Herbert Howells | Book reviews
Herbert Howells | Book reviews
The American Organist
HERBERT HOWELLS, Paul Spicer. Bridgend, Wales: Seren Press, 1999.203 pp., illus. $19.95. ISBN 1-8541-233-3 (distributed by Dufour Editions Inc., Chester Springs, PA 19425-0007).
Herbert Howells's music, quirky, fluid, singular though it was, never truly mirrored modern life. Such was the conclusion of a review of Paul Spicer's recording of Howells's choral works in the September 1998 issue of this journal. Now, Spicer validates that opinion in this, his essential and elegant biography of Herbert Howells. Spicer, conductor of the Finzi Singers, studied with Howells at the Royal College of Music, where Spicer himself now teaches.
Though the fellowship of church and choral musicians has nearly universally accorded Herbert Howells a place of top honor in British choral composition of the past century (along with Benjamin Britten), Paul Spicer does as much to debunk Howells's sainthood as to sing praises of his flawless if conservative style. Spicer's opening sentence puts it best: "Herbert Howells was a great musician, a complex man, a devoted and devastated father, a loyal but weak and unfaithful husband, a sensualist though not a hedonist, a teacher, adjudicator, examiner, writer, and speaker, and almost last of all, a composer."
Thus opens an irresistible narrative that, like all biographies of the accomplished and creative, balances and reconciles the mundane issues of everyday living with those transcendent moments that astonish and inspire the rest of us and give us cause to envy. Herbert Howells's life willingly lends itself to such narrative. Again and again, perhaps even to excess, Spicer alludes to the com- poser's beginnings in "humble circumstances" as if simple origins would make the suavity of later life and music all the more astonishing. But Howells was just as much the end product of bloodline, a co-mingling of Welsh and Celtic heritage. "The romance of the Celtic disposition," reasons Spicer, explains much of Howells's charm just as it elucidates the richness of detail in his com- posing. Like a Celtic maze or cosmic puzzle, Herbert Howells was given to putting little musical riddles and unnoticeable devices in invisible positions.
The complexity, the rhythmic jabs and stabs, so typical of Howells's church music, was a later accretion, for Howells was not the one-dimensional, stylistically static composer that some think. For instance, he wrote little church music until he was in his 50s (during World War II). Correctly, Spicer asserts that Herbert Howells's music grew both in style and technique, something that those who know the composer only as a lion of Anglican choral music might routinely overlook. Such a legacy, says Spicer, was "a major disadvantage."
Biographies come in many sizes and styles, qualities often measured by the distance allowed between the author and subject. Paul Spicer delves headlong into a close and passionate relationship with his subject. As he relates the musical formation of Herbert Howells, the reader discerns the twitter of young musical discovery. If Howells's mature style reflects little other than its own remarkable image, it is not because Howells remained clear of the influence and inspiration of others. Rather, he seems to have absorbed so much that his music selectively picks and chooses from a wide palette of possible color, texture, and form. Paul Spicer portrays Howells as a youngster under the influence of the very men who were responsible for the English musical renaissance, mesmerizing figures including Parry, Stanford, Mackenzie, Elgar, and Vaughan Williams. That renaissance was destined to flourish in and around the Royal College of Music; which in turn was "the anchor point of Howells's whole musical career"
The ragged picture of the country boy, Howells, arriving at the big-city conservatory with a sheath of early compositions in hand, is fleeting and soon mitigated by the musical brilliance and social wit that the composer developed; and that Spicer relates with partiality. Those social graces grew and the accounting of Howells at the height of his career includes much extramusicality. Spicer traces the most important phase of Howells's years, the wartime stint as replacement organist at St. John's College, Cambridge (for Robin Orr who had gone to serve in the RAF). Howells staffed the chapel for four years while keeping up his duties at the RCM. Spicer quotes John Margetson, a choral scholar at St. John's during the war, and his recollections of musical and social affairs. Howells was never far away from the prettiest women at Cambridge (despite his marriage of, then, over 20 years to Dorothy Dawes Howells). Margetson would go to visit Howells "partly to see him, and partly in the knowledge that the prettiest girls in the College would be either there (in Howells's room) or thereabouts. He was well known to love pretty girls and we were quite happy to use him as a sort of high-class pimp!"
