In the Herbert Howells
catalogue there are no works more ambitious
in scale, intent and grasp than these
is potent, shorter and has found
more performances and recordings. It
adroitly balances duration, manner,
substance and message - succinct and
potent. However Missa Sabrinensis
magnificently encapsulates Howells'
exuberantly ecstatic absorption in spirituality,
celebration, redemptive anguish, high
hills radiance and the dazzle of the
invincible sun. His is a decidedly un-Protestant
stance. The music mediates between Delius
and Roman Catholic spirituality but
the spiritual dimension is no more intrusive
or distracting than is RVW's humanism
in works such as Dona Nobis Pacem.
The Delius echoes have no linkage with
the orchestral miniatures. Instead the
music looks from peak to peak at The
Song of the High Hills and most
specifically at the Mass of Life.
This is felt most strongly in the 20
minute Gloria. That movement
with its proud brass songsters trailing
clouds of glory recalls both Hymnus
and the Delius Mass. Its
explosive propulsion has not a shred
of Victorian fustian about it. It speaks
directly to twentieth and twenty first
century man and woman in music that
is exalted, exciting (try 14.30 onwards
in the Missa) and transformational.
his perfectly balanced team of soloists,
choir and orchestra raise the vaulted
roof, shake the rafters of our hearts
and it is recorded in full-on sound.
The Mass is more a celebration of the
spirit of the Severn and of Howells'
life, of countless sunrises and Ragnarok
sunsets, of piercing joy, of the lives
of friends and more. Did the composer
see the shades of his contemporaries
among the pastures, hills and brakes
of Severn country: Gurney, Finzi, Vaughan
Williams, Holst, Elgar and so many others.
I speculate that spun into this music
is the recollection of Howells' surrounded
by friends all high on the experience
of just having heard the premiere of
Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia.
The Missa has a very high quotient
of emotionally intense music. The Benedictus
provides remission and contrast
- a honeyed fulfilled summation that
speaks 'as a dream and a forgetting'.
Howells recognises that the heart is
not designed to carry the relentlessly
torrid emotion that is rife in the rest
of this extraordinary work.
The experience of hearing
the Missa again spirits me back to 1982
and that overpowering revival broadcast
on BBC Radio 3 marking the composer's
ninetieth birthday. Sir David Willcocks
conducted. I found the work extraordinarily
moving then. It still is.
The Stabat Mater
is noticeably in the same anguished
ecstatic idiom but some 25 minutes shorter.
Although tense it is not as unremittingly
tensile as the Missa. The choirs
(tr.1 3.30) groan with references to
Vaughan Williams' demons in Pilgrims
Progress and the choral moans in
Sinfonia Antartica. Howells'
diary chronology for the writing of
the work starts with an entry on the
first anniversary of RVW's death . The
Cujus Animam has a musing cortege
tread recalling that in Dyson's Quo
Vadis. Quis est homo? has
a reminiscence of the explosive rush
of the Missa's Gloria. The plunging
trumpet writing in Sancta Mater is
tellingly done and looks to the examples
of both Walton and Janáček. Once
again Howells often evokes clouds
of witness streaming across a sky that
stretches along the horizon of eternity.
At the grand climactics (1.35) the composer
looks to the first movement of Delius's
pantheistically driven A Mass of
The Chandos catalogue
yields treasure after treasure. Here
is another. If you love Hymnus Paradisi
and do not already have these CDs
then you must get this set. The price
cannot bettered, Christopher Palmer's
notes are the usual equipoise of mystic
percipience and factual meat and the
two discs come in a single width case.
This set comes with
all texts in full and extended extracts
from the Howells diaries tracking progress
with each work. It could hardly have
been better done. Roll on the Chandos
issue of the Howells' orchestral twofer
on CHAN 241-20.
I hope that after hearing
these two discs either Chandos or another
company will feel encouraged to tackle
premiere recordings of various other
British works of equally compelling
substance: John Foulds' World Requiem,
Cyril Rootham's Ode on the Morning
of Christ's Nativity and Second
Symphony and Goossens' Apocalypse.
The Howells works do
not merit their neglect and certainly
should be heard as an alternative to
yet another War Requiem or Gerontius.
They ape neither composer and are irrefutably
masterworks of the English choral repertoire.
What more can the listener ask than
to be lifted from the light of common
day by Howells' poignant, subtle, sensitive
and ecstatic music. That tread towards
eternity from 6.00 onwards in the final
section (Christe cum sit hunc exire)
of the Stabat Mater seems to
say it all. After completing this work
Howells was to live another eighteen
years but after the Stabat Mater
nothing of such moment came from