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Sir Patrick Spens - a Rediscovered Work by Herbert Howells

Putting my cards on the table straight away I must state three things. Firstly I cannot for the life of me see how a work of this stature could have lain in the archives of the Royal College of Music for nearly 80 years. Secondly the quality of the music belies the fact that it was the composer’s first excursion into writing for large scale choral forces. And lastly, the work is more approachable than Hymnus Paradisi and more satisfying than the Kent Yeoman’s Wooing Song.

Naxos has done a sterling service to the Howells repertoire in particular and for English music in general. There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the major musical events of the year. It is certainly one of the most important ‘discoveries’ of recent decades.

The present performance of Sir Patrick Spens on this CD (Naxos 8.570352 Herbert Howells (1892-1983) Sir Patrick Spens & Hymnus Paradisi. Claire Rutter, soprano; James Gilchrist, tenor; Roderick Williams, baritone; Katy Butler, soprano; The Bach Choir with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Hill) is probably the first airing of this work since 1930: it is certainly the premiere recording. The work is believed to have been performed only once – on 1 February 1930 in Newcastle. The conductor on that occasion was the composer, teacher and musicologist, William Gillies Whittaker.

After this performance the work disappeared from view. Although the it was published by Stainer and Bell in 1930, no interest appears to have been shown by national choirs or local choral societies.

It was re-discovered by Paul Spicer in the library of the Royal College of Music and arrangements were made to record it as a pendant to Howells’s masterpiece Hymnus Paradisi.

Herbert Howells was only 25 years old when he wrote Sir Patrick. It was his first attempt at writing a major choral work. However his teacher Sir Herbert Brewer had recently (1913) had a setting of these words performed at the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester – so this may have been in Howells mind at the time.

In the few years leading up to this work Howells had produced a number of fine orchestral and chamber works – including the elusive Puck’s Minuet, the deeply moving Elegy for Viola, String Quartet and String Orchestra and the Phantasy String Quartet. He had presented the organ loft with the first of his fine Rhapsodies. However his contribution to choral music had been limited to a few liturgical pieces and a couple of sets of part songs.

This present work is a cantata for baritone, chorus and orchestra based on an ancient ballad. The text is of Scottish origin and is believed to chronicle an actual historical event which is said to have occurred in the late 13th century. Like all poems of this type there exists a wide variety of textual variations; however the fundamental plot is the same. Howells decided to set the text, written in ‘braid Scots,’ as a dramatic choral scena. He does not resort to repetition that was so popular with choral writers since the days of Handel!

The King of Scotland calls for the most daring sailor of the country to go on a Royal mission to recover a certain princess from the clutches of the Norwegian war-lords. He seeks a suitable mariner who is both brave and competent to carry out this deed. Sir Patrick Spens is mentioned by a court official and duly the king sends for him. Ironically, Spens is delighted to receive a royal commission but is less than enthusiastic about making a long sea voyage in the depths of winter. However the importance of the mission convinces Spens that he must set sail, in spite of his misgivings. On the Monday they hoisted their sails and two days later arrived on the coast of ‘Norroway.’

Unfortunately, there was a disagreement between the Scots and the Norwegian lords. The Scots were accused of being a drain on the king’s finances. Sir Patrick takes offence and duly sets sail – without the Norwegian princess!

The poem then presents a bad omen – told by one of the ships crew:-

"I saw the new moon late yestreen

Wi’ the auld moon in her arm,

And if we gang to sea, master,

I fear we’ll come to harm."

Of course the boat leaves and faces the severest of winter storms -

"...the wind blew loud,

And gurgly grew the sea."

On cue, the ship sank. Sir Patrick Spens and his crew, after a considerable struggle with the elements, were sent to the bottom of the ocean. The ladies of the Scottish court were distraught on hearing the news:-

"The ladies wrang their fingers white

The maidens tore their hair

All for the sake of their true loves,

For them they’ll see nae mair."

Strangely the version of the ballad that Howells set says nothing about how the King felt about not getting the Maid of Norway into his palace in Scotland!

Sir Patrick Spens naturally divides into four sections – the preparation and sea trip to Norway, the prophecy of doom, the storm and finally the lamentation of the women.

The work opens orchestrally with a great rush of energy soon followed by the full chorus. Of course Vaughan Williams is never far away in these opening pages. How could he be? The Sea Symphony was only a few years old at this time and was still seen as a pivotal work in the choral repertoire. There is an urgency in this music that mirrors the passion in the Scottish king’s heart. The tension eases off before the soloist sings the words of Sir Patrick. Attractive music accompanies his musings on the foolhardiness of his task and fine vocal writing underscores Spens’s acceptance of the king’s demand. The actual journey across the North Sea is disposed of with a few bars of ‘swelling sea music,’ before dying down to a short pause.

A disturbed and intense passage follows the falling out with the Norwegian war lords. Sir Patrick addresses them with a strong solo line – ‘Fu loud I hear ye lie.’ The soloist then bids his crew prepare to return to Scotland. Once again we hear the ‘surging music’ before the second section closes.

A quiet clarinet melody is followed by one for cello, before the soloist announces the prophecy of doom. The voice is virtually unsupported by the orchestra. Soon the ballad turns to the sea once more. Strangely this music reminded me of later Vaughan Williams – as late as the 9th Symphony! There is a slow build up to the inevitable storm with an orchestral interlude leading to the most violent music of the work, accompanied with some fine brass playing. Then the chorus is in full cry. This is truly great music. It would be easy to see this in the context of the cinema – except for the fact that talkies had not been invented at that time! In the background we continue to feel the influence of the Sea Symphony.

The music alternates between choral and soloist – the crew are vainly trying to keep the ship afloat. The listener cannot help but think of Stanford in these pages. Soon there is a great heaving climax before the music closes down for the last reflective passage.

This is the ‘keening’ section, where the women’s voices predominate. Touches of Delius lead into a solo for cello followed by harp arpeggios. The last pages are moving. The orchestral and choral forces seem to be slowly fusing into one mass. The harmonies are original: quite beautiful and totally memorable. Finally the music sinks slowly into the sea to join the watery grave of "Sir Patrick Spens, wi’ the Scots lords at his feet."

Sir Patrick Spens compares favourably with Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony and Stanford’s Revenge. Finzi noted that there "was some evidence of folk song influence," but there is no way that this can be seen as a major feature of this work. Howells music has all the power of the sea and is descriptive music of the first rank. Hubert J. Foss is concerned that Howells lacks the ability to create violent sounding chords. I am not convinced by this argument as I feel that the composer provides music of sufficient tension and stress to well describe the storm. All the moods of this piece are delineated in musical terms – the sailors, the sea, the prophecy and the mourning. The work exudes both strength and subtlety – a difficult balance at any time. The choral writing is superb, with some truly original counterpoint that knowingly exploits the voices. Sometimes the composer uses six-part writing and even occasionally demands ten discrete voices. Of course this music does not forth-tell what was to flow from Howells’s pen in years to come – there is no hint of the Missa Sabrinensis for example. Nor is there any suggestion he would abandon ‘secular’ music for the liturgical.

Yet there is no doubt that we are dealing with a great work here, if not a minor masterpiece.

Sir Patrick Spens now demands a place in the repertoire of 20th century English Choral works.

John France


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