Elsewhere, Ursula Howells, the composer's daughter whose commentary and reminiscences amount to Spicer's information mainstay, is said to have been uneasy as a student at St. Paul's Girls' School in London. In 1937, her father had succeeded Gustav HoIst as director of music and his "presence at St. Paul's Girls' School was causing adolescent hearts to flutter." Ursula was put in the unwelcome and embarrassing position of being asked to carry notes home to her father. Howells "was unable to stop these extra-marital liaisons, although he was often racked by guilt. The need, however, was stronger than the resolution to stop it, and his sex drive was the inner motor which kept his creative life humming." Spicer also maintains that "throughout his life and well into old age Howells had a succession of girlfriends," and Ursula is quoted as saying that "Herbert was ruled by sex. He was unbelievably attractive to the female sex and was just as attracted to them."
The extent to which Howells's behavior and creativity were shaped by sex may not be as clear as the degree to which his life was deeply struck by the loss of his son, Michael. In 1935, while on holiday, Michael, only ten, was stricken with a virulent polio. Within several days, after returning to London in search of better care, he died. Howells's extended grieving mirrored itself in music and resulted in his arguably greatest masterpiece, Hymnus Paradisi. Spicer reserves particular reverence for this work. He lovingly details the literature amassed between its covers and, importantly, connects the piece to another musical mirror of death and loss. As the Hymnus followed Michael's death, so the a cappella Requiem had preceded it. Howells subsumed that Re- quiem into the Hymnus.
About the same time, in the wake of Michael's death, Howells had developed ambivalent feelings about religion. The radiance and peace, therefore, of the Hymnus surprise Spicer, who notes that "the principal theme of 'light' - 'Et lux perpetua luceat eis' - pervading Hymnus Paradisi is all the more remarkable."
But in the end, for all the frantic energy ensnared in Herbert Howells's daily life and in Paul Spicer's story, for all the names and relationships that chronicle British music for the past century, for all the dalliances and tragedies, for all the great music written and unwritten (for Spicer laments what might have been as much as he celebrates what was), Howells himself died alone and, if not bitterly, then sadly. He was weak, failing, literally falling, and losing memory and, with it, functionality. Spicer evokes sympathy for Ursula, who had to care for her father and her second husband, a stroke victim. So this idiosyncratic and fluent composer, stylistically unlike any other, this dandy, the confidant and friend of musicians, politicians, and scientists alike, was reduced to mere moments of cognition. Spicer quotes Ursula:
"In the last months I saw that 'Hymnus' was on the radio and I told him it was on. He asked what it was. I told him that he had written it for Michael. He said, 'I don't want to hear it,' but I just left it on. And I went through at the end of it, and there he was just lying there with tears streaming down his face saying, 'Did I write that?' "
He did write that, and much else that was to become central to the identity of a particular 20th-century ethos. If Herbert Howells's music reflected anything in its complexity, detail, and passion, it was the fascinating and enigmatic personality who wrote it and who is so candidly and zestfully portrayed in Paul Spicer's narrative.
