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Herbert Howells Biography

Herbert Howells

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Born: 1892. Died: 1983. Lived in: England

Herbert Norman Howells CH was an English composer, organist, and teacher. He was the youngest of six children born to Oliver and Elizabeth Howells. His father was an amateur organist, and Herbert himself showed early musical promise. He studied first with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, as an articled pupil alongside Ivor Novello and Ivor Gurney, the celebrated English song-writer and poet, with whom he became great friends. Later he studied at the Royal College of Music under C.V. Stanford, Hubert Parry and Charles Wood.

In 1915 Herbert Howells was diagnosed with Graves' disease and given six months to live. Since doctors believed that it was worth taking a chance on a previously untested treatment, he became the first person in the country to receive radium treatment. He was briefly assistant organist at Salisbury Cathedral in 1917, though his severe illness cut this appointment short; he later served as acting organist of St John's College, Cambridge during World War II.

In his 1920's and 1930's Herbert Howells' compositional output focussed chiefly on orchestral and chamber music, including two piano concertos. The hostile reception given to the second of these in 1925 largely silenced Howells' compositional activities for almost ten years. A further blow came with the death of his son, Michael, from polio (or meningitis; accounts vary) in 1935, which deeply affected Howells. It did, however, appear to unleash a new period of creativity. Both Howells himself and his music were never the same after this period of his life. Though not an orthodox Christian, he became increasingly identified with the composition of religious music, most notably the Hymnus Paradisi for chorus and orchestra. This was composed after his son's death but not released for performance until 1950, at the insistence (according to Howells' own account) of his close friend and mentor Ralph Vaughan Williams. It incorporates passages from the earlier unaccompanied Requiem, begun before Michael's death but not published until 1981, with a dedication to his memory. Again, this private account of grief remained in his desk drawer for forty years before he submitted it for publication.

Hymnus Paradisi was the first of four large-scale sacred choral works. His Missa Sabrinensis is on the same scale, in terms of length and forces required, as Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, while An English Mass is scored for significantly smaller forces, is performed almost entirely in English, and follows the Anglican tradition of placing the Gloria last. Finally, Howells' setting of the Stabat Mater, at about 50 minutes, is one of the longest extant settings of that text.

Herbert Howells is particularly known for his large output of Anglican church music, including a complete Service for King's College, Cambridge (the Collegium Regale) and settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for the choirs of St John's College, Cambridge, Choir of New College, Oxford, Westminster Abbey, Worcester, St Paul's, and Gloucester cathedrals, as well as for two parish churches, St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol and St Augustine's Church, Edgbaston. These settings are often tailored for the building after which they are named. For example, the St Paul's Service has a very slow rate of harmonic change to suit the prolonged reverberation in that cathedral. The motet Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, written shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is dedicated to Kennedy's memory, and is considered by many to be perhaps his finest a cappella anthem. Two other anthems, Like as the hart and Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem are similar in style and rhapsodic beauty and enjoy a firm and deserved place in the Anglican choral repertoire.

Herbert Howells wrote two works for brass band: Pageantry and Three Figures. Pageantry was written for the 1934 British Open brass band championships. Howells arranged its first movement, King's Herald, for full orchestra for the coronation of King George VI in 1937.

In later life Herbert Howells was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University, and was made a Companion of Honour. He was godfather to the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. His daughter Ursula (1922-2005) was an actress.