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Martin Cooke

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Rumaging about in my music today I came across my ancient copy of Siciliano for a High Ceremony. Does anyone play this and is it worth learning? Do recital audiences appreciate it? Does anyone play any of the more recently released Howells - you know, the stuff that Novello produced about 15 years ago? I've never bothered with any of it but am I missing anything?

Martin

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Guest Stanley Monkhouse

I wonder if Howells organ music appeals to anyone other than organists. Or perhaps I should say, some organists at certain stages of their musical development. I used to swoon over Howells, and was nonplussed in my teens when my music teacher (not an organist) rolled his eyeballs and smiled in a certain kind of 'you'll get over it' way. But it was very moving for me at that time. Now I can't be bothered with all that musical meandering and angst. Give me Hollins and good tune anyday, and that seems to be the attitude of many audiences. Same goes for the canticles: heard St Paul's, Glos, Coll Reg and you've heard them all. Anthems are good, though. I suppose now I'd better get my coat and take cover in the air raid shelter.

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I shall stand in the firing line with you, sir!

 

I find Howells' stuff a bit hit and miss. Having heard several different sets of canticles, it does all seem rather much of a muchness (although on the St Johns College webcast his Te Deum - Col Reg I think - surprised me as being unusually bright and cheerful). But Mag and Nuncs - Col Reg, Gloucester, Westminster to think of those I've heard most recently - same format, just different notes it seems to me.

 

I don't know too many of his anthems. I do know two of his famous carols - A Spotless Rose and Here is the little door and I think are both exquisite - hard work undoubtedly but really well worth the effort. Little door especially has such a sense of atmosphere about it.

 

Then to organ music. Much of it seems to be in the 'start quiet, get loud, back to quiet' structure. The first five Psalm Preludes all seem to follow this structure, and I couldn't tell them apart if asked. No. 6 is quite different of course and appeals more to me. I'm quite fond of Rhapsody No. 1, even though it is of the same structure of quiet, loud, quiet. But my favourite piece (and I confess not to know much else of his organ rep) is Rhapsody No. 3, a most effective piece which I am just beginning to learn. Last Sunday, I attended an Evensong at a local church with joint choirs (so a decent congregation mixed from the two churches) and this was the voluntary, and nearly all the congregation remained in their places to the conclusion (and its not a short piece), which I know never normally happens at one of the churches, which must say something. I don't quite know why I like it, but it just strikes me as effective and satisfying. If you're looking for a good melody, then its perhaps not the piece for you though.

 

I realise none of this answers the question! But it opens up the general debate as to what (of Howells' music) is actually worth learning. Indeed, what is there beyond the Rhapsodies and Psalm Preludes that is worth looking at?

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Let's not turn this into another "I am not interested in the music of X and I don't see why anybody else is" discussion. Nobody likes every composer's music. And the Pope is a Catholic. Fancy that.

 

The suggestion that Howells's music is fit only for teenagers I find rather insulting. I am afraid I have not had Mr M's good fortune in moving beyond juvenile tastes and developing a liking for a good tune - the sure sign of the fully developed musical taste, if ever there was one.

 

Anyway, I am off to St Albans for the week. I am hoping I will be able to find somebody there who can tell one piece from another.

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I shall stand in the firing line with you, sir!

 

I find Howells' stuff a bit hit and miss. Having heard several different sets of canticles, it does all seem rather much of a muchness (although on the St Johns College webcast his Te Deum - Col Reg I think - surprised me as being unusually bright and cheerful). But Mag and Nuncs - Col Reg, Gloucester, Westminster to think of those I've heard most recently - same format, just different notes it seems to me.

 

I don't know too many of his anthems. I do know two of his famous carols - A Spotless Rose and Here is the little door and I think are both exquisite - hard work undoubtedly but really well worth the effort. Little door especially has such a sense of atmosphere about it.

 

Then to organ music. Much of it seems to be in the 'start quiet, get loud, back to quiet' structure. The first five Psalm Preludes all seem to follow this structure, and I couldn't tell them apart if asked. No. 6 is quite different of course and appeals more to me. I'm quite fond of Rhapsody No. 1, even though it is of the same structure of quiet, loud, quiet. But my favourite piece (and I confess not to know much else of his organ rep) is Rhapsody No. 3, a most effective piece which I am just beginning to learn. Last Sunday, I attended an Evensong at a local church with joint choirs (so a decent congregation mixed from the two churches) and this was the voluntary, and nearly all the congregation remained in their places to the conclusion (and its not a short piece), which I know never normally happens at one of the churches, which must say something. I don't quite know why I like it, but it just strikes me as effective and satisfying. If you're looking for a good melody, then its perhaps not the piece for you though.

