloucester after winning a foundation scholarship to the Royal College of Music (RCM) to become one of Stanford’s composition students.

At his audition Hubert Parry, director of the RCM, noted in his diary, ‘Amazingly gifted boy Howells from Lydney – & such a queer looking scrubby little creature’. Howells went on to become Stanford’s favourite student, although Stanford felt his music was developing ‘modern stinks’, failing to realise that his greatest strength as a teacher was his ability to get his remarkable roster of students to develop their own styles.

Howells was quickly acknowledged as a leader of his generation of musicians. Arthur Bliss noted that ‘I saw for the first time that here was someone who was much more gifted than myself. I never forgot that’. During these years Howells was writing far more chamber and orchestral music than choral. His large-scale C minor Piano Concerto was premiered by Arthur Benjamin and conducted by Stanford at the Queen’s Hall in July 1914 and other works were taken up and widely admired – such as his orchestral suite, The Bs, celebrating a group of friends with names or nicknames beginning with B including Bliss and Benjamin.

Howells had been having problems with his eyes and Parry sent him to see a specialist. Diagnosed with Graves disease, a heart-related condition, aged only 23, he was given six months to live. Howells had recently been appointed as assistant organist at Salisbury Cathedral but his time there was short-lived as his endless trips to London for treatment rendered his position untenable. He was given radium treatment as an experiment and its extraordinary success led him to live to the ripe old age of 90.

Back in his student days, starting in 1912, Stanford had sent Howells to the new Westminster Cathedral which had opened in 1903. Richard Terry was putting on pioneering performances of Renaissance polyphony with his already celebrated choir.

What music did Howells compose?

This deepened Howells’s love for music of this period and led to the earliest professional performances of some of his choral compositions, including his Mass in the Dorian Mode. Not able to serve in the armed forces because of his illness, and rendered penniless having left Salisbury, Howells was awarded a generous grant by the Carnegie Trust, which had just published his remarkable Piano Quartet, to help Terry edit Tudor church music. Everything he did at this time fed his creative imagination and showed him a compositional path which, while paying homage to a distant past, also allowed him to develop a style which became so uniquely his own.

An early success were the Three Carol Anthems, written in 1918 and showing his keen feeling for words. ‘Here is the Little Door’, ‘A Spotless Rose’ and ‘Sing Lullaby’ remain staples of the choral repertory for Christmas all over the world. The sensuous final cadence of ‘A Spotless Rose’ caused Patrick Hadley to write to Howells that ‘brainwave it certainly is, but it is much more than that. It is a stroke of genius. I should like, when my time comes, to pass away to that magical cadence’.

Things were not to continue with such unruffled professional progress for long, however. In 1925, his Second Piano Concerto, commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society, was premiered in the Queen’s Hall. His decidedly contemporary approach led to a mixed reception for the piece and immediate withdrawal from publication by the over-sensitive Howells.

In 1932 Howells wrote his beautiful unaccompanied Requiem to which his six-year-old son Michael contributed a middle C in the manuscript score. Three years later, Michael would be dead of a virulent form of polio. After his death, everything Howells wrote related in some form or other to the memory of his son.

Four works stand out in this way: Hymnus Paradisi, written at Howells’s daughter Ursula’s suggestion to help him exorcise the ghost of the boy. Based on the music of the Requiem to which Michael had contributed that single note, it was kept as a private document until 1950, when Howells conducted the first performance at Gloucester Cathedral to universal acclaim.

Just after the third anniversary, in September 1938, of Michael’s death, Howells wrote the Psalm Prelude Set 2 No. 1; there is nothing else quite like this in the entire organ repertory. It’s essentially a tone-poem based on the text from the first verse of Psalm 130, ‘Out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord’, which inspires an incandescent, powerfully affecting outpouring of grief.

1964’s Motet on the Death of President Kennedy, one of the finest unaccompanied motets of the 20th century, is also connected to Michael through its text. ‘Take him, earth for cherishing’ was used as the dedication in the Hymnus Paradisi, and seen by Howells therefore as a deeply personal gift to Kennedy.

What is Howell’s most famous work?

And the Stabat Mater, arguably Howells’s greatest work, was premiered in November 1965. The subject matter is the grieving mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross. Howells’s inspiration was taken from Michelangelo’s Pietà, the sculpture of the dead Jesus lying across his mother’s knees. The link is obvious and shows how, even after 30 years, his own grief is still powerfully present.

Other works such as the Concerto for Strings, with its slow movement dedicated jointly to Elgar and Michael’s memory, and the Sequence for St Michael, with its bare-faced shouts of ‘Michael’ at its opening, witness this ever-present obsession.

Howells, then, is a composer whose music stirs profound emotional reactions from performers and audiences alike. He is at last finding his proper place in the extraordinary pantheon of British composers of the first half of the 20th century who gave this country its unique musical voice.

At this distance in time it is difficult to realise just how modern a voice Howells’s was. But that atavistic sense shared with Vaughan Williams of how a long distant past can help shape a deeply original musical present was one of Howells’s great gifts to future generations, and it can be found in the rich wholeness of his complete compositional output


When did Howells die?

:Howells died aged 90 on 23 February 1983, the day after the death of conductor Sir Adrian Boult, a close personal friend.

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