New Recording of Rare Manuscripts by Herbert Howells

Davinia Caddy, Editor-in-Chief of Naxos Musicology International, interviews Matthew Schellhorn about his latest album.
DC: The term ‘Howellsian pianism’ crops up in the CD booklet as you discuss the significance of a performance tradition (or, perhaps, the lack of such a tradition) related to the composer and his piano repertoire. Can you elaborate on what this particular kind of pianism involves, as a performer, and (perhaps more crucially for listeners) what it might sound like?

MS: The new album covers music from Howells’s sixteenth birthday in 1908 to the mid-1970s; that’s about 65 years of music, almost three-quarters of the twentieth century, a period we almost always associate with rampant and chaotic musical innovation. Because of this, in the process of making the disc, I was able to gain a fairly comprehensive overview of the composer’s development, as well as a more detailed and nuanced understanding of particular stylistic junctures – deviations from any particular, one-directional trajectory. For example, you can chart a progression in the style of writing or pianistic idiom, embracing the characteristically ‘Romantic’ harmonies, rhapsodic melodic lines and dense textures of the ‘early’ and some of the ‘late’ works. But in the middle of this span, at different points, a finely-wrought contrapuntal character comes to the fore as Howells absorbs the music of the Tudor period and, especially, the sonorous sensitivities of the clavichord, ‘an entrancing instrument’, as he called it.

I have also speculated that Howells approached the piano somewhat like an organist, which is to say that texture and voice-leading are always important, and that the music is often conceived in terms of layers of intertwining, interdependent parts. Another consequence of this tendency towards organ-like writing is the unfamiliar physical manoeuvering: chord voicings can be (at best) unusual or (at worst) awkward, requiring different kinds of creative fingering and gestural dexterity from the pianist.

Curiously enough, though, and to my ear at least, Howells’s piano music sounds perfectly pianistic, perfectly idiomatic, such is Howells’ skill at blending different historical or stylistic signifiers, such as dance music topics, with his new and innovative treatment of what we might call more ‘external’ musical parameters such as metre and mode. In this respect, Howells’s music sits squarely within the twentieth-century musical tradition. Certainly, it complements the bulk of the English repertoire of the period, but also bears similarly to continental European music, particularly works by Wagner, R. Strauss, Ravel, Stravinsky and Hindemith.

DC: Can you say a little more about the significance of dance to the composer: as a constellation of musical genres, or styles, or particular types of gestural expression that find musical embodiment – or, perhaps, disembodiment – in this piano repertoire?

MS: Of the 21 tracks on this album, 9 have explicitly dance-based titles and another (‘Harlequin Dreaming’) is labelled as a ‘waltz’. So dance is a prominent feature of Howells’s music: as British music specialists such as Paul Spicer and Graham Barber have noticed, Howells was passionate about, almost fixated on, stylized dance idioms, especially the triple-time sarabande.

What is clear to me is that dance provided Howells with a solid and recognizable rhythmic-metric framework, something that we can identify even in his non-dance pieces, and something that, at times, Howells seems to take pleasure in upsetting, even subverting entirely. For example, there is a constant 5/8 metre to ‘Finzi: His Rest’; but, every now and again, as we find in, say, Mozart, the dance topic is manipulated, obscured, skewed somehow, and then quickly taken up again in its original form. The process is always seamless and subtle, though it seems to add a certain dramatic character, a kind-of wit, to the music in all instances.

DC: You have spent a good deal of your career performing the work of living composers. In such cases, and in view of well-worn debates about performers as (merely) executants or (more actively) interpreters, how have you envisaged your role in this project?

MS: I have found it exciting to have the opportunity to interpret pieces that are effectively new even though they are old. That is, the music I’ve recorded on this disc has not been recorded, or even published, before: the unpublished material came to my attention thanks to an archival ‘treasure hunt’, and then a process of transcription, undertaken by Jonathan Clinch, an academic at the Royal Academy of Music, London, who had access to rare manuscripts, some of which were in private collections.

Through my involvement with contemporary music, I can say that the process of ‘mediating’ these works is not dissimilar to working with living composers – though I had the added impediment, you might say, of not having Howells here to chat to.