 

I realise none of this answers the question! But it opens up the general debate as to what (of Howells' music) is actually worth learning. Indeed, what is there beyond the Rhapsodies and Psalm Preludes that is worth looking at?

 

I've rather fancied myself as a Howells fan over the years but there is an awful lot in what you chaps have said and I suspect a lot of musicians are guilty of playing pieces they enjoy without wondering what the congregation or the audience thinks. Take the Set 2 No 1 Psalm Prelude, for example, which I have played since a teenager, the climax is huge and wonderful but the build up to it with more and more stops popping out is quite unpleasantly unyielding in terms of discordancy - (is there a noun, "discordancy?" - Just "discord" is probably sufficient). It's hard to imagine Mr and Mrs Whotnot in the 5th pew being moved by it. Yet, for the organist, it can be deeply moving. Rhapsody 3 is another favourite of mine and the power of the arresting opening is what originally attracted it to me. Doesn't it take some beating if you want to make an impact? Has anyone tackled the Rhapsody 4 or the Prelude "De Profundis" - (I don't mean the Psalm Prelude (2/1) with this inscription) or a movement from the Sonata or Partita?

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Guest Stanley Monkhouse

Sir, rather than my tastes having matured since my teenage years, I think they have, if anything, immatured. Since a love of Howells is a mark of sophistication, I become increasingly unsophisticated. I neither regret this nor rejoice in it. I peaked at O-levels: I immature with age.

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As service music, especially preludes in the case of the psalm preludes, his music (even if i'm juvenile) can be very effective. The '6 Pieces' are also nice music. Master Tallis Testament is much more melodious than much of his music, and the Sarabande for the first morning of Easter is highly pleasant.

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It's hard to imagine Mr and Mrs Whotnot in the 5th pew being moved by it.

When does care for the listener become patronising? I have certainly been surprised, sometimes, at what unsophisticated hearers have turned out to enjoy.

 

Paul

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Rumaging about in my music today I came across my ancient copy of Siciliano for a High Ceremony. Does anyone play this and is it worth learning? Do recital audiences appreciate it? Does anyone play any of the more recently released Howells - you know, the stuff that Novello produced about 15 years ago? I've never bothered with any of it but am I missing anything?

Martin

 

You must never miss anything! But I think asking such an open question of everyone is a courageous move. Considering how volatile these pages can get over console accessories, wind pressures and even specifications, not to mention one builder as opposed to another, your posting should have the attachment, 'light the blue touch paper and stand well back' - for we are talking music here.

 

To me Howells is a glorious embodiment of the 20th Century English musical heritage that flowered in English Cathedral organ lofts and choir stalls. He was a gentle/man who distilled many facets of his Art into some magical musical canvasses. His organ compositions to me ooze texture and kaleidoscopic nuances which need oodles of musicianship and playing prowess to fully convince the listener and do justice to his idiosyncratic style. You must make up your own mind after study, not rely on the likes or dislikes of others. If you feel you have the necessary qualities to interpret, then do so. I am still unable to fully appreciate most of his organ output I fear after 1940 like some other people. I am still trying. I am not musically mature enough nor experienced, nor do I play instruments suited to his style. But teaching it is a different matter of course.

 

His harmonic language is as quintessentially English as the smell of log fires wafting through a Cotswold village on a late Autumn afternoon. This language needs instruments situated in fine acoustics as so much of the music demands space. The music is all-embracing which means that often a better performance (for me) is gained from a non-directional instrument. Many of these instruments have now gone or have been made less solid (the Large Open - sometimes leathered - makes way for a Mixture V. King's College or the like?). I have often said to students that they must not play the organ music like an organ piece, but in their mind conduct it as if it is another vocal work. It needs breath and breadth and a savvy sense of vocal line - as found of course in all his works in that genre. And then comes the orchestration, which alas to me falls constantly in the category of multifarious moments of piston pushing. One habit in particular makes me despair for the musical line is the way that players often add a piston on the Swell which is heralded (sic) by a quick diminuendo and often an unnecessary stretching of the rubato. This is over-egging the music and is what I find rather nauseating and off-putting in some way. It's hard to put a finger on it but it is the feeling that comes across that the music should be seamless (tonally) and almost without pulse/articulation that engenders a soporific attitude which I don't think the music deserves.