The American Organist
Review of Howells Biography in Cathedral Music February 1999
Who better than to write this biography than Paul Spicer, whose group of musicians, the Finzi Singers, has performed and recorded most of Howells's repertoire. This biography is excellently written and extremely well-researched. Spicer gets to grips with his subject getting into all the nooks and crannies and presents his findings in a compelling narrative. Included are the tragic circumstances that befell HH's family. Some readers might be surprised to learn that the music he wrote for the church and in fact the music we all know him by was composed in his later years. Spicer had access to Howells's diaries and the help of his daughter, Ursula. One niggle - as with quite a number of biographies these days - those writing seem to forget, that many of us would like, for either research or general interest, to see a discography or chronological list of compositions. Mr Spicer does present us with an excellent bibliography. Elgar died on February 23 1934, exactly 49 years later on the same date in 1982 Howells died, his great friend and colleague, Sir Adrian Boult, died the night before. At his thanksgiving service Take him, earth for cherishing; Like as the Hart and the Collegium Regale Te deum were sung, as of course, was his hymn tune Michael. This is one of the most interesting books I have read for some time, containing so much well presented, clear detail, with every page offering something new to think about. Well recommended.
Devotion without belief
Roderic Dunnett explains the contradictions in Herbert Howells
21 May 1999
HERBERT HOWELLS was one of the enigmas of English music. Small, vain, highly strung, a womaniser, something of a name-dropper, certainly a charmer, riddled with depression and self-doubts, he was, in short, as Paul Spicer suggests, "a mess, like so many people, underneath". His liaisons, covert or less so, spanned many years: surprisingly, even his daughter, the actress Ursula Howells, concedes, "he was ruled by sex." More poignantly, the loss of his young son Michael, whose death from polio engendered some of Howells's best works (notably his great oratorio Hymnus Paradisi) became almost a kind of talisman. Michael's memory, as Spicer movingly puts it, was "like a ground bass to his existence".
Howells's father was a decorator and builder from Lydney in Gloucestershire, and played at the local Baptist church. His sudden bankruptcy devastated the family. Others helped, enabling Herbert to study with Dr Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, and later at the Royal College of Music (RCM), where his gifts made him the best loved of Stanford's composition pupils. The first performance of Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia, given in Gloucester, bowled him over. Later VW sat next to the impressionable young man, and they shared a score as Elgar conducted his Gerontius.
The First World War brought tragedy - not just the loss of his talented close friend Francis Purcell Warren, but Howells's own near death from Graves disease. He was one of the first guinea-pigs for radium cancer treatment in Britain. Despite his illness, musically for Howells it was a golden age. Early organ works - a sonata, Psalm preludes, and rhapsodies (the Third written during a Zeppelin raid on Bairstow's house in York) - were emerging, as well as the Tudor- inspired Mass in the Dorian Mode and the exquisite Three Carols, still popular today. But Spicer underlines another aspect: "It is almost as if he was liberated by being able to take his music out of church." it is the secular songs, quartets, and works like the Three Dances for Violin and Orchestra that confirmed Howells's remarkable gifts in a wider field. This side, which has tended to be over-shadowed, is well emphasised here. in the 1930s, when already an established teacher at the RCM, Howells succeeded HoIst as director of music at St Paul's Girls' School; and during the 1940s, deeply versed in the music of the .16th century, and for four years acting organist at St John's College, Cambridge, he attempted almost singlehandedly to set new standards for English liturgical composition. He had a unique gift for conjuring mood, with a serene long line. The settings for King's College, Cambridge; Gloucester; St Paul's; and New College, Oxford, trod new and distinct paths. The emergence of the Collegium Regale Te Deum - the result of a bet with Dean Milner-White – is one of many entertaining anecdotes in this well charted book.
The author, a former Howells pupil and a distinguished choral conductor and composer himself, has produced the first attempt to encompass Howells's life and music, in all its facets, in a chronological biography. It is an admirable achievement. The sources for his early life are scantier, but well sketched in. Later, as Howells's diary reveals more of the man, Spicer is particularly adept at reading between the lines. His comments on many works are invaluable. There is one marked surprise: "The real problem", says Spicer, "was Howells's lack of faith. He simply did not believe. He could not reconcile what had happened to Michael with a merciful God acting in his wisdom." "Holding on" to his son by having to be near him (spending hours in Twigworth Church, where Michael was buried) "says more about his emotional state and his unwillingness to let go of the physical trappings of his son than of any religious 'revelation' or 'conversion'." In short, it "underlines the flimsiness of his religious convictions".
