Herbert Howells

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Herbert Norman Howells (1892-1983) English composer, organist and educator, was born and began his musical training - like so many contributors to the musical fabric of early and mid twentieth century culture - in the west country of England. Like Ivor Gurney, only two years his senior and lifelong friend, his first “job” was playing the organ at Gloucester Cathedral.

Like Gurney he studied under Stanford at the Royal College of Music. He spent time as organist at Salisbury Cathedral, wrote for the Athenaeum magazine and' in 1920, began teaching at the RCM. In 1937 he succeeded Gustav Holst as musical director at St. Paul’s school for girls. For much of this time he adjudicated at many of the music competitions that were and are a part of British musical culture. He also marked exam papers. Ill health had prevented him from serving in the Great War

All this held back the composing career he is known for today. He did write but not a lot. A mass, a piano concerto and various short pieces. His first real success was the oratorio “Hymnus paradisi" [1] in 1950.

He is best known for the music written for the Anglican church – anthems, liturgical music for the Anglican “Service” and his motets (a form that had been largely neglected since the early eighteenth century.) He composed a stabat mater that is in turns dramatic - to the point of being operatic - and almost contemplative; as well as a well known Requiem. His anthems are known around the English speaking world and are not restricted to Anglican churches. One is particularly well known: his setting of Psalm 42, “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks”.[2]

For all this, he rejected the Christian faith.

His music is well known in America. He was commissioned to write for the Memorial Service for John F. Kennedy. The motet, “Take him earth, for cherishing” [3], a setting of a translation by Helen Waddell of “Hymnus circa exsequias defunct” by the fourth century Christian poet, Aurelius Prudentius Clemens was performed as part of the Service in Washington Cathedral, the year after Kennedy’s death.

His music is well crafted, delicate yet often rhapsodic and approachable though firmly rooted in the twentieth century. These days it is well served on CD and his chamber pieces, gentle, pastoral and refined, are beginning to find a wider audience.

References: "The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music"|"English Choral Music - Howells" Naxos CD 8.554859. "An Anthology of English Song - Janet Baker/Martin Isepp SAGA LP XID 5213 (1963).