To me this is music to start with that deserves to be read - not at the console, but at the table. This is where the understanding of the musical architecture needs to be contemplated. Arriving in the organ loft is never the first port of call. The piano is perhaps the next stage where one plays chords and understands the harmonic layering that eventually produce the climaxes. For me these are moments of total and necessary preparation. I have a suspicion that a number of folk just take the music to the organ and read/splash through it until it gels. But does it? I think that it might be easy to put practicing the sound before the music.

Hands up those organists who have studied the other works of Howells - of course the vocal ones, but the chamber music too? Who has understood the different period's of his life and the catastrophic calamities that influence a number of the works? Because Howells might be seen to be a contemporary composer, not so much has been written about him yet - but time is getting on. Two piano concertos 1914 & 1925 London's Queens Hall (Proms?) I think, need further study too.

Don't listen to recordings either before working on things yourself. I would say that if you can't understand the score on your lap and need to rely on a CD before attempting to perform, then it won't get off the ground. This is where I feel Howells' bad press has mostly come from. If you want to hear something orchestral that may inspire, try Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy and also play his piano works too before attempting Howells on the organ.

And in conclusion, much of the trouble lies in when to perform Howells' organ music. I don't honestly think much of it is recital material. It is to me so fundamentally based upon the English liturgy and seems more inclined to be 20th Century Voluntary material. The titles also suggest this - although Rhapsodies are seemingly to be Fantasias in my mind. I don't think he was ever thinking of recitals much of the time. (This strange phenomenon of The Organ Recital that is found in the church organ world - pace Buxtehude - is an oddity in the world of music-making. It straddles The Church and the Concert Hall with some dire consequences.)

Sorry - but this might seem pontificating. It ain't I assure you. They are little wrinkles and observations picked up over the decades which I share on a Monday morn.

Best wishes,

Nigel

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Howells never courted popular appeal and was never interested in writing pot-boilers; he wrote what he felt he had to write.

 

Any composer's works tend to sound all the same if you are out of sympathy with the style, but I think it has to be admitted that there is demonstrably less variety in Howells than in most. So I have some sympathy with those who say his music all sounds the same. Yet the variety is there if you look.

 

Like many other composers, you can divide Howells's works into three periods: early, middle and late, which are distinguishable by the types of dissonance and chromaticism used. Representative examples are:

 

Choral Music

Early: Mag and Nunc in G; Latin motets

Middle: Coll Reg; Gloucester; St Paul's

Late: Coventry Mass; Chichester Service;

 

Organ Music: Rhapsodies 1-3; Six Pieces; Partita

 

However there is quite some overlap. For example, that fine anthem I would be true is a late work very much in the middle period vein (despite ending on a blazing added sixth).

 

There was definitely a view amongst certain twentieth-century British composers that a good tune was passé and decadent. Try as I might I cannot relate to music that just chunters on using non-lyrical material in which the interest is purely rhythmical or cellular. However, having in my youth earned the instant, deep and irrevocable ire of Anthony Milner over just such an argument (in this case concerning Tippett) I am acutely aware that this is my problem and one by no means shared by everybody. A classic piece by Howells in this vein is his Concerto for Strings. Try as I might, I have never been able to see the music in this piece, yet it is very highly regarded amongst mainstream musicians. Clearly the failing is on my side. For proof that Howells could write a tune when he wanted, look no further than The Hymn for St Cecilia, the second of the Three Dances for Violin and Orchestra and the song There was a maiden. People don't seem to object much to "Michael" either.

 

To answer the OP's question, I think the Siciliano is wonderful. But it is not a very "churchy" piece and really needs an understanding of Howells's secular music in order to get the most out of it, especially his other sicilianos like the one in Howells's Clavichord and the song There were three cherry trees.

