Sunday, September 06, 2015

Lux aeterna

Today (6th September) is the eightieth anniversary of the death, at the age of nine, of Michael Kendrick Howells.  A form of polio or meningitis felled him in only three days; his father Herbert Howells, in the nearly fifty years by which he outlived his son, never overcame this loss.  

Herbert Howells had been, before the Great War, a promising young composer of mainly orchestral work; he was Stanford's favourite at the Royal College of Music and shone among the brightest in that fascinating constellation, darkened forever by the 1914-1918 war, of Edwardian and Georgian composers and writers with some connection to Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire or the Marches.  He was a close friend of Ivor Gurney and the poet F.W. Harvey; all three had Gloucester connections.  During the war he had narrowly avoided death not in the trenches but from Graves' disease, and become the first person in the country to undergo radium treatment.  Afterwards his career had flagged rather, especially after the unfavourable reception of his (sublime!) second piano concerto, about which more here.  His son's death in 1935 silenced him utterly.

Only his daughter Ursula was able to persuade him to compose again; she suggested that he 'write something for Michael'.  The work that resulted remained untouched for thirty years, before Herbert Sumsion and Ralph Vaughan Williams found out about it and persuaded him to allow it to be performed at the Three Choirs Festival.  Hymnus Paradisi is a monumental work, a Requiem with various additions from the Psalms and the Sarum Book of Hours.  It is performed rarely mainly because it calls for two soloists, an enormous orchestra, two choirs and organ, but these were mustered during the Proms in 2012, and I was very fortunate indeed to be there in the Royal Albert Hall to hear it.  I will never forget looking up from the arena to see a wall of singers rise up to sing, nor feeling the organ's low bellow through my feet, nor indeed the thirty seconds of silence before Martyn Brabbins lowered the baton and unfettered the applause, during which he held the score aloft for us to applaud.

Howells is one of those composers whose work, listened to the first time, often seems to be thoroughly difficult and complex but for a few striking moments which demand a second listen, and then a third, and so on, until its beauty can be heard properly.  This might be said of Hymnus Paradisi, but even a first hearing cannot miss the crescendo of grief just before the three minute mark, nor the audible light which brightens and brightens until it fills the whole work from the Sanctus (22 min) onwards: 

The loss of his son is generally regarded as a clear rupture in Howells' compositional career as well as in his life.  The music he wrote after 1935 was almost all intended for the Anglican choral tradition (in all he wrote twenty settings of the Evening Canticles), more melismatic and often more searing.  However, Howells did occasionally return to the past for material.  The Hymnus Paradisi itself draws heavily on the Requiem that he had already written.  And I have an idea that the final movement (Holy is the True Light, and passing wonderful...), which begins like this:

...might be a more magnificent, a heavier, yet also a more luminous version, in which wistfulness has hardened into grief, of the opening of the old Howells' Piano Quartet of 1916 (itself perhaps a response to death, since Howells himself was gravely ill at this point)?

While I am on the subject, I wonder if the second theme of the 'Shropshire Lad' rhapsody of George Butterworth (killed in action in 1916)...

... is quoted in the 1925 piano concerto, by the clarinet once only, at the point below?

To return to this post's original subject, I would like to record another thought about Hymnus Paradisi: all the luminous chords, the massed choirs and the thundering organ were summoned all for the sake of a child of nine years.  It is too easy to forget, not least in a Britain which I find hardly heeds children, that this is entirely fitting; that is a lesson for us all.

Further reading and listening: 

No comments :

Post a Comment

Please add your thoughts! All civil comments are warmly welcomed.