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Herbert Howells and the Strange Man from Chelsea


Herbert Howells and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gloucester 1956

I have been reading Paul Spicer's fascinating biography of Herbert Howells, and marvelling at the many illuminating details it offers up of the composer's life. For instance, while I knew that Howells was an articled pupil of organist Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, I had no idea that his co-students were the unlikely pairing of Ivor Gurney and Ivor Novello (who apparently needed Howells' help with his harmony and counterpoint exercises).

One particular episode during Howells' time at Gloucester captures my imagination. Ahead of the 1910 Three Choirs Festival, Howells asked his teacher whether there was anything interesting planned for the week-long series of concerts that was to be held in Gloucester that year. Brewer's unpromising reply - that 'some strange man who lives in Chelsea has been writing something to do with Thomas Tallis, the great Tudor composer', in fact heralded the first performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, scored for a large string orchestra divided into three parts.

Howells attended the premiere at the cathedral, where Vaughan Williams' new piece was presented as a prelude to the serious matter of the evening: Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, conducted by the composer. After Vaughan Williams had conducted his own piece - and had stepped down from the podium in silence, as was the tradition at that time - he took a seat next to Howells, and shared with him his copy of Gerontius during the ensuing performance. Howells was overwhelmed by Vaughan Williams' piece, and not a little star-struck; at the end of the concert he asked the older composer for his autograph. Later, Howells would relate that:

I think if had to isolate from the rest any one impression of a purely musical sort that mattered most to me in the whole of my life as a musician, it would be the hearing of that work not knowing what I was going to hear but knowing what I heard I should never forget.

This ability to pick out with confidence a musical experience that had made the deepest impression on oneself is perhaps something that comes with time and its associated self-knowledge. However, if I had to pick one moment from my rather more modest list of remarkable occasions, I would pinpoint a performance of the St Matthew Passion on Holy Saturday last year, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. The choir and soloists sang from memory (as did the obbligato instrumentalists), and such was the profound level of communication between the musicians, that the experience was overwhelming - myself and those around me were in tears on numerous occasions, and the audience rose to its feet at the end of the performance, almost as one.

Of course, what marks Howells recollection out as markedly different to and more powerful than my own, was that he was listening to Vaughan Williams' piece for the very first time. The precise experience of the young Howells hearing Vaughan Williams' sonorous, homophonic harmonies reverberating around the spacious Norman nave of the cathedral is of course difficult to replicate. However, if you connect your headphones and watch the video below (filmed in the building for which it was written), I think you can perhaps get a sense for what Howells encountered back in 1910, and recognise a little of why he might have found it unforgettable.


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© 2015 by Patrick Allies