DC: As a related question, in what ways, then, was this project a particular challenge – or perhaps a welcome relief?

MS: The greatest challenge was gaining clarity on the text. Jonathan and I discussed some of the problems thrown up by the manuscripts, such as deciphering Howells’s peculiar handwriting and, especially, his performance directions, expression markings, dynamics and so on. I often went back to the manuscripts myself, sat with them, sometimes formulating questions I would put to Howells, questions that, after a while, the music itself would often answer. Practically speaking, then, I found that even the most unfathomable markings could often be resolved in performance – in ‘real time’. In other words, I think that it was my practical experience as a pianist, someone familiar not only with Howells’s music, instrumental and vocal, but with contemporary French repertoire, that helped me to ‘deduce’ or ‘resolve’ the ambiguities.

In the main, Jonathan and I agreed on the composer’s intentions, though sometimes we had differing opinions on how his idiosyncrasies of thought might best be ‘regularized’ on the page and so communicated to the piano-playing public. As I mentioned earlier, Howells seemed fond of indicating elaborate chordal voicings as well as extraordinarily detailed rubato markings, many of which are impossible to convey in manuscript form. So, in this respect, I felt that the onus was on the recorded music – and thus on me – to communicate an intentional layer of musical expression that the printed page could not.

At the same time, it’s true that the freedom to interpret was as great (one might say) as with any other deceased composer, and perhaps all the greater for want of a living performance tradition, as alluded to already. To a certain extent, however, this freedom put greater pressure on me in terms of being ‘faithful’ to the text, and so the music editor’s job was probably made all the harder for my own rather fastidious attitude towards the smallest of Howells’s musical scribbles.

DC: Did you have any personal favourites on the disc, any pieces that you found particularly interesting, enthralling or fun to play?

MS: Phantasy, the first track on the disc, stuck out from the start as all three. It’s a physical challenge to the pianist, testing your technique and your stamina not only in passages of a kind-of wild gestural abandon but also in passages that require a delicate touch and more subtle phrasing. What makes this piece particularly interesting, though, is the context or backdrop to its composition. At this point in his life, Howells had become unwell with Graves’ Disease, an auto-immune disorder, and he was travelling regularly between his hometown of Lydney, Gloucestershire, and St Thomas’ Hospital in Westminster, London, to receive treatment – he was one of the first patients to receive radium injections in the neck. That he managed to write Phantasy, dated 1917, during a period of convalescence, is to me astonishing; it’s a piece of such tremendous, triumphal expression, a piece that seems to insinuate itself, like one of its sinewy melodies, into your consciousness. To me, it’s worthy of a much more mature and experienced composer.

DC: Does this disc help us, in any way, in our quest to identify and characterize a particularly British musical identity? What of the hint, already mentioned, of a French influence on the composer?

MS: I believe it is a red herring to dwell on who Howells was influenced by, insofar as identifying a British musical style as such. I have concluded that Howells was Howells – nothing less, nothing more – and although he was clearly influenced by Brahms, Rachmaninov, Ravel and Stravinsky, he emerges as a distinct voice within the twentieth century.

DC: This, I realize, is volume 1 of what’s to be a 2-volume collection of Howells’s piano music. So what’s to come?

MS: The project was originally a single disc, a disc that itself eventuated from a private recital invitation. The late Stephen Cleobury, with whom I had built a professional relationship during my time at Cambridge and afterwards, had put forward my name to perform at the 2017 AGM of the Herbert Howells Society. Following the recital, the idea of securing a record contract came to mind. And, with the generous support of the Herbert Howells Trust and the British Music Society, I put together a ‘programme’ for this first disc.

Just a couple of weeks before I went into the studio, armed with Jonathan Clinch’s transcriptions, another rare manuscript cropped up: a collection of works from Howells’s earliest years as a composer. These, I knew, would tip our project over one album, so I left them to one side. They’ll certainly form part of the ‘programme’ for volume 2; some are reminiscent of a ‘Romantic’ style, others evoke a pastoral, plaintive topic.

This article was first published in Naxos Musicology International on 23 June 2020
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