Herbert Howells was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire on 17 October 1892. He
showed a keen interest in composition early in his life and, at the age
of eighteen, became a pupil of Herbert Brewer, Organist of Gloucester
Cathedral. In 1912 he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of
Music and studied under Charles Villiers Stanford, Walter Parratt,
Charles Wood and Hubert Parry.
In 1913 Howells wrote his Piano Concerto No 1 in C minor. This was his
first orchestral work: originally given the number Op 8 by the composer,
he later renumbered it as Op 4. This concerto received its world
premiere in July 1914 at the Queen's Hall, London with Arthur Benjamin
as soloist. (Piano Concerto No 2 in C Major was later commissioned
by the Royal Philharmonic Society and first performed at the Queen's
Hall in 1925 by Harold Samuel, conductor Malcolm Sargent) In 1920, after
ill-health forced him to relinquish his position as sub-organist of
Salisbury Cathedral, Howells returned to the RCM to teach composition,
an occupation which was to interest him until the end of his life.
Howells also taught at St Paul's Girls' School, Hammersmith, and, in
1950, was appointed King Edward VII Professor of Music at London
Unlike his close friend and mentor, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Howells
never collected or made direct use of folk songs. He did, however,
accept their importance as part of a wider musical heritage but
preferred to allow church modes and the pentatonic scale to play a more
prominent part in the construction of his output. In works such as the
Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra (1936) and the Concerto for String
Orchestra (1938), Howells shows his ability to incorporate a smooth
melodic line with an almost disturbing harmonic dissonance.
Perhaps time has singled out Hymnus Paradisi as this composer's
masterpiece. It was written in 1938 as a requiem for his son, Michael
Kendrick Howells, who died in infancy in 1935. Christopher Palmer has
described the work as "Music of life and life's transience", and for
twelve years it was unperformed, remaining, as Howells put it, "A
personal, almost secret document". It was at the request of Vaughan
Williams that Howells released the work and conducted its premiere at
the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester, 1950. Much of the material for
Hymnus was derived from an earlier work, the Requiem (1936) which was
only released for publication - by the composer - in 1980.
The move away from secular to sacred music which Hymnus Paradisi marked,
continued into the 1940s with a series of compositions setting Mass
texts and Canticles, most notably the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from
the Anglican Evensong service. Over twenty settings are known of which
the settings for King's College, Cambridge (Collegium Regale), St Paul's
and Gloucester Cathedrals are among the finest. Howells never claimed
to be an expert organist but his output for the instrument has been
accepted as core repertoire and shows a mastery in both style and
technique in writing for this medium. Amongst others, the Six Pieces
dating from 1940 to 1945 are full of rich dissonance with a romantic
twist which is neither pretentious nor superfluous. Here, Tudor
influences can be seen as in other works - although they are moulded and
adapted to Howells' intrinsic style.
Herbert Howells died in London on 23 February 1983 at the age of 90.
During his life he has been awarded a Collard Life Fellowship
(Worshipful Company of Musicians), CBE (1953) and in 1972 was made a
Companion of Honour.
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