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Howells's Wedding


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Some years ago the BBC broadcast a programme entitled "Out of the Deep: a portrait of Herbert Howells". It contained a sound clip of Howells describing his wedding on 3 August 1920:

Three or four composers, like Stanford and Vaughan Williams, Holst and one or two others, had done one-page works for me, to be played at my wedding, which George [Thalben-Ball] played – and on a beautiful little village organ. And I asked permission of Canon Cheeseman, who was marrying us – do you see? – if George could play more or less the whole time without stopping. He said, 'Yes,' but he said: 'You won't be mistaken by listening too much – so saying 'I will not'?'

A month after the wedding the composer's friend Marion Scott gave rather more information in an article in the Christian Science Monitor:

Several well-known British musicians have recently been associated in a gift to Herbert Howells, the composer, and his wife, which is as charming as it is characteristic. The gift takes the form of a collection of original tunes in the folk-song style, each composer having either contributed a new one, or else sent a quotation from some work already written. Presently the set will be collected in a manuscript book: meanwhile they have been played, on an important but semi-private occasion, by George Thalben-Ball, the brilliant young acting organist of the Temple Church. Mr Ball, like Herbert Howells, was a scholar at the Royal College of Music, and now, also like Herbert Howells, is on the teaching staff of the Royal College of Music. Thalben-Ball wove these tunes, and certain other significant musical quotations, into what was nominally a Fantasia, but which, to people who can follow the language of music, was also an eloquent and moving oration upon the ideas of love and peace.
 
First came a gracious melody by Sir Charles Stanford, akin in shape and style to those flowing folk tunes which are the very flower of Irish art. This merged into a quotation from a work by Gustav Holst, typifying the 'Bringer of Love and Peace' - the music modernly harmonic in colour and glowing with the deep inward warmth that is one of Holst's distinctive qualiies. Then followed an exquisite melody by Herbert Howells himself, composed for his wife, which is known amongst his friends as 'The Chosen Tune' on account of its association with that same hill of Chosen in Gloucestershire which he has commemorated in his pianoforte quartet. The tune was linked by Thalben-Ball to themes taken from Sir Hubert Parry's setting of Blest Pair of Sirens and Voces Clamantium . This concluded what, for lack of a more precise description, may be called the first movement of the Fantasia.
 
The second opened with a tune by Dr R R Terry for the old verse beginning 'Matthew, Mark, Luke and John', the music highly modal in character and controlled by plainsong rhythms. Next came a vigorous folk tune by R Vaughan Williams in the Dorian mode, its general style typical of those genuine East Anglian tunes he did such service in collecting some years ago. After this followed one by George Thalben-Ball; a strong tune, fit for a Christmas carol sung marching. On this occasion it marched back to the Holst theme typifying love and peace, and then joined itself to a short folk-song movement on a traditional English tune, 'False Lambkin', by Rupert Erlebach - a tune with a strange name but attractive melody! Another allusion to the Holst theme, then a quotation of the great tune in Parry's Blest Pair of Sirens set to the words
 
O may we soon again renew that song 
And keep in tune with heaven
 
and a final appearance of the 'Chosen Tune' concluded the Fantasia [...]

Howells's 'The Chosen Tune' exists in version for both piano solo and for violin and piano, but what of the others? Were all the pieces composed as Howells suggested or did Thalben-Ball improvise much of it as Marion Scott's article implies? Did the promised manuscript book ever materialise? Were any of the pieces ever published?

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Martin, please do! It would be very interesting if even one or two of these pieces could be traced. The thought of an organ piece by Holst (presumably something culled from "Venus") is intriguing since I think it would be his only essay for the instrument. Does John Henderson's book have anything to say about this?

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  • 11 months later...
Some years ago the BBC broadcast a programme entitled "Out of the Deep: a portrait of Herbert Howells". It contained a sound clip of Howells describing his wedding on 3 August 1920:

 

Three or four composers, like Stanford and Vaughan Williams, Holst and one or two others, had done one-page works for me, to be played at my wedding, which George [Thalben-Ball] played – and on a beautiful little village organ. And I asked permission of Canon Cheeseman, who was marrying us – do you see? – if George could play more or less the whole time without stopping. He said, ‘Yes,’ but he said: ‘You won’t be mistaken by listening too much – so saying ‘I will not’?’

A month after the wedding the composer's friend Marion scott gave rather more information in an article in the Christian Science Monitor:

 

Several well-known British musicians have recently been associated in a gift to Herbert Howells, the composer, and his wife, which is as charming as it is characteristic. The gift takes the form of a collection of original tunes in the folk-song style, each composer having either contributed a new one, or else sent a quotation from some work already written. Presently the set will be collected in a manuscript book: meanwhile they have been played, on an important but semi-private occasion, by George Thalben-Ball, the brilliant young acting organist of the Temple Church. Mr Ball, like Herbert Howells, was a scholar at the Royal College of Music, and now, also like Herbert Howells, is on the teaching staff of the Royal College of Music. Thalben-Ball wove these tunes, and certain other significant musical quotations, into what was nominally a Fantasia, but which, to people who can follow the language of music, was also an eloquent and moving oration upon the ideas of love and peace.

 

First came a gracious melody by Sir Charles Stanford, akin in shape and style to those flowing folk tunes which are the very flower of Irish art. This merged into a quotation from a work by Gustav Holst, typifying the 'Bringer of Love and Peace' - the music modernly harmonic in colour and glowing with the deep inward warmth that is one of Holst's distinctive qualiies. Then followed an exquisite melody by Herbert Howells himself, composed for his wife, which is known amongst his friends as 'The Chosen Tune' on account of its association with that same hill of Chosen in Gloucestershire which he has commemorated in his pianoforte quartet. The tune was linked by Thalben-Ball to themes taken from Sir Hubert Parry's setting of
Blest Pair of Sirens
and
Voces Clamantium
. This concluded what, for lack of a more precise description, may be called the first movement of the Fantasia.

 

The second opened with a tune by Dr R R Terry for the old verse beginning 'Matthew, Mark, Luke and John', the music highly modal in character and controlled by plainsong rhythms. Next came a vigorous folk tune by R Vaughan Williams in the Dorian mode, its general style typical of those genuine East Anglian tunes he did such service in collecting some years ago. After this followed one by George Thalben-Ball; a strong tune, fit for a Christmas carol sung marching. On this occasion it marched back to the Holst theme typifying love and peace, and then joined itself to a short folk-song movement on a traditional English tune, 'False Lambkin', by Rupert Erlebach - a tune with a strange name but attractive melody! Another allusion to the Holst theme, then a quotation of the great tune in Parry's
Blest Pair of Sirens
set to the words

 

O may we soon again renew that song

And keep in tune with heaven

 

and a final appearance of the 'Chosen Tune' concluded the Fantasia [...]

Howells's 'The Chosen Tune' exists in version for both piano solo and violin and piano, but what of the others? Were all the pieces composed as Howells suggested or did Thalben-Ball improvise much of it as Marion Scott's article implies? Did the promised manuscript book ever materialise? Were any of the pieces ever published?

 

In reply to your enquiry about the music at Herbert Howells' wedding - I have a setting of the old rhyme 'Matthew, Mark, Luke and John' which fits accurately your desrciption. Holst also set this, but his setting is quite different. There is a dedication at the top "To Ursula Mary Howells" which seems to add credence to this un-credited score. I suspect that this is Terry's setting.

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