Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me
My music teacher, Mr Day, must take some credit for fostering my interest in Howells as well. In fact – and I think this is right – I can make some small claim to being a compositional descendant of his, since (when I was composing music for my A-levels), Mr Day had been taught by one of Howells’ pupils. Unfortunately not much rubbed off, except for a penchant for audacious harmonies which has remained ever since.
My first encounter with Howells’ music was a couple of years before this, however, when I would rummage through my dad’s collection of radio 3 tape recordings for anything close to ‘modern’ – hence the teenage Bartók fixation. On one of these tapes was a recording of Howells’ Requiem, composed in 1933, which remains one of the single most beautiful pieces of English choral music yet written (and that’s up against some pretty stiff competition). I absolutely adored this piece (I still do), and many of my youthful efforts at composition were attempts to emulate its harmonic language of modal inflections and startling shifts, as well as the chant-like simplicity of its melodic lines. I never came close, of course: the sound Howells conjures up is absolutely unique. It’s tonal, in a strict sense, and any dissonance is always of the sweetest kind, but his is a harmonic language that pushes tonality further than Mahler or Wagner ever envisaged. It is as though the large-scale harmonic meanderings of a Mahler symphony have been compressed into a short choral motet. Five bars of Howells might contain more harmonic motion than the whole of Tristan and Isolde. Because of this, although the harmonies move pleasingly from one to the next, they very quickly lose any sense of being ‘grounded’ in a particular key. This makes Howells’ music particularly poignant for memorial works, such as the Requiem, as each shift in harmony gives the impression of lifting away from earthly cares and towards the realm of the divine.
Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing (recording) is another of his great memorial works. Composed in 1963 it was – and what better sign of the high esteem Howells was regarded in? – commissioned for the memorial service of JFK.
Here’s the text, translated by Helen Waddell, from a 4th-century poem by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius:
Take him, earth, for cherishing,
to thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
noble even in its ruin.
Once was this a spirit’s dwelling,
by the breath of God created.
High the heart that here was beating,
Christ the prince of all its living.
Guard him well, the dead I give thee,
not unmindful of his creature
shall he ask it: he who made it
symbol of his mystery.
Comes the hour God hath appointed
to fulfil the hope of men,
then must thou, in very fashion,
what I give, return again.
Not though ancient time decaying
wear away these bones to sand,
ashes that a man might measure
in the hollow of his hand:
Not though wandering winds and idle,
drifting through the empty sky,
scatter dust was nerve and sinew,
is it given to man to die.
Once again the shining road
leads to ample Paradise;
open are the woods again,
that the serpent lost for men
Take, O take him, mighty leader,
take again thy servant’s soul.
Grave his name, and pour the fragrant
balm upon the icy stone.
In Howells’ setting, the sweep from body to spirit, earthly to divine takes place over the first three stanzas, which move from unison melody to extravagant harmony: ‘Guard him well’ adds some rich chords to say the least. Harmonic richness is a particular feature of English sacred choral music – Dunstaple and Power were the first to use triadic harmonies – and in Howells it becomes a means for almost literal transportation between the realms of God and men. As Mr Day would emphasise in playing this music to us, some of the chord changes almost physically lift you from your seat. And in Take Him, Earth, Howells builds the dialogue between earth and paradise, heaven and the grave that is suggested in the poem, and reflects it in the music. The transition between third and fourth stanzas is surprising, but so is that between seventh and eighth: as the meditation on ‘ample paradise’ is juxtaposed against ‘Take, O take him, mighty leader’, the harmonies and texture briefly clarify, and the restless transcendence grounds once more in familiar chords and simple phrases. As for any man with a deep religious conviction, death is an extremely ambiguous thing to Howells, both sorrow in mourning and joy at passing into heaven; his music is a perfect encapsulation of this, and such a fitting tribute that it was played at Howells’ own funeral twenty years later.