About this Recording
8.573176 - HOWELLS, H.: Stabat Mater / Te Deum (Collegium Regale) / Sine Nomine (The Bach Choir, Bournemouth Symphony, D. Hill)

Herbert Howells (1892–1983)
Stabat Mater • Sine nomine • Te Deum


Born in Lydney, Gloucestershire, Herbert Howells was a pupil of Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, and then studied at the Royal College of Music under Charles Stanford and Charles Wood from 1912 to 1916. Outstanding as a composer, teacher and adjudicator, he held professorships at the Royal College of Music and London University, and succeeded Gustav Holst as director of music at St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith. His orchestral works include the Fantasia for cello (1937) and the Concerto for Strings (1938); among chamber and instrumental works are the Piano Quintet (1916) and Clarinet Sonata (1946). Large-scale choral and orchestral works include Hymnus paradisi (1938–50), Missa Sabriensis (1954) and Stabat Mater (1959–65). On a smaller-scale the Motet on the death of President Kennedy, Take him, earth, for cherishing (1964) ranks high in his achievements. Howells also made a substantial contribution to the music of the Anglican Church, to organ literature, and 20th century British song.

Each of the works on this recording represents a landmark in Howell’s composing career: he was 30 when he composed Sine nomine, his first extended orchestral achievement, and 73 when the Stabat Mater, the choral and orchestral summation of his lifetime’s work was premièred. In between, the Te Deum composed in his early fifties for King’s College, Cambridge, marked the beginning of his important settings of the Anglican rite.

Howells’s settings of the Anglican canticles composed for King’s College, Cambridge, are known collectively as Collegium Regale. The Te Deum was composed in 1944, during the period when the composer was temporarily holding the post of college organist due to the incumbent being on war service. This version with orchestral accompaniment was made in 1977, and was first performed on 22 April that year at the Leith Hill Music Festival, conducted by William Cobb. With its flowing, frequently exultant spacious vocal lines, colouring of words and phrases by vocal melismas and subtle, softly dissonant harmony, the work, together with its companion Jubilate, Magnificat and Nunc dimittis, rapidly established itself as a new and original approach to setting the Anglican canticles. 70 years since its première, the Te Deum has lost none of its freshness.

Apart from the ever present memory of Michael, as well as the text, the Stabat Mater had, unusually for Howells, a visual inspiration as well, Michelangelo’s Pietà in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. In the image of the dead Christ cradled in his mother’s arms, Howells would have recalled how he clung to his own son on the train journey from Gloucester to London to seek urgent specialist medical aid. Furthermore the work’s character was also coloured by world events during the period of its composition, such as the Cuban missile crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy. The bleakness of the text he was setting, the seeming finality of the Crucifixion, had a parallel in Howells’s mind with the very real potential of the extinction of life on earth through nuclear war.

Howells commented that he attempted in the Stabat Mater to portray the reaction of onlookers watching the crucifixion, with the soloist and chorus representing the individual and the collective responses respectively. Throughout, he displays an intuitive translation of words into music, and a sheer mastery of choral and orchestral polyphony. The highly wrought chromatic harmonic idiom and the complexity of the choral writing were the furthest he ever ventured. Moments of repose are few; instead, the harmony and contrapuntal writing only pile on the intensity leading to yet more levels of pain. Combining agony and ecstasy is a hallmark of Howells’s sacred music; this dichotomy is inherent in the Stabat Mater text and allowed him to exploit this aspect to the full. Another characteristic of the work is its single-minded concentration throughout its seven sections, the final three of which are performed without a break.

The first section, Stabat mater dolorosa, begins with a brief orchestral prelude establishing a sombre mood, established through stark two and three part counterpoint. The chorus’s dramatic, declamatory entries are a feature of the work, here the semitone fall emphasising Mary’s anguish. A searing orchestral discord, like a clenched fist of pain, prefaces the third and final plea of ‘Stabat mater’, and a sobbing harmonic progression heaves at ‘Dum pendebat Filius’.

Aptly likened by Christopher Palmer to a ‘via dolorosa’, Cujus animam gementem has the character of a grieving processional. At the opening, these words are intoned by the basses to a plainsong-like phrase which will be woven into all the succeeding movements. A heartrending oboe solo accompanies the hushed semi-chorus, before another impassioned choral outburst occurs at ‘Pertransivet gladius’. Prefaced by a jabbing dissonance, the tenor soloist enters at ‘O quam tristis’, identifying himself with the sorrows of Mary in a passage of tender beauty accompanied by semi-chorus.

In Quis est homo the chorus drives the momentum in swift, urgent music that lays bare the Virgin’s emotional state. Yet even here agony and ecstasy seem entwined as at the shattering, tortured climaxes of ‘Vidit Jesum in tormentis’ and ‘Et flagellis subditum’. In their wake, and with a slackening of tempo, comes sheer desolation; the ‘Cujus animam’ phrase returns sung first by female voices, then the men’s, as the moment of Christ’s death is described.

The focus turns to the tenor in Eia, Mater, which is conceived as a gentle sarabande (a Baroque dance form to which Howells turned several times in his work). In expressive, caressing music, the soloist reaches out to the suffering Mary, but also declaims his love for Christ in exultant, melismatic phrases underpinned by harmony that pierces the soul. At the final setting of ‘Fac ut ardeat cor meum’ a solo violin accompanies the tenor to create a glowing halo of sound, before the chorus join with the ‘Cujus animam’ phrase to a lilting rhythm.