 

I don't rate the posthumous publications too highly, but the Intrada No.1, written for Sir Walter Alcock is worth the occasional outing and Tristan Russcher really manages to make something of the Six Short Pieces on the recent CD from Christ Church, Dublin, where they are imaginatively interspersed in the Missa Aedis Christi.

http://www.signumrecords.com/catalogue/sigcd151/index.shtml

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I, too, went through a big Howellsian phrase in my teens and was shocked at the scoffing reaction of my 2nd year degree supervisor, Hugh Wood, when I claimed Howells (and Finzi) as composers I greatly admired. Howells' output was so wide and varied that it is bound to be patchy. I've ploughed through the Sonata (no 2 - the GTB one), the Partita and the early Sonata no 1 and they are good in parts, but hard to bring off in performance. I think it was Christopher Palmer who judged that the 2nd Sonata might have been an orchestral piece manque. It meanders too much and is rhythmically over-fussy. The Psalm Preludes, though, are jolly useful in all manner of circumstances and Paean (taken at the right lick) can keep an audience glued to their pews.

 

The early chamber pieces are astonishingly good, in particular the Clarinet Rhapsodic Quintet (right up there with the Brahms) and some of the one-off pieces such as Sir Patrick Spens and Penguinski, which are tremendously vivid and lithe. The Concerto for Strings is monumental, particularly in the stirring Boult recording (with HH present) which EMI issued in the 1970s (the orange-coloured LP also featured Bliss's Music for Strings). Hymnus Paradisi is, rightly, seen as his masterpiece. He never quite recaptured that white-heat intensity with the later Missa Sabriensis ('The Severn Bore'), English Mass or Stabat Mater (depsite Paul Spicer's devoted advocacy). Hymnus should always be an overwhelming experience for everyone taking part, whether singer, orchestral musician or listener. It's the nearest classical/choral piece I can think of which is the equivalent to Phil Spector's 'Wall of Sound'. On 30 May 1981 I attended a performance of Hymnus given by the Cambridge Philharmonic in King's College Chapel. Just before the concert began (with The Lark Ascending and Sea Pictures in the first half) there was a murmur among the audience as Howells himself appeared and shuffled slowly along to the front row (with a nurse-/minder in attendance). I believe that this was the last time he heard the piece live. I had a brief chat with him at the interval and he signed my vocal score...after writing 'Herbert' he looked at me and said "I enjoyed doing that"! and proceeded to praise David Willcocks' Bach Choir recording (still the most vivid and atmospheric: a Kingsway Hall classic).

 

MKR

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The early chamber pieces are astonishingly good, in particular the Clarinet Rhapsodic Quintet (right up there with the Brahms) and some of the one-off pieces such as Sir Patrick Spens and Penguinski, which are tremendously vivid and lithe. The Concerto for Strings is monumental, particularly in the stirring Boult recording (with HH present) which EMI issued in the 1970s (the orange-coloured LP also featured Bliss's Music for Strings). Hymnus Paradisi is, rightly, seen as his masterpiece. He never quite recaptured that white-heat intensity with the later Missa Sabriensis ('The Severn Bore'), English Mass or Stabat Mater (depsite Paul Spicer's devoted advocacy). Hymnus should always be an overwhelming experience for everyone taking part, whether singer, orchestral musician or listener.

MKR

 

All too true. I was quite taken aback by my first hearing of The Clarinet Quintet when I was at St Martin-in-the-Fields. When just ready to announce the young RCM artists to the audience in walked Mr Howells into the vestry to wish them all success. A touching moment as he was (I heard from him afterwards) equally touched by the students wanting to perform his music. It was a most humble moment. Over the years I have more and more come to remember this little scene as one who sometimes composes and hears the notes come alive by others. It's quite a shock to know that they ever want to.

N

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Nigel's comments- erudite as ever -reminded me of three things which are relevant.

 

Mention of the Gloucestershire countryside reminded me of how the words Laurie Lee uses in Cider with Rosie, and the way he uses them, enable the reader almost to smell the smells of the Gloucestershire countryside as one reads. Is it purely by chance that so many great English composers come from the general area of the Three Choirs' Festival? Performers need to evoke that atmosphere.

 

At the moment I am studying the text books and DVDs of James Jordan, an American who teaches choral conducting at a very high level over there. I am greatly impressed by the thoroughness of his choral conducting pedagogy. Time and again he emphasises the importance of the conductor spending a lot of time preparing scores in detail and mentally hearing the exact sound he wants to evoke from his choir. Perhaps for choral conductor we could substitute organist playing pieces?

