In Memoriam: Michael Howard

Article excerpt

Michael Howard

When the definitive history of the British early music movement comes to be written, a survey of the immediate post-Second World War decades would be seriously incomplete without a proper assessment of the work of conductor, organist, composer and teacher Michael Howard. In his special field of interest Renaissance choral music - he provided a vital link between the pioneering efforts of Edmund Fellowes and Richard Terry, and the established groups of today such as The Tallis Scholars, The Sixteen and The Cardinall's Musick.

Like most cathedral organists Howard's talent was multifaceted. As a choral director he injected a new professionalism into a cathedral music scene enjoying one of its periodic slumbers. As an organist trained under the legendary Marcel Dupre, he married technical fluency to interpretative insight, particularly in JS Bach and French Romantic repertory. And as a composer, he demonstrated an individual if minor voice, unmindful of the whims of fashion.

The son of the distinguished viola player Frank Henry Howard and an artist mother, Michael Howard was educated at Ellesmere College, where his resistance to mathematics precluded entry to Oxbridge - the usual route for aspiring cathedral organists. Instead, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied composition with William Alwyn and organ with GD Cunningham. Further organ study ensued, with Ralph Downes at the Brompton Oratory and with Dupre in Paris.

The war years proved formative. Debarred from active service by a heart complaint, Howard was able to hone his organ skills in London churches and, for a brief period, at Tewksbury Abbey. Before hostilities had ceased, he had set up the Renaissance Society and its performing arm, the Renaissance Singers, to promote the cause of that vast corpus of fifteenth- and sixteenthcentury music which had been so neglected or so badly performed, not least in cathedrals and parish churches. They were soon broadcasting.

When, after numerous attempts, he finally attained a cathedral post, at Ely in 1953, he was thus able to bring hands-on experience to revivifying a less than vital musical foundation. Gradually, he extracted from the choir the kind of bright, focused 'continental' sound that was at the same time invigorating the choir of Westminster Cathedral under the virtuoso harpsichordist George Malcolm, and freshened up the Victorian and Edwardian music lists with sixteenthcentury polyphony. …