In Sancta Mater, to fast, turbulent music, marked at the opening by pounding piano and timpani, the chorus plead to share the wounds of Christ. The music sweeps from one choral climax to another as at when ‘Fac me vere tecum flere’ is hurled out by them, and climatically at ‘In planctu desidero’. A pause, then the latter phrase is repeated pianissimo, before the section finishes calmly with the tenor’s plaintive appeal to let him weep with the Mother of God.

At the beginning of Fac ut portem, set against doleful bell and a funereal tread, the altos and basses sing the ‘cujas animam’ phrase. The music builds slowly, inexorably, the tenor joining to ride high over the choral texture with a soaring melisma on the word ‘Inflammatus’. A monumental climax occurs at ‘Per te, Virgo, sim defensus’—a plea to be at one with the suffering Christ emphasised by the tenor at top of his range. As so often in the work, such heightened emotional intensity brings contrast—the chorus repeating the phrase sotto voce, and the tenor concluding the movement with a passage of intimate lyrical tranquillity.

The concluding section, Christe, cum sit hunc exire opens with a short, slow orchestral preface musing on the ‘cujus animam’ phrase, before the music bursts into life with tremolo strings initiating a march-like rhythm. With the entry of the chorus the music becomes agitated, and the orchestral texture is pitted by trumpet alarums. The tenor enters, again at top of his register, with a descending wail of lamentation, and as the music quietens, the heaving chords from the opening movement return. Almost imperceptibly the mood changes with a subtle easing of the prevailing harmonic tension as Howells spins a glorious web of choral sound of up to ten choral parts. In the closing pages the tenor calls Mary to be with him, and in the swirling harp glissandi, tolling bell and final major chord, surely there is, at least, a flicker of paradise and of consolatory peace in the face of terrible loss.

The sudden death of Howells’s nine-year-old son Michael in 1935, struck down on a family holiday by a virulent strain of polio, cast a pall over the rest of the composer’s life. Hymnus paradisi was a direct musical response to the tragedy, but so too was the Stabat Mater. Its text, almost masochistic at times, is a medieval hymn in which the author empathises with the emotions of the Virgin Mary, as she witnesses her son’s Passion, as well as Jesus’s agony on the cross, and in so doing begs for salvation and entry into paradise. It is all too easy to see how Howell’s identified with the emotions of both the protagonist and Mary, the bereaved parent. Time did not heal Howells’s grief at the loss of Michael; he had to translate his raw ache into an even more intense emotion; the text of the Stabat Mater was an ideal means to achieve this.

The work, scored for tenor soloist, choir and large orchestra, was long in gestation, its initial impetus arising in 1954 from a request from The Bach Choir. Five years elapsed until Howells settled on the text; composing began in 1959, with the vocal score finished in 1963 and the scoring two years later. The première was on 22 November, 1965, with Robert Tear, The Bach Choir, and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Willcocks; the work was dedicated to ‘The Bach Choir and in affectionate memory of Ralph Vaughan Williams’.

Sine nomine was commissioned (together with other new works by Arthur Bliss and Eugene Goossens) at the instigation of Elgar for the 1922 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. Predominantly an orchestral work for large forces, it includes wordless parts for solo soprano and tenor as well as chorus, all conceived as part of the textural colour. Its subtitle ‘a Phantasy’, reflects an initiative by the chamber music enthusiast, Walter Willson Cobbett, who, in 1905, instituted a prize for works composed in the Jacobean instrumental ‘fantasy’ or ‘phantasy’ form in which a single movement embraced several contrasting sections. (Howells’s won the 1917 competition with his Fantasy Quartet.)

‘Sine nomine’ means literally ‘with no name’, and was used by Elizabethan composers as a title for keyboard works, as well as by Vaughan Williams for one of his most famous hymns, For All the Saints. At the première in Gloucester Cathedral on 5 September 1922, Howells conducted the Festival Chorus and the London Symphony Orchestra; there was not enough rehearsal time, and against his better judgement, he acquiesced to a proposal that words should be added to the soloist’s part. Coming before revered festival fare—Mendelssohn’s Elijah—the new impressionistic work and its unusual scoring failed to make an impression on either the audience or critics. Hence the work sank without trace until revived 70 years later (once again at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival) in a new edition by Paul Spicer in which Howell’s original vocal intentions for the solo voices were restored.

Howells described Sine nomine as ‘a spiritual meditation’, and undoubtedly he had the acoustic of Gloucester Cathedral in mind while writing the work. Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony is in the background too (particularly the use of a wordless vocal soloist), and also Debussy and Ravel’s influence is present. Cast like an arch, the work comprises slow opening and closing sections framing a faster middle one. In the first, over a texture that is like a shimmering haze of misty light, the solo voices and clarinets introduce a motif which Howells suggested ‘savours of plainsong’ and provides the thematic idea for the composition. A linking passage with solo violin leads to the central, rhythmically animated section created in part by frequent changes in metre. The music swells to two climaxes, separated by a return of the solo voices singing mainly in unison. When the second climax is reached the texture is redolent with the pealing of bells, before a return to the opening tempo and an epilogue-like conclusion with the rocking, subdued voices of the 8-part chorus, under the solo voices, now seemingly ever more remote as the vision fades.

Andrew Burn

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