Belief or no, to those complex emotions we owe numerous fine works - not least the five anthems penned when Howells, hounded by pleurisy and blitzed in Barnes, with the loss of his precious MSS and scores, was trapped one winter in snowed - in Cheltenham. Hymnus Paradisi is one of the most powerfully charged of all 20th-century sacred choral works. If some larger works failed initially to take off (singers cruelly nicknamed the later Missa Sabrinensis the "Severn Bore"), Spicer pays fitting tribute to the full scope of his achievement as composer, supportive teacher, encouraging adjudicator, and, to a degree, family man.
Spicer's examination of certain works is detailed and instructive. A few early sections are not well proofed or punctuated, and Spicer is sometimes over-modest in pressing his own views. He need not be. This is a much needed book which many will welcome.
The following review appeared in the July/August 1999 issue of Choice:
36-6213 Spicer, Paul.
205p bibl $19.95
Herbert Howells. Seren, index ISBN 1-85411-232-5,
oriq 1998. (Dist. by Dufour Editions)
$39.95; ISBN 1-85411-233-3 pbk,
Howells's name will not be familiar to the typical US concertgoer (or professional musician, for that matter). An Englishman, Howells drew most of his compositions on the English choral tradition, and his work seems more at home in the church than in the concert hall.
Stylistically, Howells came of age during the twilight of 19th-century Romanticism, and--although he lived into the 1980s—he never severed his ties to tradition. Thus, one would suspect that a biography of Howells would have little appeal to us readers. But Spicer's slim volume offers a surprisingly engaging portrait and for the most part holds the reader's attention. The author focuses on Howells the man rather than Howells the creative artist; the composer lived through nine event-filled decades, knew virtually all of England's great musical figures, and was personally touched by tragedy on a number of occasions. Therefore, his life had impressive (and moving) moments; and one assumes, from Spicer's descriptions, that Howells's music was equally striking and/or moving at times. Unfortunately, Spicer provides no music examples and no discography either, regrettable omissions since Spicer's comments about the music whet the appetite. For large collections supporting undergraduate and graduate music curriculation. Schwartz, Bowdoin College
Review of Howells biography in Music and Letters August 1999
This is a touching tribute to a composer who has for many years been unfashionable, written by one of Howells's own pupils who happens to be steeped in the composer's works through his conducting and recording of them. Little has been written on Howells: it was typical of the outlook of the musical hierarchy during his lifetime and since that Frank Howes's The English Musical Renaissance (1955) virtually ignored him, and that there has been very little devoted solely to him. No doubt many ignored him because they considered - consciously or subconsciously - that he fell into a category outlined by Donald Mitchell: Transitional periods are almost bound to throw up these rather tragic figures, good men and fine musicians, who seem compelled by some ironic destiny to create in a style that is already an illusion. They are plainly victims of Time, and their gifts – sufficient to enable them to play their roles with conviction but not enough to rescue them from their fate - only intensify their predicament. Their status could be more easily assessed if they were plainly incompetent composers - which they are not. On the contrary, it is their superior talents which confuse the aesthetic issue. (The Language of Modern Music, 1963, p. 67). But Howells does not belong in that category: after all, he revolutionized English cathedral music single-handedly, and fully deserves a proper study. Spicer's book, one of a series dedicated to discussing musicians, artists and writers from around the border between Wales and England, is a step in the right direction, and should become a classic.
Howells's hard work was legendary: this book makes it clear that, for the musical world, it was a tragedy that he gave himself so little time in which to compose. And yet his own view, shared with Vaughan Williams, was that we ignore ordinary folk at our peril: he therefore spent much time tending the soil by teaching and adjudicating. As a writer on music he had an exquisite command of language and a remarkable ability to find the mot juste and the apt expression; some of his work appeared in the pages of this journal. His facility at composition was also legendary. Robert Simp- son, during his lessons for the Durham D.Mus., remembered taking to Howells what he thought was rather a good fugue: Howells simply took a pen and, in his habitual exquisite calligraphy, wrote out, there and then, a fugue of his own on the same subject, thoroughly exploring all the implications of the material in a way that Simpson had not done.
