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
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
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
The poem then presents
a bad omen – told by one of the ships
"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
"...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
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
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
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