Herbert Howells

Composer: Herbert Norman Howells
Date of Birth: 17 October 1892
Date of Death: 23 February 1983
Nationality: English
Period/Era/Style: Early 20th Century
Contribution(s): Howells was an English composer, organist, and teacher, most famous for his large output of Anglican church music

Biography: Background and early education: Howells was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire, the youngest of the six children of Oliver Howells, a plumber, painter, decorator and builder, and his wife Elizabeth. His father played the organ at the local Baptist church, and Herbert himself showed early musical promise, first deputising for his father, and then moving at the age of eleven to the local Church of England parish church as choirboy and unofficial deputy organist.

The Howells family’s risky financial situation came to a head when Oliver filed for bankruptcy in September 1904, when Herbert was nearly 12. This was a deep humiliation in a small community at the time and one from which Howells never fully recovered. Financially assisted by a member of the family of Charles Bathurst, 1st Viscount Bledisloe who had taken an interest in the budding musician, Howells began music lessons in 1905 with Herbert Brewer, the organist of Gloucester Cathedral, and at sixteen became his articled pupil at the Cathedral alongside Ivor Novello and Ivor Gurney. The latter became a close friend, the pair going on long walks through the Gloucestershire countryside discussing their shared love of music and English literature.

Another formative experience for the young Howells was the premiere in September 1910 at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. Howells liked to relate in after years how Vaughan Williams sat next to him for the remainder of the concert and shared his score of Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius with the awestruck aspiring composer. Both Vaughan Williams and the Tudor composers of which Tallis was one profoundly influenced Howells’ later work.

Study at the Royal College of Music

In 1912, following the example of Ivor Gurney, Howells moved to London to study at the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Parry and Charles Wood. Among Howells’ contemporaries in the student body were Gurney, Arthur Bliss and Arthur Benjamin.

Howells blossomed in what he considered the “cosy family” atmosphere of the College, and his Mass in the Dorian Mode was performed at Westminster Cathedral under R.R. Terry within weeks of his arrival. For the most part, however, his music at this time was orchestral; works included a piano concerto, withdrawn after its first performance, a light orchestral suite, The B’s, portraying his friends at the college, and the Three Dances for violin and orchestra. More typical of the works with which Howells was later to be associated were his earliest important compositions for organ, the first set of Psalm Preludes (1915–16) and the first of the op. 17 Rhapsodies.

Howells’ promise seemed likely to be cut short in 1915 when he was diagnosed with Graves’ disease and given six months to live. His poor health prevented him from being conscripted in World War I, arguably preserving him from the worse fate awaiting Gurney and others of his friends and contemporaries. At St Thomas’ Hospital he was given the previously untried treatment of radium injections in the neck, administered twice a week over a period of two years. For much of this time Howells travelled between London for treatment and Lydney where he was nursed by his mother. He was nonetheless still able to compose and in 1916 produced the first work of his maturity. The Piano Quartet in A minor, dedicated to “the hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it” was in the following year one of the first works published under the auspices of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust. In the following year Howells became assistant organist at Salisbury Cathedral, but only held the post for a few months, finding the repeated journeys to London for treatment too difficult. Friends then arranged for a grant from the Carnegie Trust, which paid for Howells to assist R.R. Terry in editing the voluminous Latin Tudor repertoire that Terry and his choir were reviving at Westminster Cathedral. The work provided Howells with a comfortable incom and enabled him to absorb the English Renaissance style which he loved and would evoke in his own music. His first significant works for choir, the Three Carol-Anthems (Here is the Little DoorA Spotless Rose and Sing Lullaby) were written around this time.

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