As Spicer says, Howells has become typecast as a composer of church music: indeed, he is generally known only as a supplier of thoroughly fitting liturgical pieces, and perhaps also through such miniatures as the songs (among which 'King David' must be one of the finest ever composed to English words). Spicer is right to counter this by giving some weight to the larger-scale pieces for chorus and orchestra, and to the orchestral and chamber music. The few who know this repertoire) will always regret that Howells did not compose more large-scale works (there is no symphony, no concerto, no opera), but a busy life did not allow such things; on the other hand, those who benefited from his teaching and adjudicating will have reason to thank him.
The book is mainly biographical and is not intended for music specialists. It follows, then, that there is little analytical discussion of the music (indeed, there are only a couple of tiny music examples): we await a full technical treatment of Howells's music, whose quality certainly calls for such a study. But Spicer himself has a Howellsian facility for encapsulating the features of a work and pointing the reader towards the important elements of the composer's style. He cannot deal with minutiae, so the massive and admirably – paced climax at the end of the Collegium regale Te Deum, for example, is not noted: Howells's particular feeling for 'placing' the voices effectively, and for creating precisely the right atmosphere, are well worth exploring. Neither could Spicer possibly deal with every piece, and each reader conversant with Howells's output may well look in vain for a discussion of his or her own favourite. I personally miss a discussion of the Coventry Antiphon, written for the opening of the new cathedral, and overshadowed by Britten's War Requiem, written for the same set of ceremonies (this is typical of Howells's bad luck - he had the misfortune to live at the same time as Britten, Walton, Tippett and Vaughan Williams, and to be overshadowed by them in the public's mind). Naturally, then, some features are left out; but the cardinal importance of personal tragedy and a sense of 'the spirit of a place' are given due weight, and Spicer deals well with that new spaciousness in the choral music from the 1940s onwards about which Sir Thomas Armstrong memorably said: 'Howells is the master of the long line'.
The book is beautifully written and excellently produced. There are very few slips: I cannot find the discussion of 'Summer Idyls (sic)' that is mentioned on page 31, and the review by 'B.W.G.R.' of the Missa sabrinensis on page 160 is by Bernard Rose. Spicer does not expand on the initials, though he must be aware of the authorship of this perfectly balanced review: I assume that he was covering up for Rose's notable failure to include anything other than the odd token Howells piece in the Magdalen music lists (the splendid and unaccountably neglected set of Evening Canticles for Magdalen College were written as the result of an offhand remark made in a social context rather than from a desire to reward an exponent of his music). Above all, the book is a great joy to read: let us hope that it begins to put the record straight.
Choral Journal March 1999 (USA)
PAUL SPICER, a British choral director and teacher, is one of the world's foremost authorities on the life and music of Herbert Howells (1892- 1983). His just-published Howells biography is a long-overdue examination of a composcr best known for his English cathedral music. As such, it compliments Christopher Palmer's Herbert Howells: A Celebration (1996, Thames Publishing), a documentary study now in its second edition.
While Spiccr's work has not the definitive proportions of a major study, it is an appropriate work at this date, fifteen years after the composer's death, with just the nascence of hindsight to put Howells into perspective. Spicer's work is concise, superbly written, fulfilling, and enjoyable, with enough detail and nuance about Howells to bring his personality to life. Herbert Howells is a labor of love from a sympathetic biographer. This authoritative account of the life and work of Howells is an important contribution.
