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The other side of the coin – Howells’s Sir Patrick Spens

Herbert Howells' reflective and brilliant choral writing stands as a touchstone of 20th-century Anglican church music. Now a new Bach Choir and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra recording conducted by David Hill offers a tantalising glimpse of a very different Howells. The rediscovered work from the composer’s 20s is bold and ambitious, untouched by the tragedy that was to redefine his life and his music. Though catalogued (1) as Opus 23, published in vocal score in 1928, and publicly performed (2) at least once, Sir Patrick Spens effectively languished at London’s Royal College of Music until rediscovered by conductor and Howells scholar Paul Spicer.

“I’d really like to thank Paul for guiding me to one of the great finds of English music,” David Hill enthuses. “It was over a pint after a Bach Choir rehearsal that he mentioned it to me. I asked if he could get me a copy of it; and within a couple of weeks I had it in my hands. As soon as I looked at it, it became clear what an amazing piece this was. I asked if parts existed, and the answer was ‘No, they’ve been lost.’ I persuaded Novello to reconstruct it all from the manuscript at the Royal College and the old vocal score, and we then set about recording it for Naxos.”

Written in 1917 when Howells was 25, Sir Patrick Spens sets a Scottish folk ballad for chorus, orchestra and solo voices. Howells works with tremendous imagination through a huge quantity of text for this 20-minute piece. The composer described the ‘swiftness of the narrative [as] the chief need’ (3) in the work. Though the influence of his composition tutor Stanford’s Sea ballads such as ‘Songs of the Fleet’ is discernible, Hill is drawn to the impact of the composer’s nearer contemporaries.

“I think Howells was trying to show to the world that he could write in the full-blooded English style that Vaughan Williams was already famous for and Walton would work towards. This is Howells like I’ve never heard before or after; his whole way of writing changes after this. Sir Patrick Spens is an extraordinary work in the way Howells develops the ideas with a really fast-flowing and fluent style.

“He obviously liked this rather unlikely Scottish ode as a story. It is a very long poem and he repeats none of it, but characterises it amazingly well. He has a tenor soloist for one section, a baritone soloist taking through the majority of the narrative, and a soprano soloist towards the end. Even at this early stage of his career Howells shows his mark for choral writing, which is slightly different from everyone else – particularly when he goes into eight parts. This, if you like, English music with a French musical accent is very apparent particularly towards the end: a most beautiful ending, an unbelievably beautiful ending. It is stunningly good in terms of its quality of orchestration and choral writing.”

It seems strange that such an absorbing piece, by – at the time – one of the country’s brightest young composers, did not gain currency. Howells entered a period of recuperation from severe ill health in the years after its composition, and Hill points out that any contemporary performances were probably not done very well.

“Like hard Vaughan Williams and Elgar, Howells is asking far more of the singers and players than they would be wise to have expected! Nevertheless, they went ahead and this was the case for Howells both in Sir Patrick Spens and in Hymnus Paradisi. It was, if not torrid, certainly an unsuccessful first outing, probably because it was largely unrehearsed.”

The defining event of Howells’s life was the death of his nine-year-old son Michael in 1935. Sir Patrick Spens presents Howells’s writing before this life-shattering experience. Though the work was composed at a tender age, Hill argues that it is not an immature piece: rather, it is an accomplished work before a watershed.

“Had Michael not died,” Hill speculates, “and had Howells gone on to write in a similar way, who knows what type of music he might have produced? But that is, of course, supposition. All I can say is, by conducting and getting to know Sir Patrick Spens, this is Howells like no one has heard him before. It will be an absolute revelation for those who think of Howells as being slightly lugubrious or being fixated with a particular kind of obsessively inward-looking language. To consider that Sir Patrick Spens is by the same person that wrote the Gloucester Service is astonishing; the hallmarks of Howells’s later writing are all in there but in a very, very different way. The piece shows that he really did have this other side to him.”