 

It seems to me that young organists are very fond of playing Bach and his contemporaries, they are keen on playing Langlais/Messiaen and they play Vierne until the cows come home but they don't seem to get involved much with composers like Howells whose organ music requires a particular expertise in console and registration management to get the right tonal colours and balances. Because of this they lose out on an important aspect of organ playing and it is our responsibility as teachers to remedy the situation.

 

Malcolm

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I should make it clear that I don't think Howells output is entirely worthless! I also don't doubt that the five Psalm Preludes I mentioned have their own individuality, even if constructed in a similar form. My point though - each of us have limited time in which to practise and learn new pieces. An attempt to master all of the first five Psalm Preludes would see much time spent on music which is undoubtedly quite similar, when time could be spent on something completely different, ensuring some balance in what was learnt. Perhaps I was a little hasty in dismissing certain aspects of his repertoire earlier - but I still think that some of it does sound awfully "samey". The challenge I find is to determine what - for me personally - is worth learning that I will gain satisfaction from doing so (and so might my congregation!) - hence my general query. Incidentally, I've found Master Tallis's Testament on youtube and have to say I like it. Is it only available in the book of Six pieces or is it published separately?

 

Some very interesting comments here which are most enlightening. As someone who is 21, and still learning new stuff year on year, I have to confess I have no desire to spend time learning Bach. I would venture to play his preludes on Wachet Auf and In Dulci but not a lot else. I daresay that leaves a big hole in my repertoire! In contrast, learning something like Rhapsody 3 I find enormously satisfying, in no small part due to the complex variations in dynamics etc which demand many registration changes. This shows off the variety which the organ can achieve which is probably one of the things which makes the piece effective.

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I cannot remember where I read it but I feel that Howell's music is best summed up by the quotation:

"His music is loved by a few rather than liked by many"

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The challenge I find is to determine what - for me personally - is worth learning that I will gain satisfaction from doing so (and so might my congregation!) - hence my general query.

I guess only you can answer that one! I think that what draws a lot of us to Howells's ecclesiastical music is that the best of it oozes (and needs) a big, resonant acoustic. As someone put it to me when I was young, it is music to waft around the triforium, through the transepts, into every nook and cranny in a cathedral. For those of us who like to be enveloped in this sound, who don't mind the self-indulgence, there is nothing else in British music that can quite match it. It surprises me that Howells is so popular in America where church acoustics so often tend to be on the dry side.

 

Possibly the piece best suited to "wafting around the upper spaces" is the first of the Six Pieces, The Preludio "Sine Nomine". Very atmospheric, but needs good celestes and preferably a soft, non-acoustic 32'. Surprisingly it doesn't seem to be on YouTube.

 

Among the Psalm Preludes I particularly love Set 2, No.2, a dark, brooding piece seemingly quite at variance with the text it purports to portray (the clue to which is in the date at the end). Christopher Palmer had little time for it, but it seems to me purposeful and there is plenty of scope for inventive colour. Others favour Set 1, No.1.

 

You might also like to look at the Sarabande in modo elegiaco (No.5 of the Six Pieces), which begins softly and ends loudly. It's not a long piece and the way Howells builds to the climax from the central take-off point is masterly. This crescendo needs to be handled so that the piece ends in a good, inexorable swing (but one which is still nevertheless supremely dignified, so not fast).

 

"His music is loved by a few rather than liked by many"

A bit like the church, I suppose!

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Has anyone tackled the Rhapsody 4 or the Prelude "De Profundis" - (I don't mean the Psalm Prelude (2/1) with this inscription) or a movement from the Sonata or Partita?

I did learn Rhapsody IV within a couple of weeks of it first being published. I felt good about the achievement, but, frankly, had little joy in the music, which seemed to me just so much aimless busyness without saying anything very coherent (unlike the last Psalm Prelude, which IMO uses a similar approach to great purpose). I promptly dropped the piece, have entirely forgotten it and am unlikely to learn it again. "De profundis" I have never understood. All those violent harmonic wrenches (they are hardly modulations) which continually surprise, but leave me stone cold. What was Howells on about here? I can't help feeling that the harmonic treatment in this piece was more of an intellectual exercise than anything else; the angst seems very contrived. Does anyone find this piece moving? Please convert me!

 

Incidentally, I've found Master Tallis's Testament on youtube and have to say I like it. Is it only available in the book of Six pieces or is it published separately?

Musicroom.com advertises it for £6.95, but, if you are interested in seeing Sine nomine and the Sarabandes mentioned above, get the complete set of six for just £10.95.

