Herbert Howells’ An English Mass has recently been published in a beautiful new edition by Novello and will be recorded by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge next year.
Ahead of this, they are performing it on 17 March 2018:
Howells An English Mass & Te Deum ‘Collegium Regale’
Brahms Double Concerto
Magnus Johnston violin
Guy Johnston cello
Members of the Choir of King’s College, past and present
Cambridge University Orchestra
Stephen Cleobury conductor
‘Collegium Regale’ Te Deum (1944/1977)
With the war-time settings for King’s College, Herbert Howells not only took his career in a new direction (having previously been celebrated principally for his orchestral and chamber music) but redefined the whole aesthetic of Anglican church music in the twentieth century. His highly personal style mixes unison statements (which take on the rhythmic fluidity of chant) with a rich modal harmonic language which has its origins not only in his love of Tudor choral music, but in the more recent modality of the French impressionist school. The sheer ecstasy of the resultant music matches the grandeur of Parry and the energy of Walton, with an intimacy that is quintessentially Howellsian. Eric Milner-White, the Dean of King’s who had commissioned Howells to write the Te Deum (as a bet), wrote that it represented ‘so much more than music-making; it is experiencing deep things in the only medium that can do it’. The Te Deum was written in 1944 (along with the Jubilate) and owes its considerable popularity to a series of recordings on Argo – Boris Ord (1958), David Willcocks (1967) and Stephen Cleobury (1992) – which introduced Howells’ music to a worldwide audience. Howells orchestrated the Te Deum in 1977 for the Leith Hill Musical Festival, adding a short orchestral introduction which demonstrates how far his mature style had come since 1944.
An English Mass
Kyrie, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Gloria
Despite considerable interest in Herbert Howells’ early works, it took until he was nearly sixty, with the first performance of Hymnus Paradisi (at the 1950 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival), for him to score a major success with the critical press. Following this, the Festival was very keen to commission another large scale work for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Howells’ response was the Missa Sabrinensis (Mass of the Severn), highly similar in style, equally complex but considerably longer than Hymnus. The size of the work proved too much for the performers and the first performance in Worcester was followed by an even bigger disaster during the London premiere, during which they had to stop at one point.
Howells, ever sensitive to the critics, followed the Missa Sabrinensis with another mass setting, again for chorus and orchestra, but this time with a number of major differences. An English Mass is half the length (at around 35 minutes) and scored for chorus, strings and organ, with optional parts for flute, oboe, timpani and harp for concert performance and a short ‘Sursum Corda’ for liturgical use. The ‘English’ descriptor refers to the language of the text from the Book of Common Prayer (although, as usual, the Kyrie is in Greek). The Mass was completed in early 1956 and dedicated to Harold Darke and his St Michael Singers who gave the first performance in June 1956 during a concert to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Darke’s appointment at St Michael’s Church, Cornhill. Alongside the Mass were Hierusalem by Sir George Dyson and A Vision of Aeroplanes by Ralph Vaughan Williams. After the concert, Howells wrote praising the choir: “They were grand; quick to learn the bulk of my strange notes, and inspired in finding better ones when mine didn’t fit”.
The Mass contains a huge variety of styles and moods, from the rhapsodical, delicate unfolding of the Kyrie to the blazing fortissimos and highly arresting rhythmic fanfares that occur in the Gloria, Credo (particularly when the chorus burst in following the opening intonation) and Sanctus (the enormous build up to ‘Lord most high’). Regardless of Howells’ own lack of faith, the Mass is characterised by the assertiveness of (in his words) the “personal and creative reaction to a text of immense, immemorial significance”. One can hardly fail to sense a personal optimism with moments such as the solo line ‘I look for the resurrection of the dead’ in the Credo; even after the passing of over twenty years, Howells’ works were still deeply influenced by the death of his son, Michael.
©2018 Jonathan Clinch