Hymnus Paradisi, the composer’s tribute to his son, and widely accepted to be his masterpiece, fills the remainder of the disc. Does Sir Patrick Spens suffer in comparison to the later work?

“You can’t really compare them, as Hymnus was written out of a total and utter devastation and grief over his son’s death. Everything Howells wrote after Michael’s death showed that Howells never really recovered from it: he became much more introverted as a person. His daughter Ursula had to really persuade him to write Hymnus, because he composed nothing for a time after Michael had died. She told me personally that she said to Howells, ‘But Daddy, you’ve got to write something, if only for Michael,’ and Hymnus is what poured out of him. So you can’t really compare the pieces. He went from being a happy, virile, ambitious, young and very successful composer and organist when he wrote Sir Patrick Spens to being completely and utterly devastated. More than that: Michael’s death completely changed him as a person. This is why Sir Patrick Spens offers a side of Howells only a few people have really heard.

“I don’t think there’s a bad bar in the piece, its scoring is so skilled, even – dare I say? – more skilled than Hymnus, by which time it became too dense, too thick, [with] too many instruments trying to do too many things sometimes. He got it absolutely right in leaving out certain instruments in Sir Patrick Spens and knowing when to bring them in effectively: the scoring is more like Vaughan Williams at his best.”

After so many years lying unperformed, the promise held in the score seemed to transfer into performance well. “The first time anyone heard it was at the recording session,” Hill reveals. “The first recording went down, we had a listen to it and thought, ‘Oh my God, what an amazing piece!’ It’s actually a really, really tricky score to conduct because Howells is asking the conductor to do a lot of technical things: beat quite irregular bar and phrase structures. It’s a really tough orchestral score to understand; it took me quite a long time to absorb all of that.”

Hill and his performers recorded the piece over a weekend in Poole, Dorset, with Andrew Walton, whom Hill describes as “a phenomenal producer, with bat ears and an incredible gift for editing”. The close relationship between producer and conductor was essential in effectively capturing the flow and character of the piece.

“What I’ve tried to do with this recording is to look at Howells’s markings,” Hill explains. “This is particularly important with a composer who was so fastidious about what he wanted in everything. He was a wonderful organist, he was a great improviser, he knew how music should be, how it should flow. And so I tried to take his markings on board and convert that into a personal message through the music that I felt that he’d composed. I’ve spent a long time with it and I’ve tried to be totally honest with what I was feeling and seeing in the score. I think, on the whole, you must respect that the composer probably had a very clear idea as to how he wanted it to be. If you take on what you feel to be the composer’s tempo and feel and get somewhere near it, I believe you start feeling the music more intensely.”

For a piece with such an interesting history, the future seems appropriately bright. Hill considers Sir Patrick Spens to be “among the finest English orchestral works of the 20th century, I have absolutely no doubt.

“Howells didn’t write much orchestral and choral repertoire; those pieces he did write rank at the very highest among other composers. If there are a few classic works like Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music or Walton’s Coronation Te Deum that could be done at the last night of the Proms for the British nation to love and take on, then this is that sort of piece.” I

nitial indications are that arguments in favour of Sir Patrick Spens have found some sympathetic ears at the BBC. Perhaps it will not be too long before the piece is unleashed on a much larger audience, revealing a forgotten but fascinating dimension to one of England’s greatest choral composers.

Article by Matthew Simpkins taken from Choir & Organ (September/October 2007) and reproduced by kind permission of Newsquest Specialist Media Ltd.


1. The piece is listed in two versions: a scoring for solo voices, piano and string quartet is now lost.
2. Conductor and composer William Gillies Whittaker mentions a performance he conducted with the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Bach Choir in his article, ‘A Pilgrimage through the Church Cantatas of J.S. Bach (Continued)’, The Musical Times, vol.77, no.1120 (June, 1936), pp.501–504
3. Interview in The Music Teacher, December 1922 to January 1923, quoted in Christopher Palmer, Herbert Howells – a Celebration (2nd ed. (London, 1996)), p.439

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