Magazine article Gramophone

The Music of Herbert Howells

Magazine article Gramophone

The Music of Herbert Howells

Article excerpt

The Music of Herbert Howells

Edited by Phillip A Cooke and David Maw

Boydell Press, HB, 382pp, 50 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-1-84383-879-1

Herbert Howells became Honorary Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge, in 1966 and it was a college legend that he often attended the notoriously lavish St John Ante Portam Latinam dinner on May 6. Evensong that afternoon was always a feast of Howells and I remember in 1979 or '80 having him pointed out to me--a tiny ancient figure in a dapper grey suit, lost in thought, a shock of dazzling white hair falling over his face. Here was the unassuming embodiment of modern English cathedral music dwarfed by the burnished stalls of the building where for four dark wartime years (1941-45) he'd been acting organist and choirmaster, his only such stint after three short Salisbury months in 1916.

Another local legend was the origin of the St John's Service itself. George Guest happened to read an article in The Times on May 25, 1956, about Howells's church music: 'His services are conceived for collegiate churches, as is indicated in their designation not by keys but by places--King's, St John's etc ...' Guest enjoyed writing to him apologising for not knowing the piece. Back in a flash: 'It's an inspired error, that reference ... and it has roused my conscience. St John's ought to have been next to Gloucester in these Services of mine.' Within a year it arrived!

This book, edited by Phillip A Cooke and David Maw, is a handsome volume and from its astonishingly detailed catalogue by Paul Andrews I can deduce that between 1945 and '55 Howells indeed composed six sets of Evening Canticles (or 'Mag and Nunes', as colloquially known), for King's, Gloucester, New College, Worcester, St Paul's and one in B minor (pace The Times again); that Westminster Abbey got the next set in 1957; and that the 'forgotten' service for SJC was written immediately after it the same year. By 1975 there were another eight of 'these Services of mine', the last of them amusingly entitled Dallas Canticles. Anyone who wants to know anything about Howells will find this book both treasure trove and invaluable extension to the existing bibliography. Its general style and structure represents a conflation of the two Cambridge Composer Companion and Studies series, and is certainly more impressive than one or two recent examples of those. …

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