Author Topic: Herbert Howells 1892-1983  (Read 15590 times)

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Offline vandermolen

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Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« on: June 17, 2010, 11:46:58 AM »
Howells wrote 'Hymnus Paradisi' in 1938 - it was written as a response to the tragic death of his nine-year-old son from polio in 1938. The work was written in 1938 but locked away for years. His friend Vaughan William asked to see it in 1950 and insisted it was published. It is well served on CD but the Naxos version is fine. Like Novak's 'The Storm' It is one of the great, little known, choral works of the 20th Century (IMHO) and intensely moving. Howells wrote other fine orchestral, choral, chamber and church music but the Hymnus Paradisi is his masterpiece. His other fine choral works - the Stabat Mater and Missa Sabrinensis are coupled together on a recent Chandos release.

Any views on Howells?
« Last Edit: June 17, 2010, 11:48:42 AM by vandermolen »
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Offline Brewski

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #1 on: June 17, 2010, 12:09:07 PM »
Wow, I love Howells, and can't believe there wasn't a thread on him already.  :o  Thanks for starting one. 

I also find Hymnus Paradisi incredibly moving, and I've only heard the one recording below, with Handley on Hyperion.  An English Mass is pretty fine, too.

The other two pieces I know are his Requiem, thanks to the Dale Warland Singers and their very fine CD below (which also includes a wonderful performance of Frank Martin's Mass), and Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing, the piece Howells wrote as a memorial to John F. Kennedy. 

Here is a performance of the latter by the Dale Warland Singers, via American Public Radio.  (For some reason I can't get it to play, but I think my audio setup is having problems.)

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Offline Lethevich

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #2 on: June 17, 2010, 03:41:38 PM »
'In Gloucestershire' is possibly the largest statement of any English composer following Vaughan Williams' "national" style in the string quartet medium after RVW's own second quartet.

Howells' orchestral output is distinctly lacking in stand-out pieces, but despite it mostly being comprised of uninspiringly titled suites (such as 'The B's'), his orchestral music is on a consistently high level and rather neglected save for a few Chandos discs and one or two others. The piano concertos may not equal John Ireland's one, but they come surprisingly close at times. The Concerto for Strings I would rate as an excellent piece. The 3 Dances for violin and orchestra are substantial, albeit rhapsodic.

Has anyone heard his two pieces for cello and orchestra - the fantasia and threnody?



This disc above shows up in Hyperion's sale every now and again (as do a lot of their Howells discs) - it's splendidly atmospheric. Outside of his "statement" pieces, Howells' church music is unsurpassed by any British composer of the period that I have heard, even Britten and Rubbra.
« Last Edit: June 17, 2010, 03:49:04 PM by Lethe »
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Offline vandermolen

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #3 on: June 19, 2010, 06:29:33 AM »
quote author=Lethe link=topic=16596.msg420459#msg420459 date=1276821698]
'In Gloucestershire' is possibly the largest statement of any English composer following Vaughan Williams' "national" style in the string quartet medium after RVW's own second quartet.

Howells' orchestral output is distinctly lacking in stand-out pieces, but despite it mostly being comprised of uninspiringly titled suites (such as 'The B's'), his orchestral music is on a consistently high level and rather neglected save for a few Chandos discs and one or two others. The piano concertos may not equal John Ireland's one, but they come surprisingly close at times. The Concerto for Strings I would rate as an excellent piece. The 3 Dances for violin and orchestra are substantial, albeit rhapsodic.

Has anyone heard his two pieces for cello and orchestra - the fantasia and threnody?



This disc above shows up in Hyperion's sale every now and again (as do a lot of their Howells discs) - it's splendidly atmospheric. Outside of his "statement" pieces, Howells' church music is unsurpassed by any British composer of the period that I have heard, even Britten and Rubbra.
[/quote]

I agree with you about 'Three Bs' - a very uninspiring title (unless, of course, it was a piece of music about Goldilocks and the Three Bears  :D). Honegger's 5th Symphony 'The Three D's' is a different matter I think.  Howells' orchestral music is a bit of a blind spot for me so I will be playing some over the next few days to see what I think.
« Last Edit: June 19, 2010, 06:35:11 AM by vandermolen »
"Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm" (Churchill).

'The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good' (Stanley Kubrick).

Offline Luke

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #4 on: June 19, 2010, 06:41:45 AM »

Has anyone heard his two pieces for cello and orchestra - the fantasia and threnody?

I've heard the fantasia. Or the threnody. Can't remember which, think it's the first one. Whichever is the coupling with the BBC Hymnus Paradisi which I have downstairs. As you can see, it didn't make much of an impression on me, but maybe I should give it another try.

