Herbert Howells: Three Dances
The Three Dances are delightful miniatures, written in 1915 in relatively carefree student days (relatively, because the Great War was already a year old and Howells, through ill health which nearly killed him in 1917, was exempted from active service). They were composed for a young fellow-student George Whittaker, a highly gifted violinist who had entered the College aged only eleven. Certainly the music has no hint of the momentous events beginning to take shape and which would fundamentally affect one of his closest friends, Ivor Gurney, and kill a number of others. The Dances are, in fact, extremely sunny pieces, not yet imbued with the Howellsian pathos which grew to dominate his mode of speech. To this end they are as yet uncharacteristic, speaking more of his teacher's influence than of his own intuitive nature which was still to come to its maturity. Putting that aside, however, what lovely pieces they are! The first, quite bit-scale, is almost a gypsy dance with some brilliantly colourful orchestration laid out for large forces. In the manuscript Howells writes at the end that he finished the score in bed. It is nice to know that student habits don't change over the years!
The second Dance has one of the most beguiling tunes of the period. To some extent it is the change in his later music away from writing a tune to creating long-breathed, melismatic phrases, which creates the aural problem for the unsophisticated listener who wants the 'anchorage' which a regular-metre melody gives. Here, though, there is no problem. Why this Dance alone did not become a classic 'pop' of the period is difficult to understand, though it is probably bound up with Howell's reticence and his impatience, as a student, to be getting on with the next project.
The last Dance is, by contrast, short and furious, providing an exquisite foil to the others. Here is Howells, already, aged only twenty-three, a consummately skilled orchestrator, a highly gifted creator of atmosphere (one of the most important features of his mature style) and having a considerable skill with both form and melody.