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Howells: The Pillar of Fire

January 9, 2012

The Pillar of Fire

An introduction to the music of Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

This carven stone sprang into lofty light
From dark foundations; and those Tudor tiles
Coloured by golden glass and Gloucester sunshine
Are patterned black with music.

If you have seen the morning sun rising through the Crécy window in Gloucester Cathedral, you will know something of what it is to accompany the Gloria of the Collegium Regale Evening Canticles on a fine organ in a great and resonant building. Herbert Howells was captivated by what he called “the immemorial sound of voices”; he revered the musical tradition of the English organ-loft; he called the Crécy window “a pillar of fire in my imagination”.

If you have seen the last rays of sunlight quenched by the chilling, towering blackness of an approaching storm, only to blaze down an hour later on glistening tiles and pavements, you will know how so much of his choral music covers the whole emotional gam – ut from agony to ecstasy, brilliance to deepest darkness. In the words of his biographer, the late Christopher Palmer “so often, for Howells, the agony is the ecstasy.”

If you have ever felt that you were born before or after your time, you will understand Herbert Howells’ conviction that somehow his roots belonged to the Tudor period.

And if you have listened to the masters of that great Renaissance period of English music and heard how major and minor harmonies are curiously and wonderfully intermingled, as in Weelkes’s “Arise, O God” or “When David heard”, you will not be surprised to hear the same characteristics in Howells, occasionally to the point of an agonised “false-relation” of major and minor in the same chord which often resolves into an almighty unison.

As Weelkes rejoiced in his great “Hosanna” in the minor key, so is Howells’ “Collegium Regale” Jubilate (Psalm 100) the only one in the cathedral repertoire in which the words “O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands” et seq., are set in the exultant sunlight and storm of E flat minor.

There are the special moments and phrases which you will make your own, as have I: the veiled, flaring anger of the organ in the last moments of the Gloucester Service “Nunc Dimittis” before the Gloria, the sheer wildness of “…and to be the glory…” in the Nunc Dimittis of the Chichester Service, the inspired autumnal harmonies coalescing as the sure hand of the master craftsman sets Robert Bridges’ “I love all beauteous things” in his eighty-fifth year, the pure delight of the “Hymn to Saint Cecilia”, and that most dramatic of all “Te Deum” endings in the St Mary Redcliffe setting.

St Mary Redcliffe, Hereford, York, Dallas; a real affinity with places and buildings as well as with people is evident in so many of his works, music written with the nature of the building in mind. The monolithic St Paul’s Service is written for Wren’s massive fane as surely as the Westminster Service evokes the high, slender, somehow French interior of the Abbey. And who could hear or perform the Third Rhapsody for Organ without thinking of the young Howells putting pen to paper throughout a sleepless night of fire, explosions and high drama as Zeppelins dropped bombs on York?

Whoever comes to love the works of Howells finds surprises at every turn; his songs, the clavichord pieces, the orchestral works and chamber music – his years of teaching and adjudication illuminate wide-ranging perspectives on a musical career which spanned well over seventy years and remind the present writer especially that there is a musical world beyond the organ-loft! Delight and surprise overtake the listener when soul-stirring modulations and breathtakingly instant key-changes bring a piece surely and magnificently to an end in a key which seemed improbable a few bars previously, and one reads with amazement that, according to Felix Aprahamian, he improvised all his voluntaries when deputising as Organist of St John’s College, Cambridge, during World War II.

Perhaps a certain underlying melancholy disturbs some listeners, as agony and ecstasy or quiet introspection attract others; perhaps only HH could have set “The Summer is Coming” as a deeply-felt lament, but the music is true to Bryan Guinness’s haunting poem as it is to Howells’ acute sense of place. As G.K.Chesterton put it:

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.

To what extent the “pillar of fire in his imagination” was fuelled by terrible personal tragedy cannot be known now, but it burnt brightly in him almost to the end; and when the sun prints the words “My soul doth magnify the Lord” in shadows through his memorial window onto the Tudor floor-tiles of Gloucester Cathedral’s Lady Chapel, what epitaph could be more appropriate?

David Page, 1997. Text copied many years ago from the website of St Peter’s Church, Nottingham. David Page was Deputy Organist at St Peter’s from 1982 until 1993.


Jubilate (Collegium Regale)

Magnificat (Gloucester)

Nunc dimittis (Gloucester)

Nunc dimittis (Chichester)

I love all beauteous things

Hymn for Saint Cecilia

Te Deum (St Mary Redcliffe)

Magnificat (St Paul’s)

Magnificat (Westminster)

Nunc dimittis (Westminster)

Rhapsody No. 3 for Organ

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