As for the HP - I know it well, I've gone through it mny times with and without score, and I'm afraid that though I can see exactly why it is spoken of with such unvarying reverence, and though it has oodles of passages of great beauty, for me personally it is too unvaried in tone. To be frank, I find it rather boring. I wish I didn't, and I keep on trying...

In case it be thought that Howells is not my cup of tea at all...well, to be honest in the standard Howells repertoire of choral, choral/orchestral, or plain orchestral music I have yet to find a piece which sets my pulse racing, but when we come to his relatively little-discussed keyboard music, and particularly the two sets of archaising (and sometimes deeply moving) pieces for clavichord or piano, we're in a different world as far as my own reactions are concerned. My love for these pieces is surely second to none! It might be because, to me, this is Howells with more air injected, more punch and pungency, the same harmonic language but more bitingly, acidically applied - Ravel's violin and cello sonata compared to Daphnis; Debussy's late pieces compared to the Prelude/Faun...

Offline vandermolen

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #5 on: June 19, 2010, 08:01:22 AM »
I listened to the Fantasia for Cello and Orch. today too (it is with a great performance of Hymnus Paradisi on an old BBC Radio Classics CD). As with Luke, it did not really grab me - rather amorphous in a way, but I must listen again. Hymnus Paradisi is undoubtedly his masterpiece - in a class of its own - invaraiably moves me to tears.
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Offline Lethevich

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #6 on: June 19, 2010, 09:32:52 AM »
but when we come to his relatively little-discussed keyboard music, and particularly the two sets of archaising (and sometimes deeply moving) pieces for clavichord or piano, we're in a different world as far as my own reactions are concerned. My love for these pieces is surely second to none! It might be because, to me, this is Howells with more air injected, more punch and pungency, the same harmonic language but more bitingly, acidically applied - Ravel's violin and cello sonata compared to Daphnis; Debussy's late pieces compared to the Prelude/Faun...
Hmm, I have the following disc (on the left) which I have yet to listen to:



Is this the one that grabbed you, or are there others? The one to the right I had been eyeing, but yet to pull the trigger in light of the other disc being unlistened...
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Offline Luke

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #7 on: June 19, 2010, 11:34:30 AM »
I've seen the McCabe disc but never taken the plunge because, the thing is, I adore playing these pieces so much myself, at my own piano, and they feel so beautiful to play, intricate and knottily rewarding under the fingers (though they don't sound it) that I've never really felt the need to listen to a recording of someone else having all the fun! However, I do have a disc with a selection of them performed on the clavichord, Howells' alternative instrumentation. I also have a clavichord at home and play that too, so don't look for any logic in my behaviour! (Though my clavichord doens't have enough range to play some of the Howells pieces IIRC - maybe that's my excuse). This is wha I have:


Offline Luke

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #8 on: June 19, 2010, 11:44:31 AM »
But give the McCabe CD a spin, I don't think you will regret it. Howells' Clavichord in particular is just divine, and deeply moving at times (such as Finzi's Rest, written the day after the death of his close friend), and the slower, more intense numbers in general are particularly rewarding, because Howells' gorgeous, false-relation-laden harmony has time to register fully - Goff's Fireside, Dart's Saraband, Andrew's Air, Rubbra's Soliloquy, Ralph's Pavane (with implied counterpoints to 'that' Tallis tenor), Malcolm's Vision, Julian's Dream....all just exquisite, sublte, magical little pieces. I also adore the Dyson number, with it's little quotation of his 'A Knight there was', and Patrick [Hadley]'s Siciliano, which is second cousin to Ravel' s Forlane (Le Tombeau de Couperin). Walton's Toye, meanwhile, spins away merrily as a tiny-scale clavichord's memory of WW's Crown Imperial (the opening harmonies are the same, in the same key...)

Offline Lethevich

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #9 on: June 19, 2010, 12:08:57 PM »
I just bought seemingly the last affordable copy in the whole of the UK. I considered Amazon US for a moment until I remembered how low the pound had crashed in the past few years. Danke!

(Now, I wonder if I trust the guy who claims it is in VG condition :P I usually avoid secondhand discs like the plague, but I've had one previous great experience with a marketplace seller, at least).

Edit: I picked up the Paul, indeedie - sorry for the confusion. It is remarkable how under-recorded these works seem to be compared to, say, Bax, who has at least three or four complete piano music cycles recorded (random, to say the least - it's good music but not great). Howells on the other hand seems to have only three discs dedicated exclusively to him, and two of them (Paul/Centaur, Fingerhur/Chandos) seem either to be going out of print, or are badly out of print (the latter).
« Last Edit: June 19, 2010, 12:26:33 PM by Lethe »
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Offline Luke

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #10 on: June 19, 2010, 12:10:34 PM »
I thought you said you had the McCabe, so do you mean the clavichord version? Hope you like it as much as I do!