Howells is presented as a complex man of tremendous energy, enthusiasm, ego, and insecurity. His personality is illuminated through various means: excerpts from his letters and diaries, quotations from various interviews Spicer conducted with those who knew Howells during his lifetime, brief snippets from contemporary concert reviews, articles, and transcripts of BBC radio concerts and programs. A further wealth of contemporaneous evidence is included, all admirably woven into the fabric of Spicer's narrative.
Spicer points out that Howells kept a diary throughout most of his adult life. The diaries, small black books chocked with notations in Howells's careful script, are full of name-dropping, and incidents in Howells's personal life. These diaries are Spicer's principal primary source. Recollections of Howells's surviving duaghter, Ursula, are significant additions.
Howells's life is traced chronologically from his childhood in rural Gloucestershire to London and the Royal College of Music, then through his professional life as teacher of composition at the same school, as well as posts at St John's College, Cambridge, and the St Paul's Girls' School in London. Chapters are organized around major milestones in Howells's life, and the entire arrangement brings into focus the various peaks and valleys of the composers' artistic journey. His relationships with fellow composers such as Vaughan Williams, Finzi and Gurney are important elements in setting time and place in the narrative.
Three themes emerge as Spicer writes of Howells. The first major theme, and the least tangible, is of Howells as a Celtic musician. Spicer paints Howells as a composer who draws on a well of Celtic spirituality and mysticism. After discussing salient points from Davies and Bowie's Celtic Christian Spirituality (1995), Spicer says: The dual significance of this in relation to Howells as a Celt is, first, the importance of place and its (originally) religious relationship with the people; and second, the artistic characteristic that is experimental, allowing foreign influence, but at the same time defining the race and giving it identity (p12). Over and over throughout his book, Spicer maintains (rightly) that Howells was influenced by the people he met and the places for which he was writing. Spicer also says that Howells "culled his language form a rich variety of sources" (p12) and throughout the book repeatedly proves his point.
The Celtic aspects of Howells's humanity, while successfully expounded, are not as evident as his sure style and superior ability as a composer. Spicer recounts many anecdotes, such as Howells writing a song or correcting a proof in the midst of activity that would distract most others. He cogently makes the case for Howells's facility in composing for instruments and voices alike. (Spicer discusses Howells's instrumental works, pieces not commonly known in the 1990s as Howells's choral works for the Anglican church, with surety and enthusiasm). A corollory to Howells the great musician regards Howells's vanity and 'thin skin'. Spicer does not make overt attempts to dramatize this points; it is evident nevertheless. The reader is pointed to Howells's love (nned/) for name-dropping, to his all-consuming attraction to women, and to his social-climbing. Spicer notes too the number of Howells's works that were withdrawn after mediocre or poor reviews, or even after less-than-encouraging words from a fellow composer.
Certainly the clearest theme is that of Michael, Howells's son. Michael died of polio in 1935, and his loss clouds and colors the remainder of Howells's life – his relationships with others, his choice of texts for music, his choice of solo instruments, his daily life, and travel plans. Throughout the book, mention of Michael is made with tremendous frequency, showing how his presence constantly stays with the great composer.
One of the successes in this book is Spicer's ability to take an incident in Howells's life and use it as the basis for further discussion of the composer's personality. Rather than bombard the reader with reams of psychological evaluation, Spicer includes interpretation and commentary in each chapter. After mention of Howells's adjudication activities in 1939, for instance, Spicer writes two paragraphs about Howells's strengths as an adjudicator as perceived by others, including contemporaries undertaking the same lacklustre task (pp114-115). Similar instances of insight are common through the biography.
That Spicer was Howells's pupil at the Royal College during the composer's final days might cause concern about his objectivity. Does the author's close association with the composer cloud his ability to be fair? While the biography is indeed a loving tribute, it includes enough unflattering detail to appear forthright. Spicer includes honest analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of individual works, not to mention the composer's personal life.
A thorough bibliography of sources is included. The comprehensive general index also lists Howells's compositions mentioned in the book. Significant photographic illustrations add to the comprehensive nature of Spicer's biography.