The composer who turned agony into golden harmonies

In the early 1980s, I was lucky enough to sing evensong four times a week with the Chapel Choir of Jesus College, Cambridge. It was always a thrill whenever we performed the music of Herbert Howells (1892-1983). His ethereal harmonies seemed to float into the chapel’s high spaces with spine-tingling intensity, often supported by an organ at full tilt. I was particularly fond of the anthem Like as the Hart; its melodic arc matching perfectly the telling verse “my soul is a-thirst for God”. Howells longed for a God who touched hearts rather than minds, yet, beyond the confines of his aesthetic imagination, his God often eluded him altogether.

Howells was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire, the son of a jobbing builder who played the organ at the local Baptist church. Howells assisted him, showing considerable musical talent. Aged 11, his family suffered a severe humiliation when his father was declared bankrupt. The young man’s predicament came to the attention of a wealthy benefactor who paid for his musical education as an articled pupil of Herbert Brewer, the organist of Gloucester Cathedral. Alongside Howells was another gifted apprentice, Ivor Gurney. The pair soon became great friends, sharing a love of English landscape and poetry.

As composers, both were strongly influenced by Elgar and Vaughan Williams. In 1910, Howells heard Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which impressed him profoundly because of its archaic use of church modes and English folksong.

When the Great War began, Howells was unable to serve due to ill-health, but Gurney willingly signed up. He was highly strung and soon suffered a mental breakdown from which he never fully recovered.

While it caused Howells much distress to see his friend committed to an asylum in 1922, the great tragedy of his life occurred in 1935, when Howells’s son Michael died suddenly from polio, aged nine. Ironically, Howells had been working for three years on a Requiem for unaccompanied voices, but the trauma stopped him composing. Only when his daughter Ursula suggested he channel his emotions into writing music again did he conceive his most ambitious work, Hymnus Paradisi. It would incorporate texts and music from the unfinished Requiem, but now expanded to symphonic scale and richly cloaked in orchestral colour.

For more than a decade Howells was reluctant to propose Hymnus Paradisi for public performance, until he was approached to contribute a choral work to the 1950 Three Choirs Festival. The Hymnus opens with a slow, anguished orchestral Prelude, before the chorus intones words from the Requiem Mass. The golden harmonic shimmer accompanying “lux perpetua luceat eis” provides the work’s defining symbol, as “eternal light” signals the promise of redemption. The third movement is an intimate setting of “The Lord is my shepherd”. Soaring lines for soprano and tenor soloists intertwine in a blissful love duet which celebrates paradise restored. The work’s finale, “Holy is the true light”, resounds with joyful alleluias and, while the Prelude’s introspection briefly returns, at the close Howells attains a deep elegiac serenity.

Hymnus Paradisi failed to purge Howells’s grief. Nearly 30 years after his son’s death, he was still haunted by dreadful memories. In A Sequence for St Michael, written for choir and organ in 1961, the dissonant cries of “Michael, Michael” heard in the work’s opening bars are truly harrowing. But, in Alcuin of York’s text, they are pleas for intercession, not shrieks of pain. St Michael is sought as a healing intermediary, as the warrior who can defeat Satan’s hordes and as the comforting angel who waits upon the dead.

Howells might well have added, “if only it were true”, leaving us to puzzle over his professed lack of faith. Some insight comes from realising that Howells experienced life primarily through his senses. His God was never the product of intellect or an abstract ideal, but experienced in a warm embrace, a gentle touch or as a loving presence. The cold cruelty, apparent during wartime and when his son died, left Howells wounded and demoralised; and perhaps his love affairs later in life were attempts to find healing and physical reassurance in the arms of another.

It is impossible to answer in this context the difficult questions posed by humanity’s Job-like suffering, but we can afford much sympathy for Howells. Sensitive and creative individuals who had lived through the terrible tragedies of the 20th century were appalled by the waste of so much human life and potential. In 1922, at Elgar’s instigation, Howells wrote Sine Nomine, “a phantasy” for orchestra and wordless voices to commemorate the vast numbers who had died during the Great War, many of whom remained unidentified or their bodies never found. The work anticipates Hymnus Paradisi, moving from the serenity of sunlit landscapes to the elation which such scenes inspire. Its extraordinary radiance reminds us never to forget the dark shadows cast by two world wars, even if few now recall them at first hand.

Peter Davison is a musicologist and cultural commentator. He edited Reviving the Muse, Essays on Music after Modernism (Claridge Press, 2001)