Offline Guido

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #11 on: June 19, 2010, 02:24:47 PM »
I read somewhere that Finzi's Rest was actually written either significantly before or after his death - I'll have to look it up - but it's Howells old sense of drama and occasion rearing its ugly head again - something that Finzi never liked about Howells.

I personally love Hymnus Paradisi. But when his heart isn't fully in it, Howells music can be exaltation by wrote which is a little depressing -  all these beautiful chords which try to capture some kind of religious ecstasy sound faked when the inspiration flags and it ends up being more theatrical than spiritual. So Hymnus Paradisi, his masterpiece is just superb, and the two follow up pieces - The Stabat Mater and Missa Sabrinensis are sort of depressing despite their magnificent grandiloquence and apparently noble intent.

The two cello works are the remains of a cello concerto that he never completed - as with almost everything else it was written in memory of his son. The Fantasia is too long and despite lovely moments needs better thematic material to sustain its span. The ravishing Threnody is more successful - just very very beautiful, though again the thematic material is not that strong.
« Last Edit: June 20, 2010, 01:02:59 AM by Guido »
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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #12 on: June 19, 2010, 03:20:43 PM »
I read somewhere that Finzi's Rest was actually written either significantly before or after his death

Finzi wrote the piece significantly after his death?  I'm impressed.   8)

Offline Guido

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #13 on: June 19, 2010, 04:00:42 PM »
The piece is called Finzi's Rest and was written by Howells.  :)
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Offline vandermolen

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #14 on: June 19, 2010, 09:54:29 PM »
Listened to the Threnody for Cello and Orch. This morning. I preferred it to the Fantasia - very poignant and sad. First thing Howells worked on after the death of his child. Better still is the Pastoral Rhapsody - very much in the Delian/VW mould but more personal, I think than VW. Am enjoying discovering Howells' orchestral music. Apropos of nothing if any of you don't know Patrick Hadley's 'The Trees so High' you have to hear that.
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Offline Lethevich

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #15 on: June 19, 2010, 10:45:03 PM »
I ended up getting that Chandos twofer after your incessent (:P) promotion of it. The Trees so High was excellent, Nadir I was slightly less keen on (preferring The Island for reasons I cannot recall), but I have plenty of time to change my mind.
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Offline vandermolen

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #16 on: June 19, 2010, 11:24:18 PM »
I ended up getting that Chandos twofer after your incessent (:P) promotion of it. The Trees so High was excellent, Nadir I was slightly less keen on (preferring The Island for reasons I cannot recall), but I have plenty of time to change my mind.

Well, I'm delighted that you bought the Chandos twofer - quite right too  ;D I'm listening to the Howells twofer today. Have played the Pastoral Rhapsody and Procession, with pleasure, several times. Raid's Symphony is another highlight of that twofer series (Estonian Music collection - with some fine lyrical works by Eller).
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #17 on: June 22, 2010, 08:49:23 PM »
I'm quite fond of Howells' music mainly his orchestral music, which seems to be ecilipsed by his choral music. Richard Hickox was a strong advocate of Howells music. Howells obviously was very influenced by his teacher RVW, but he seemed to take his music in a very different direction. Alot of his music is just so lyrically beautiful. Gerald Finzi and John Ireland are two other English composers who seem to have fallen under RVW's spell.

I think two of the finest English composers after RVW are Edmund Rubbra and William Alwyn. Both of these composers seem to be overshadowed by Bax, Ireland, Finzi, and Arnold, but make no mistake about it Rubbra and Alwyn are amazing as well.
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Offline vandermolen

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #18 on: June 23, 2010, 12:48:01 AM »
I'm quite fond of Howells' music mainly his orchestral music, which seems to be ecilipsed by his choral music. Richard Hickox was a strong advocate of Howells music. Howells obviously was very influenced by his teacher RVW, but he seemed to take his music in a very different direction. Alot of his music is just so lyrically beautiful. Gerald Finzi and John Ireland are two other English composers who seem to have fallen under RVW's spell.

I think two of the finest English composers after RVW are Edmund Rubbra and William Alwyn. Both of these composers seem to be overshadowed by Bax, Ireland, Finzi, and Arnold, but make no mistake about it Rubbra and Alwyn are amazing as well.

I agree about Rubbra and Alwyn, especially Rubbra's symphonies 4,5 and 7 and Alwyn's Second Symphony - all fine works.
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Offline Mirror Image

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Re: Herbert Howells 1892-1983
« Reply #19 on: June 24, 2010, 02:23:16 PM »
I agree about Rubbra and Alwyn, especially Rubbra's symphonies 4,5 and 7 and Alwyn's Second Symphony - all fine works.

My favorite Alwyn symphony is the 4th. The last movement is especially moving.
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