A composing prodigy, Herbert Norman Howells (October 17, 1892 - February 23, 1983) studied with Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music. Neglected now, Stanford trained many of the major figures of the modern English musical renaissance, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Frank Bridge, and John Ireland. Stanford, who called Howells "my musical son," promoted the young man's early work, conducting it and urging him to compete for prizes. Howells' Piano Quartet (1916), entered because of Stanford's encouragement, won an award from the Carnegie Trust.
Serious illness kept Howells out of the First World War. Indeed, according to some accounts, he wasn't expected to live. He rallied, however, and got sent to Canada as a music examiner, partly to help him recuperate. He also received an appointment at the Royal College of Music, where he remained for close to sixty years.
Early on, Howells was seen as the great hope of his generation. People predicted a huge career for him. However, in the Twenties his star fell precipitously, with disastrous reviews of the orchestral Sine nomine (1922) and the Piano Concerto #2 (1925). This made Howells draw away from the limelight. He composed less and less and held those few works he finished in his desk drawer, rather than let them go for publication.
Stanford gave Howells a marvelous technique, but Howells did not imitate his teacher. Vaughan Williams exercised a decisive influence upon him. Attending the premiere in the Gloucester cathedral, Howells was gobsmacked by the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Roughly ten years later, the Symphony #3 "Pastoral" overwhelmed him. He wrote one of the first critical analyses of the work. Both scores set his mind in a certain direction, but again, Howells didn't imitate, any more than his friend Gerald Finzi did, similarly struck. Instead, Vaughan Williams liberated him to find his own artistic affinities, especially an intense, personal pastoralism, heard, for example, in his String Quartet #3 "In Gloucestershire."
In the Thirties, his son Michael died from polio at the age of nine. This haunted Howells most of his life. However, he wrote an unconventional requiem for unaccompanied voices, which drew on an eclectic mix of Biblical verses and sections of the liturgy, rather than on the traditional sequence. It is probably his masterpiece. However, he worked to expand it for full orchestra, chorus, and soloists. He completed most of it by 1938, but, again, kept it to himself. It took the forceful persuasion of both Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi to get him to release it in 1950. Releasing the original Requiem took at least another twenty years.
Howells began to compose for the church on a regular basis in the Forties. He wrote both "practical" services for liturgical use (several settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, including the two best-known, for King's College and St. Paul's) as well as "free" anthems and motets. His works succeeded to such an extent that to this day, many think it's all he wrote. Most of these pieces are substantial and demand a crack choir. Howells became a virtuoso choral "orchestrator," creating many new, beautiful effects. He's considered one of the great modern choral composers. Since choral music is usually valued less than symphonic music, Howells rose to the status of solid, minor composer.
Although one finds treasures among Howells' instrumental music, his mountain of choral and vocal work dwarfs and perhaps buries them. Remarkably, one encounters very few throwaways. The songs, especially to the verse of Howells' friend Walter de la Mare, are exquisitely worked. Howells even has a minor hit in his setting of "King David," but many other of his songs equal it and should be better known and more often sung.
The Seventies saw a revival of interest in Howells' instrumental and chamber music. Listeners discovered a big artistic nature. Whether this propels his reputation higher is anyone's guess. ~ Steve Schwartz