Herbert Howells, the Teacher

By Wilson, Elizabeth Leighton | The American Organist, July 2013 | Go to article overview

Herbert Howells, the Teacher


Wilson, Elizabeth Leighton, The American Organist


MANY OF US who have taught have had mixed feelings about the vocation. It is a noble one, without a doubt. There is no other process by which humans can pass on their expertise, passion, and skills to a new generation. Unfortunately, to take the time away from one's own expression of genius to teach others can be a frustration for teachers. In his indispensable biography Herbert Howells, Paul Spicer quotes Howells, writing in one of his journal entries, on the "drudgery" of teaching (p. 178). And yet the composer would go on and teach at the Royal College of Music for 59 years, an extraordinary record. It is impossible to imagine anyone teaching for so long if it had not provided some satisfaction, and benefited students in equal measure.

My primary interest was not originally in Howells's teaching career but in exploring his childhood in Lydney, Gloucestershire. It occurred to me that I should try to contact some of Howells's former Royal College of Music students to see if they might recall any conversations with the composer in which he spoke about his childhood. One by one, I connected with these musicians by mail, e-mail, or phone. Now, a clearer picture is emerging - not of Howells's childhood but, perhaps just as interesting, of his teaching persona during the last two decades before his retirement in 1979.

It is fun, first of all, to place these musicians' memories in the context of the era. The 1960s and '70s were a time of social, political, and sartorial revolution. Everything was about protest and the rejection of earlier values, social assumptions, and cultural, artistic, and musical "givens." What a moment for a young person to encounter Herbert Howells! It is probable that word had already reached most of these students that Howells was a relic of the past. It sounds as if the younger composers on the teaching staff, while respectful, were somewhat dismissive of Howells: "respect aplenty but some tacit toleration" is the phrase Jeffery Wilson used. Howells - from his attire and his speaking manner to his idiosyncratic, yet arguably not groundbreaking, composing style - inadvertently may have represented everything against which the newer generation was revolting.

Thus, it is not too fanciful to picture these young people, with long hair pulled back into a ponytail, wearing jeans and a T-shirt - having navigated London's cacophonous streets - arriving at Royal College of Music's basement Room 19. Once they opened the door, like the children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, they entered what was essentially "another world." Howells's classroom, whose windows looked out on a courtyard garden, was not particularly large, but it held a Broadwood grand piano, which, according to Robert Spearing, was Howells's own. Alan Bullard says that the piano had a "beautiful singing sound and elegant walnut inlay, both of which seemed to match HH's style and music perfectly." The room also had a desk, a cupboard, and a mantel, on which there were photos of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi, and others. Howells evidently kept the room tidy, although there could be scores on the desk or piano if he were in midcomposition. Peter Naylor says, "The general impression was artistic and pleasing, with an aristocratic element - but in no way forbidding."

The students' initial encounters with Howells were, in a few instances, memorable in themselves. American organist Kevin Walters, who was studying with Howells at the RCM while he was in residence at the Royal School of Church Music, says, "The first time I saw HH was when I was waiting for a bus in front of Royal Albert Hall. He got off the bus in front of me just as I was about to get on - and he didn't wait for it to stop. Quite spry for 80." (And for a man who had already had several significant falls!) Michael Christie, a composition student at the very end of Howells's RCM tenure, recounts: "As I was waiting in the room for my first lesson, I heard rapid footsteps approaching down the corridor. …

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