Treasure Hunt

Matthew Schellhorn unveils a cornucopia of rare and unpublished piano pieces by Herbert Howells.
Herbert Howells deserves to be recognised as a truly significant piano composer. Until now, he has been valued primarily for his choral works, but his piano writing provides further evidence that he was a composer of great musical substance and emotional depth. I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity to perform and record these wonderful pieces for the first time.

The story behind this project still amazes me. It began when Stephen Cleobury put me forward to play at the 2017 AGM of the Herbert Howells Society in Cambridge. Stephen was a sensitive musician whom I greatly respected. We had recently collaborated in performances of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie and Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence-Divine (the latter in the wonderful acoustic of King’s College Chapel) and I was intrigued by how he appeared to ‘join the dots’ between my work in the field of French and contemporary music and this lesser known but equally interesting English composer. Although I had experience of Howells as a choral composer it felt very natural to apply myself to the pianistic and expressive complexities of Howells’ voice.

As I began exploring Howells’ published piano repertoire, I discovered that he had written several other pieces that were unavailable. Fortunately, Dr Jonathan Clinch at London’s Royal Academy of Music had access to certain manuscripts, which he allowed me to view. I was excited at the notion that they might be suitable for performance, but Jonathan said he was against the act-of-faith approach taken by composer societies which assume every note must be cherished, so he wanted me to form my own opinion.

It soon became clear to me that these unpublished works were of immense quality. Indeed, I kept encouraging Jonathan to search out more so I could gain as much of an overview as possible for understanding Howells’ style.

As more and more pieces turned up – Jonathan has described the process as being like a ‘treasure hunt’ – I realised that the music deserved proper exposure: they had to be recorded. I am grateful to the British Music Society and Herbert Howells Trust for supporting me in bringing this recording project to fruition.

Just as I went into the studio, yet another manuscript came to light – this time a book of very early works. It was clear that the inclusion of these new pieces would tip the project over more than one album. I therefore set about creating a balanced programme for the first volume, allowing the remainder potentially to constitute a second volume.

Locating unpublished works from every period of Howells’ life has allowed me to develop a clear vision of how his compositional style developed. The first thing to note is the vast range of Howells’ piano style. In the early works we have melody-and-accompaniment styles, along with an Impressionistic attitude to harmony and texture. Later on, we encounter a sensitive contrapuntalism, with some creative metrical details. Howells always crafts his music with an eye for balanced phrases. He consistently shapes expressive lyrical lines. Most of all, I admire the fact that the quality of his musical conception remains strong across so many different types of pianism. In every period of his life, Howells wrote piano music of astonishingly high quality.

Nevertheless, perhaps because Howells was primarily an organist, his writing can be unpianistic. His highly idiosyncratic blend of attitudes produces some unusual moments, musically and technically. John Rutter has said that ‘Howells was one of music’s poets’, and I am inclined to agree: the language is sinewy, unpredictable and oblique, yet often touching. In the writing itself, these qualities are manifested in unfamiliar demands, awkward corners and contradictions. In particular, chord voicings are sometimes unusual, requiring large hands or, shall we say, creative fingerings! Additionally, the manuscripts are at times unclear or contradictory from passage to ‘repeated’ passage. Part of my role is to consider the repertoire as a whole and offer an assertive response. Yet the piano is suited to many different approaches, so in the final analysis I found myself adapting to the style and relishing Howells’ demands.

From the beginning of my exposure to this wonderful repertoire, Howells’ Phantasy leapt out as an extraordinary piece of writing: it tests a pianist’s technique and stamina to the limits, not least because its challenges include a need for delicacy and subtle phrasing. What makes this piece all the more extraordinary, however, is the context of its composition. The manuscript is dated 1917, when Howells was incredibly unwell with Graves’ disease. His treatment regime entailed trips back and forth between Lydney in Gloucestershire and St Thomas’ Hospital, Westminster, where he received experimental radium injections in his neck every fortnight over a two-year period. Although he was in the early phases of recovery, and still very young, he managed to write a triumphant and complex piece worthy of the most mature composers.

Another key moment in his stylistic development was the illness and death of Howells’ nine-year-old son, Michael, who suffered from polio. As with Herbert’s own illness, this experience was highly motivating. At this point, in the mid-1930s, the plain and sometimes carefree qualities of Howells’ younger voice were replaced by a more searching, even restive mindset. As such, the relatively late Pavane and Galliard and the Petrus Suite are all the more thought-provoking.

Finally, the context of Finzi: His Rest, written by Howells when news of Finzi’s death reached him, provides a fascinating glimpse into the composer’s psyche. Howells wrote another piece titled ‘Finzi’s rest: for Gerald on the morrow of 27th September 1956’, which was published in 1961 as part of Howells’ Clavichord. But the one on my album, unpublished until now, is much darker and almost troubled. The contrasts between the two pieces show how emotionally adaptable and creative Howells could be.

My second volume in this series will include the early pieces that recently came to light. Some of these are written in the late-Romantic pastoral style, demonstrating an adept handling of form and texture. There is a beautiful, much later piece called Comme le cerf soupire, which is redolent of the well-known choral masterpiece Like as the Hart (the melodies are entirely different but they inhabit a similar character) plus several other works that have previously been published but never recorded. And who knows? Maybe more pieces will turn up in the meantime!

This article was first published in the July/August 2020 edition of International Piano.