Herbert Howells ceased using opus numbers at about Op. 40, but each of the three Psalm-Preludes making up his second set is dated. Published in 1940, they were first performed as a set by William O. Minay at a recital for the Organ Music Society given in Christ Church, Woburn Square, in March 1939.
Completed in London on September 29, 1938, the first Psalm-Prelude of the second set is inscribed "For John Dykes Bower", who was then organist of St Paul's Cathedral. The piece is a commentary on De profundis clamvi ad te, Domine, Psalm 130, verse 1: Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord, a Lento deolente in D minor which achieves its metric freedom by a constant alternation of five-eight, six-eight and three-eight measures. The opening phrase in contrary motion seems to combine both the Psalmist's depths and pleading. Extension and development of this theme fades to admit a second strain, un poco piu-mosso in an ambivalent A minor/major which goads the music to a climax which is the double fortissimo return of the initial theme in contrary harmonic motion. This gradually leads to its final return, piu lento, assai tranquillo to initiate a quiet coda in D major, ending molto lento and double pianissimo.
The third Psalm-Prelude of the second set was completed in London on June 27,. 193, and is inscribed "For Percy C. Hull", who was then organist of Hereford Cathedral. This Allegro (non troppo) ma giocoso is a commentary on Psalm 33, verse 3: Sing unto Him a new song: play skilfully with a loud noise an injunction observed by the composer's dynamic marking of fortissing and the rhythmic verve demanded by the player by the organ writing. The opening section unfolds energetically in a mode of C where the fourth degree is often sharpened and the seventh flattened, a mode used increasingly by Howells in some of his later organ pieces. Towards its end, a trumpet tune stands out in relief. A diminuendo to a low pedal C is then linked to a second section, un poco meno mosso: e poco rubato, in D sharp minor. This gathers volume and speed until an allargando leads to a modified restatement of the first section, but in D major. The extended coda reverts to C for its tonal centre. All six Psalm-Preludes end on a major common-chord, but the sixth is the only one to end "with a loud noise", as the Psalmist directs.
© 1977 Felix Aprahamian