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This is all most interesting, and it goes to show that Howells - like Kenneth Leighton - has suffered the unfortunate fate of being "pigeon-holed" as a church composer when in fact he wrote far more for other media than is commonly known. I sometimes think of Howells as an "English Langlais" - each has a personal style that is infused deeply with a sense of his musical roots (Breton folk music in Langlais' case, Three Choirs and early 20th century English Renaissance in Howells' case), and each produced many rewarding moments in his music, but was prolific to the point of "note-spinning" -- hence there are a large number of pieces that all sound very similar.

 

I've found myself enjoying those works of Howells that are "sidelined" in services or recitals: Rhapsody No. 2 has always fascinated me more than the others, even though they are richer in melody and have a superior musical structure. I enjoy the Partita - admittedly in small doses, particularly the exquisite "Sarabande for the 12th day of any October." Recently I've been looking at the Six Short Pieces from unpublished manuscripts (with Robin Wells' completions) and finding them richly rewarding - there is real variety between them and also some rather more unusual touches, including a plainsong-like "Aria" (Wells' title) that has a familiar ring to it, yet comes across as untypical. None of them outstays its welcome; each works well as a distillation of Howellsian style and could work well in services or as a suite for recital use. (I feel Gerard Brooks' observation about Reger revealing his true genius in short pieces could equally apply to Howells ... one need only look to "The Chosen Tune" for further evidence!)

 

Coming a bit more onto topic: I've played over the "Siciliano for a High Ceremony" at least once in living memory (on the Harrison at Clifton College when I had a couple of hours to kill and when Chapel was quite empty) and found it to be a satisfying experience - again, not quite like the "usual" experience to be had with the Psalm Preludes or Rhapsody No. 1 - but came away wondering if I could possibly use it in public. The literature all says it was written for a wedding, but it is quite subdued in character ... not so much so that it could be used at a funeral, however!

 

Nigel Allcoat has opined that Howells' organ music is all of a quasi-liturgical bent, and I think he's got something there: even the works explicitly destined for concert performance (the Sonatas) sound more in tune with the atmosphere of a cathedral set in the midst of the great English countryside. I would venture further and say that this music, like plainchant, is meant for something higher and less tangible than the experience of a casual listener - it's a spiritual offering, the sort of thing to be played for personal contemplation rather than for the entertainment of others. Perversely, the best situation in which to play Howells may be on your own, in the stillness of a great church at night with no-one but God to listen - so much the better if you're lucky enough for it to be Gloucester Cathedral or Tewkesbury Abbey! Back in 2002, I remember hearing Philip Moore opening a recital at York with Rhapsodies 1, 2 and 3 in order. Evening was falling, and the Minster had that stillness that can't quite be described (you just have to go there and feel it for yourself) ... and when Philip started playing into it, with immaculate sense of style and those luxuriant sounds that the Minster organ can conjure up, it was as if the music simply belonged to the space, same as the stained glass, wood carvings or pillars. It wouldn't have mattered if thousands of people were there, or no-one at all.

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The reference by Vox to Howells’ Sine Nomine reminds me that many years ago I found myself playing the piano in the presence of the great man while accompanying a fellow student in the Brahms 2nd Clarinet Sonata; she was trying for an internal award at the Royal College of Music. After the other examiners had put a few questions to the candidate, Howells tackled me. I told him that my first study was the organ and that I was about to take my ARCO and was, in fact, learning Sine Nomine, set that year, 1956. “Really,” he replied, rather enigmatically, “what do you make of the piece?” Being brought up to be a good boy and always to be truthful, I said, “Well, Doctor Howells, not a lot, I’m afraid.” “Hmm,” was his reaction, “neither do I”.

 

David Harrison

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MSW's comparison of Howells to Langlais is right on the mark. They were both charismatic philanderers, highly susceptible to female charms, but also revered teachers and, interestingly, provinical boys who rose to positions of eminence (The Forest of Dean and Brittany) in their respective capital cities.

 

I always feel with Howells that there is an element of posturing in his music, an angst (especially post-Michael), tension, call it what-you-will which makes it hard to love the music, though I agree that for the player performing in the right setting he can work his magic. It is surely no coincidence that his daughter, Ursula, became such a distinguished and much-loved actress. Howells himself, in the only film clip I have of him talking (taken from the BBC's 1970 documentary on Vaughan Williams) is also rather posed and stagey (eg the rather convoluted delivery, the luxuriant hair 'just so', seeking out the best light for the camera (as John le Mesurier was wont to do in Dad's Army!) Fascinating.

