Anglican Notables – Herbert Howells (Musicians, Authors, & Poets) – 23 February

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

Herbert Howells

Born 17 October 1892 (Lydney, Gloucestershire, England) – Died 23 February 1983 (Putney, London, England)

Musician: Composer; Organist; Teacher (Royal College of Music, London)

Because the liturgical music of Herbert Howells was part of the focus of my doctoral thesis, it is difficult for me to write a brief, concise, focused, terse biographical sketch about this important compositional voice in Anglicanism’s musical heritage.  (Hence part of the reason I have procrastinated about writing something so that this is finally posted a couple of days after Howells’s annual mind.)  So, I limit myself to posting the following extract from my doctoral thesis (the full height, breadth, and depth of which can be explored by following this link.)

“Of the many [English-Cathedral-Music (ECM)] composers of the twentieth century, this study concentrates on only two: Britten and Howells.  They are two composers whose most enduring ECM works—most of which are still performed often enough to be considered standard works of ECM repertoire[1]—were written mostly from the 1940s through the 1950s, a period in which ECM moved from a Victorian/Edwardian idiom into a greater openness to twentieth-century musical influences.[2]  Other composers contributed to this development.  But mid-twentieth-century ECM was largely what these two composers decided to make it.  During this period, Howells wrote “Like as the Hart” (1941) and the three most popular of his Evening Services: King’s College, Cambridge (“Collegium Regale,” 1944), Gloucester (“For the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Indivisible Trinity, Gloucester,” 1946), and St. Paul’s Cathedral, London (“For St. Paul’s Cathedral,” 1951).  In the same period, Britten wrote A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28 (1942); Rejoice in the Lamb, Op. 30 (1943); the “Festival Te Deum in E, Op. 32” (1944); “Hymn to St. Peter, Op. 56a” (1955), and, just before Britten effectively abandoned ECM, “Jubilate Deo in C” (1961). ….

“Howells was much more prolific in contributing to ECM than was Britten.  Moreover, the two exchanged places concerning their contribution to ECM at about the same time.  During the 1940s and 1950s, Britten was not a prolific composer of ECM, but his most important contributions to the repertoire took place during those decades.  His contribution to ECM began to taper off during the 1950s.  Conversely, Howells’s emphasis moved during the 1940s from secular music to ECM.  On balance, then, it was Howells who renewed “musical fitness and strength within the Anglican church” following World War II.[3]  That Howells made this a well-thought-out focus of his career is attested to by his underlining of the following remarks in his copy of Sir Thomas Armstrong’s Church Music Today (an ‘occasional paper’ published in 1946 for the Church Music Society):

“’[Very serious] is the general lack of creativeness and vitality affecting the art of church music as a whole; We should modify old forms freely, but with a sense of fitness; There is certainly a danger in thoughtless and irresponsible change, and in the confusion of styles that results [from] the attempt to satisfy a merely temporary or partisan desire for novelty and variety.’[4]

“Though Britten wrote relatively little music specifically for liturgical use, his entire career made considerable use of the “distinctively Christian heritage of plainsong and hymn tunes in a wide variety of works covering the whole of his career,”[5] and he wrote many works that set Christian texts or were based on Christian themes.  Nonetheless, Britten seems to have left no statements that specifically reflect an awareness of ECM as a repertoire with its own sense of organic development or of how the twentieth century’s interest in musical silence [the primary focus of the present thesis] played a role in ECM.

“For Howells it is otherwise.  He made several statements in addition to the 1946 statement, quoted above, on the qualities of ECM.  In 1917, at the beginning of his career, he celebrated securing the post as a young assistant organist at Salisbury Cathedral in a letter to Harold Darke, then organist of St. Michael’s Corhnill.  He wrote in terms that indicate he saw ECM—both the repertoire and the performing forces in cathedrals—as a continuing musical heritage.  In his opinion, it was a musical heritage that had fallen into disrepute in many cases at that point in time.[6]  Though his post at Salisbury Cathedral was soon to end because of ill health, and though the direction of his career took him away from a focus on ECM for several decades, there is already a sense of dedication to ECM at the outset of his career.  He wrote of the “good, hard, sound musical work” called for in ECM and his joy at the opportunity to contribute to this repertoire.

“Over two decades later, as Howells was returning to a focus on writing for the ECM repertoire, the more seasoned and experienced composer spoke in a 1943 radio broadcast with greater clarity of the importance of ECM as an ‘abiding line of development’[7] in British music and as having its own musical characteristics.  Because Howells’s comments were delivered to a wide audience in a radio broadcast, he did not embark on a detailed or exhaustive examination of ECM’s musical characteristics.  But the few comments about the qualities of this repertoire are very important for the purposes of this study [on musical silence in ECM] since they refer to ECM’s stillness and quiet gravitas.”[8]

Brother John-Bede Pauley, O.S.B.


       [1] John Patton and Steve Taylor, A Century of Cathedral Music, 1898-1998: A Comparison with Previous Music Surveys (Winchester: J. Patton, 2000).

       [2] Erik Routley, Twentieth Century Church Music, (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1966), 55.

       [3] Christopher Palmer, Herbert Howells: A Centenary Celebration (London: Thames Publishing, 1992), 166.

       [4] Thomas Armstong, Church Music Today (Church Music Society, 1946), quoted in Palmer, Centenary, 166.

       [5] Graham Elliott, Benjamin Britten: The Spiritual Dimension (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 74.

       [6] Paul Spicer, Herbert Howells (Bridgend, Wales: Seren, 2006), 50.

       [7] Palmer, Centenary, 395.

[8] Pauley_Thesis.pdf (dur.ac.uk)

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