3 Herbert Howells

Herbert Howells

Herbert Norman Howells CH (17 October 1892 – 23 February 1983) was an English composer, organist, and teacher.


Howells was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire, and was the youngest of six children born to Oliver and Elizabeth Howells. His father was an amateur organist, and Herbert himself showed early musical promise. He studied first with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, as an articled pupil alongside Ivor Novello and Ivor Gurney, the celebrated English songwriter and poet, with whom he became great friends. A September 1910 concert in Gloucester Cathedral included the premiere of a mysterious new work by the yet little-known Ralph Vaughan Williams. Howells not only made the composer's personal acquaintance that evening, but (as he often recounted) the piece, the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, profoundly moved him. Later he studied at the Royal College of Music (RCM) under C.V. Stanford, Hubert Parry and Charles Wood.

In 1915 he was diagnosed with Graves' disease and given six months to live. Since doctors believed that it was worth taking a chance on a previously untested treatment, he became the first person in the country to receive radium treatment. He was briefly assistant organist at Salisbury Cathedral in 1917, though his severe illness cut this appointment short. Friends then arranged for a grant from the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, whereunder Howells would assist Richard Runciman Terry in editing the voluminous Latin Tudor repertoire that he and his choir were reviving at Westminster Cathedral. Although they were envisioning an undemanding sinecure, Howells took great interest in this work, absorbing the English Renaissance style which he loved and would evoke in his own, and continued it until joining the faculty of the RCM in 1920. During World War II, he served as acting organist of St John's College, Cambridge.

In 1935 his nine-year-old son, Michael, died suddenly from polio (or meningitis; accounts vary); several of his subsequent works reflect this tragedy. [cite web
title=Herbert Howells Biography

In later life Howells was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University, and was made a Companion of Honour in 1972. He died in 1983 in London and his ashes reside in Westminster Abbey.

His daughter Ursula (1922 - 2005) was an actress and he was godfather to the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber.


In his twenties and thirties his compositional output focussed chiefly on orchestral and chamber music, including two piano concertos. The hostile reception given to the second of these in 1925 largely silenced Howells' compositional activities for almost ten years. The death of his son Michael in 1935 did, however, appear to unleash a new period of creativity; both Howells himself and his music were never the same after this period of his life. Though not an orthodox Christian, he became increasingly identified with the composition of religious music, most notably the "Hymnus Paradisi" for chorus and orchestra. This was composed after his son's death but not released for performance until 1950, at the insistence (according to Howells' own account) of his close friend and mentor Ralph Vaughan Williams. It incorporates passages from the earlier unaccompanied Requiem, begun before Michael's death but not published until 1981, with a dedication to his memory. Again, this private account of grief remained in his desk drawer for forty years before he submitted it for publication. Two shorter works from 1961, the "Coventry Antiphon" (Coventry Cathedral being dedicated to Saint Michael) and "Sequence for Saint Michael" are also associated with his son, as is his hymn tune "Michael".

He wrote two works for brass band: "Pageantry" and "Three Figures". "Pageantry" was written for the 1934 British Open brass band championships. Howells arranged its first movement, "King's Herald", for full orchestra for the coronation of King George VI in 1937.

Church music

Howells is particularly known for his large output of Anglican church music, including a complete Service for King's College, Cambridge (the Collegium Regale) and settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for the choirs of St John's College, Cambridge, New College, Oxford, Westminster Abbey, Worcester, St Paul's, and Gloucester cathedrals, among others, as well as for two parish churches, St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol and St Augustine's Church, Edgbaston. These settings are often tailored for the building after which they are named. For example, the St Paul's Service has a very slow rate of harmonic change to suit the prolonged reverberation in that cathedral. The motet "Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing", written shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is dedicated to Kennedy's memory, and is considered by many to be perhaps his finest "a cappella" anthem. Two other anthems, "Like as the hart" and "O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem" are similar in style and rhapsodic beauty and enjoy a firm and deserved place in the Anglican choral repertoire.

Of his several hymn tunes appearing in current hymnals, "Michael" (written for the words "All My hope on God is Founded") is particularly widespread.

"Hymnus Paradisi" was the first of four large-scale sacred choral works. His "Missa Sabrinensis" is on the same scale, in terms of length and forces required, as Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis", while "An English Mass" is scored for significantly smaller forces, is performed almost entirely in English, and follows the Anglican tradition of placing the Gloria last. Finally, Howells' setting of the Stabat Mater, at about 50 minutes, is one of the longest extant settings of that text.

ee also

* List of compositions by Herbert Howells



*cite book | author=Paul Spicer | title=Herbert Howells | location=Bridgend | publisher=Seren | year=1998 | id=ISBN 1-85411-232-5
*cite book | author=Nicolas Slonimsky | title=The Concise Edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians | publisher=Schirmer Books | year=1994 | id=ISBN 0-02-872416-X
*cite book | author=Christopher Palmer | title=Herbert Howells, a centennial celebration | location=London | publisher=Thames Publishing | year=1992 | id=ISBN 0-905210-86-7
* Paul Andrews. "Herbert Howells", "Grove Music Online", ed. L. Macy (accessed 1 January 2005), [http://www.grovemusic.com/ grovemusic.com] (subscription access).

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Hymnus Paradisi — is a choral work by Herbert Howells for soprano and tenor soloists, mixed chorus, and orchestra. The work was inspired in part by the death of his son Michael in 1935. Howells wrote the work from 1936 to 1938, but then retained the music… …   Wikipedia

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