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8.557188 - HOWELLS: Rhapsodic Quintet / Violin Sonata No. 3

Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)

Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)

Chamber Music


Herbert Howells is known chiefly for his large body of church music, arguably the finest by any English composer of the twentieth century, but he also wrote major choral, orchestral and chamber works. He was a pupil of Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral from 1905 to 1911, then, from 1912 to 1916, studied at the Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Wood. Apart from composing he was active in the fields of teaching and adjudicating, and taught at the Royal College of Music for over forty years; succeeded Holst as director of music at St Paul’s Girls School, and was professor of music at London University from 1954 to 1964. He was made CBE in 1953 and became a Companion of Honour in 1972.


Howell’s voice as a composer drew from four sources of inspiration: the music of the Tudor period, the works of Vaughan Williams, English folk-song, and the landscape of his native Gloucestershire. His orchestral works include the Elegy (1917), the Fantasia for cello (1937) and the Concerto for Strings (1939). Among chamber works are the Piano Quartet (1916), the string quartet In Gloucestershire (1916 – c1935 ), three violin sonatas, an oboe sonata and a clarinet sonata. His mastery of large-scale choral forces is shown by his masterpiece Hymnus Paradisi (1938, revised in 1950), Missa Sabrinensis (1954) and Stabat mater (1963). On a smaller scale the Requiem (1932) and the Motet on the Death of President Kennedy, Take him, earth, for cherishing (1964) rank high among his achievements. Outstanding among his many canticle settings is Collegium Regale (1945) written for King’s College, Cambridge. He also made a substantial contribution to organ literature and wrote many fine songs, primarily in settings of poems by his friend Walter de la Mare, including King David (1919).


At the outset of his career Howells came to prominence largely through a series of striking chamber works including the Rhapsodic Quintet composed in 1919 for the clarinettist Oscar Street. According to the leading Howells scholar, Paul Spicer, whose book Herbert Howells is a fascinating study of the composer’s life and works, Howells was greatly preoccupied with problems relating to the form of the Rhapsodic Quintet. He cast it in a single movement, a structure he explored several times and which reflects the contemporaneous ambitions of Walter Wilson Cobbett (1847-1937), a businessman and amateur musician whose dual passions were chamber music and the music of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. He was particularly interested in the instrumental fantasy (or phantasy as Cobbett preferred), a form in which several unrelated but varied sections form the basis for a single extended work. In 1905 he established the Cobbett prize for chamber works in one movement which Howells won in 1917 with his Phantasy String Quartet.


Howells described the Quintet as having ‘a mystic quality’, which may be sensed at the outset in the impassioned unison theme that sweeps upwards. This provides the first principal idea of the work. In contrast to this is a tender, tranquil falling theme introduced by the clarinet and echoed by the violins in longer notes. Shortly after the first climax a short, puckish subsidiary idea appears, again on the clarinet, that seems to turn in on itself. By now the tempo of the music has quickened for an extended polyrhythmic passage combining three time signatures in which, over a pizzicato bass, the second and subsidiary ideas are developed. This section ends with an elated climax and a proliferation of polyphonic lines. Over undulating triplet figures the first idea is developed, as the music gradually quietens and slows in tempo, to end with a closing paragraph of rapt, serene beauty.


The Clarinet Sonata was written in 1946 for the greatest clarinettist of the day, Frederick Thurston, who gave the première in a BBC Third Programme broadcast on 27th January 1947 accompanied by Eric Harrison. It has links with the Oboe Sonata of 1942, a work which Leon Goosens, for whom it was written, had criticized, with the consequence that the sensitive composer effectively buried it. It seems possible that Howells may have viewed the Clarinet Sonata as a revision and rethinking of the earlier work.


The sonata is in two movements in which the musical material is closely connected. Of great importance is the rhythm of 3+3+2 beats that the piano gently emphasizes from the very beginning and which flows under the clarinet’s long-limbed graceful, lyrical first theme. A more agitated passage acts as a link to the second group of ideas, which are introduced by the piano and are ruminative in character. The development is underpinned by the insistent rhythmic pattern and builds to a passionate climax, before a dramatic pause and the return to the opening ideas. By contrast the second movement is fiery and rhythmically energetic with frequent changes of metre that emphasize its unfettered dynamism. The rhythmic pattern of the first movement returns emphatically, as do other thematic references until, after a brief cadenza-like interruption by the solo clarinet, the tempo slackens and the main idea of the first movement’s second group of ideas returns on the piano. This sets the scene for the return of the opening of the sonata itself, which is transformed, though, to a mood of intense melancholy. The shadows are quickly brushed away, however, as the fast music returns driving helter-skelter to the end.


The Prelude for harp, originally designated as No.1, is Howells’s only work for the instrument and was written in 1915 for Kate Wilson, a fellow student at the Royal College of Music. The manuscript was donated to the College library on her death and a Junior College student, Rowena Wilkinson, played it to the elderly composer in 1976, although he could remember nothing about it. It is a haunting miniature, full of modal melancholy.


In the same year that he composed his Clarinet Sonata, Howells also wrote the charming A Near-Minuet for the same combination of instruments, which possibly prompts speculation that he had conceived it originally as the basis for an additional, probably middle, movement for the sonata.


In 1915, at the age of 23, Howells was diagnosed as having a heart-related disease and given six months to live. Given the seriousness of his situation, he agreed to try experimental therapy, which over several years did finally cure him. In the early twenties, however, he was still weak from the combination of illness and treatment, so that in 1923 the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music sent him on two trips examining in South Africa and Canada in the hope that these would speed his recuperation. The Third Violin Sonata arose directly from his Canadian visit and the overwhelming impact that the Rocky Mountains made on Howells when he travelled through them by train. Musically the rugged grandeur of the terrain is reflected in the more dissonant and chromatic harmony compared to his other works of the period. The sonata was composed in the same year as his visit and dedicated to one of the great violinists of the time, Albert Sammons.


The beginning of the first movement, a wide-spaced chord built around just two notes, followed by a lyrical arching melody, has an open-air quality suitable to the work’s inspiration. An animated passage leads to a quasi march-like ostinato in the piano against which the violin’s sonorous melody seems to evoke the vastness of the mountains. The middle movement is a skittish scherzo with its main idea played pizzicato by the violin against the infectious, insistent tread of the piano accompaniment, which possibly characterizes the motion and sound of the train on which Howells travelled making its way through the mountain passes. It is contrasted with a broad tune, played on the bow. In the invigorating finale the music seems redolent of the elated thrill of witnessing the height and majesty of the mountains and at the end the sonata comes full circle with the main themes of the first movement returning in reverse order.


Andrew Burn

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