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This.... goes to show that Howells - like Kenneth Leighton - has suffered the unfortunate fate of being "pigeon-holed" as a church composer when in fact he wrote far more for other media than is commonly known.

And not only Howells.

What about Stanford, with all his Symphonies, Concertos, Irish Rhapsodies, etc?

And Parry, Wood, Ireland and no doubt many more.

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I always feel with Howells that there is an element of posturing in his music, an angst (especially post-Michael), tension, call it what-you-will which makes it hard to love the music, though I agree that for the player performing in the right setting he can work his magic. [...] Howells himself, in the only film clip I have of him talking (taken from the BBC's 1970 documentary on Vaughan Williams) is also rather posed and stagey (eg the rather convoluted delivery, the luxuriant hair 'just so', seeking out the best light for the camera [...]

Yes, indeed. And this corresponds with what some of his pupils and colleagues say in Christopher Palmer's book Herbert Howells - A Centenary Celebration (1992). The dapper double-breasted suit; the tie; the breast hankerchief; the Ravel-like elegance in every detail of his dress and accessories...

 

A cynic, however, might call the "posturing" pretentiousness: choristers are forever fazed by counting note-lengths in his music when the final note of a passage (with a minim pulse) is a tied quaver - or a tied dotted crotchet followed by a quaver rest. It looks sophisticated, but to some young minds, it's all too fussy and daunting.

 

That aside, I regard the 2nd Rhapsody as an under-rated work, and David Hill's performance of it on BBC Radio 3 in the 1980s while he was assistant at Durham is, for me, the definitive performance - so much so that I've transferred my old cassette-tape recording of it (and Hill's playing of Set 2 No. 3) onto my iPod. The Piano Quartet in A minor is a work I took to on first hearing, and no-one has mentioned the beautiful Elegy for viola and string orchestra.

 

And to answer the OP, I learnt the Siciliano for my grade 7 decades ago and thought it worth learning - then. I also featured it in recitals, but received no positive nor negative feedback from audiences, so can't confirm whether or not they appreciated it.

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Nigel Allcoat has opined that Howells' organ music is all of a quasi-liturgical bent, and I think he's got something there

 

I must say that I particularly enjoyed msw's very perceptive post (I agree about the Sarabande from the Partita), but I would question the above statement. As a general rule of thumb it is valid of course, yet I have to exempt the Siciliano which is the subject of this thread. I really do not detect much liturgy there; it seems to me much more aligned with his secular output (as I have already argued). Just my take on it though. Even more secular, surely, are the two manuals-only, "Dalby" pieces. Admit it: these are just like two extra movements from Howells's Clavichord that have somehow found their way onto the organ!

 

I told him that my first study was the organ and that I was about to take my ARCO and was, in fact, learning Sine Nomine, set that year, 1956. "Really," he replied, rather enigmatically, "what do you make of the piece?" Being brought up to be a good boy and always to be truthful, I said, "Well, Doctor Howells, not a lot, I'm afraid." "Hmm," was his reaction, "neither do I".

 

What?! I am shocked. Nay, gutted! :o

 

and no-one has mentioned the beautiful Elegy for viola and string orchestra.

 

Yes indeed - and on a technical level, Howells's tribute to VW's Tallis Fantasia.

 

I learnt the Siciliano for my grade 7 decades ago and thought it worth learning - then. I also featured it in recitals, but received no positive nor negative feedback from audiences, so can't confirm whether or not they appreciated it.

 

That's very perceptive and, to be honest, rather what one should expect. I commented above that Howells wrote what he felt he had to write. He didn't write potboilers or "play to the gallery". His was an intensely personal expression. However he nevertheless hoped (and how!) that people would enjoy and perform his music. And I think you have to perform it in the same way. Even at its most ecstatic, as in the last Psalm Prelude (the last few pages of which transcend human expression), his music is essentially introspective. At least, so it seems to me. When I play Howells, although I am not in the slightest unconscious of the audience, I play the piece principally for him and for myself and pray that others will be moved in the process. There are no cheap thrills with Howells. His is music of depth; it won't appeal to everyone.

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