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Herbert Howells’s unpublished piano works and the Worshipful Company of Musicians

Matthew Schellhorn explores the many links between composer and Company.
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One of the most fascinating things about being a performing musician, I have found, is its continual intersection with the historic life of the Worshipful Company of Musicians, one of the City of London’s livery companies. My ongoing project to premiere and record previously unpublished and unrecorded piano music by Herbert Howells (1892–1983) is one such example.

Many people are less familiar with Howells’s piano music than with his church and organ music, which is understandable since – until now – the extent of the composer’s relationship with the piano has been unknown or at least unadvertised.

In fact, the sheer quality of what has lain hidden in libraries and private hands is extraordinary. Standing as testimony to Howells’s distinctive and accomplished musical voice, even at an early age, is the nomination for the Silver Medal, recorded at the Court of Assistants on 13 July 1915: ‘the recommendation of Mr Herbert Howells, composer, by Sir Hubert Parry, Bart., CVO, the Director of the Royal College of Music, was approved.’

To hear the very fine seven movements of the Summer Idyls of 1911, written before Howells attended the College, gives colour to our recognition of his precocious abilities. These pieces, whilst lyrical and pastoral, also point towards a unique harmonic style that would ultimately come to the fore. Particularly fine is the fourth movement, Down the Hills, whose chordal cascades are fiendishly awkward but rewardingly effective. Likewise, the sixth movement, Near Midnight, is impressive for its textural and harmonic finesse – a perfect exemplar of the bridge from late Romanticism to more Modernist piano sonorities.

The Medal was awarded at the Court of Assistants of 26 October 1915 and we may reasonably conjecture that the Company prize and others of the period contributed to the distinctive and perhaps newly emboldened vein of Howells’s piano works written shortly after leaving the College. In this respect, the fiery and virtuosic Phantasy of 1917 and the beautifully poised Harlequin Dreaming of 1918, are both established in feel and yet of a searching quality, with some evidence that the latter was possibly written to characterise Arthur Bliss (who himself went on to be granted the Company’s Honorary Freedom in 1952).

It is notable that, taken as a whole, most of the unpublished piano music was composed as tokens of esteem for numerous friends of the composer. My Lord Harewood’s Galliard of 1949, for instance – a witty, Elizabethan-style miniature – was written for George Lascelles, 7th Earl of Harewood, and his first wife, Marion Stein (who was a former pupil) as a wedding gift. And the piercingly expressive Finzi: His Rest is one of two memorials to the composer written on the same day. The other, entitled Finzi’s Rest: For Gerald on the Morrow of 27th September 1956, found a home in the collection Howells’ Clavichord, published in 1961.

The practice of making gifts out of piano compositions is mirrored in how Howells thanked the Court for its role in matters surrounding the award of the Collard Fellowship in 1931. The first holder of this prestigious award, Howells fell foul of an inquiry by the Inland Revenue, which initially deemed that the emoluments from the award were taxable. With a potential liability of £221 out of the promised £300, the value of the Fellowship was at stake, and the Court agreed not only to adjust the figures so that future complications would not arise but to assist with the income tax bill itself. Happily, an appeal resulted in Howells’s favour: a gesture of gratitude was in order and so the Suite for Brass Band (which became known as Pageantry) was dedicated to Pastmaster Mr J. Henry Iles (who was Director and Founder of the National Band Festival) and the Company.

It was around the time that Howells was admitted as Freeman and Liveryman at a Special Court, held at Stationers’ Hall on 30 October 1934, that he wrote an unassuming piece called Toccatina. This quirky movement became the basis of the well-known Sonatina’s finale, but I chose to record it in its seemingly original form, as the last movement of the Petrus Suite. This extraordinary suite developed over many years and exists in several incarnations for which a judicious view had to be taken to arrive at a recordable format. In the majority of cases, however, the manuscripts I have studied show Howells’s high degree of confidence and a seeming delight in the aesthetics of his own music.

Matching these beautiful documents are the handwritten letters by the composer that the Company is fortunate to have in its archives. One is from 14 June 1959, where Senior Warden Howells writes to Pastmaster Sydney Loeb regarding the suggested awarding of the Cobbett Medal to Yehudi Menuhin. Howells wrote, ‘I’ll give the idea my warm support’ – an endorsement that was crowned in 1987 when Lord Menuhin was furthermore granted the Honorary Freedom of the Company. It is certainly gratifying to me that my recent album was recorded at the Menuhin Hall in Stoke d’Abernon, site of the great violinist’s memorial and ongoing educational tradition.

As I have prepared to record Howells’s unpublished piano music, our Archives allow us a rewarding glimpse of Howells’s life and have widened my understanding of his development. We might say that Howells’s relationship with the Company is hard-wired to his creative output: quite apart from the piano music we may note further that his great Hymn for St Cecilia was written for our Livery Club in 1960 at the close of the year in which he was Master.

Overall, it is Howells’s personal charm that shines in the music – and I am sure that can be testified to by several living members of the Company. If there are any anecdotes about Pastmaster Howells from Company members or others, this author for one would be most pleased to hear them.

This article is adapted from an article first published in Preserve Harmony, magazine of The Worshipful Company of Musicians, issue 61 (Autumn 2020)
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