Herbert Howells: String Quartet no. 3 ‘In Gloucestershire’

performed by the Divertimenti Ensemble

(Sorry, again no YouTube here, but go support good record labels like Hyperion and buy the album if it’s something you feel you may like. I’ll be honest. There are some works that I’d purchase the entire album of just to give to someone to experience because the music is so outstanding, but this isn’t really one of those pieces for me… at least not yet.)

Herbert Norman Howells was born 17 October 1892 in Lydney, Gloucestershire, the youngest of six children of a plumber, builder and organ player in the local church. The young Herbert showed early talent as a child, even serving as deputy organist (to his father?) and choirboy.

Unfortunately, the family went bankrupt when Howells was only 12 years old, something that apparently was quite the embarrassment for a small boy in a large family in a small town, but someone took interest in the boy’s musical studies despite their financial conundrum and helped pay for his music lessons with Sir Herbert Brewer (who may not have been Sir at the time), himself an organist, and “he contributed a good deal to the Three Choirs Festival for 30 years,” conducting the premiere of Sibelius’s Luonnotar there in 1913, according to Wikipedia.

Anyway, it seems that it was through Brewer and attending the Three Choirs Festival that Howells was able to hear Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, which apparently made a huge impression on him. In 1912, Howells moved to London to begin studying at the Royal College of Music, where Brewer himself studied, and was taught by Charles Villiers Stanford, Sir Hubert Parry, and Charles Wood. Among his fellow students there were Arthur Bliss and Arthur Benjamin, neither of whom will get any more mention in this series than that. Sorry. Later on, when he joined the faculty of the RCM, his students, notably, included Robert Simpson and Gordon Jacob, both of whom we have discussed, and the first of whom we shall see more of at the end of this series, the main reason Howells was included in the first place.

Howells contracted Graves Disease in 1915 at 22 years old and was not suitable for military service. His health was obviously seriously affected, and he was told he had only 6 months to live. He was exhausted by constant trips between London and his hometown so his mother could care for him, but he ultimately went on to have a solid career as a composer. Despite that, his life was marked by a number of serious tragedies.

For one, a number of his friends died in the War from which he had been exempted (I think?). In 1935, on holiday, Howells’ 9-year-old son contracted polio and died three days later. This obviously was a huge blow to the family, and he “continued to commemorate the event until the end of his life,” says Wiki, citing Christopher Palmer, but that was a decade or more after this work had been completed.

Speaking of completed, there’s something to note about that. It seems today’s quartet, his third, was completed in 1916, but was lost. Palmer, in notes for the above-linked Hyperion release, says:

… the ‘official’ dates are 1916 for a lost early version, and 1923 for the new work. There is a little more to it than this: in fact the chronology of In Gloucestershire is involved enough to be something of a musicologist’s nightmare (or dream, depending on his temperament)…

But it doesn’t stop there. A second version of the 1916 work was also somehow lost, but was reconstructed by one of the composer’s students. There are then two more versions, saved or compiled or scrapped together from other parts here and there. Palmer says the second of these is “represented… by a score and set of (more or less) corresponding parts in the same collection. This, as far as we can ascertain, is the definitive version, and is here recorded for the first time,” and that the first actual performance of this (version of?) the work is uncertain.

In any case, go read his full program notes for some of the background on the work. Palmer goes on to discuss the pastoral nature of the work, but this is not in a diminutive or dismissive sense, as if it’s just a sketch of rolling hills and pretty trees. I feel this work describes or depicts not just the landscape, as maybe we heard in parts of Elgar’s cello concerto, but of the land itself, an account of the place and what it means to one of its inhabitants, as with RVW’s London Symphony a few days ago.

Now to the music. It’s in four movements, and plays for slightly over a half hour. Palmer says about the music itself:

The design of each movement is of the simplest: all the listener need specifically note is the new strong-featured theme which clinches the climax of the first movement, for this will again recur at climactic points in the third and fourth, grandly releasing the expressive tensions pent-up in the former and turning the entire work upon its heel in the latter.

For me, in the music, there’s a more obvious sense of introspection, a pensive nature to the work. This is not one that jumps out at you and shakes you by the soul, but rather kind of moves you, slowly but quietly, with a very powerful subtlety. You have only to listen to the aforementioned climax of the first movement, nothing  bombastic or tumultuous, but extremely powerful in its simplicity and poignance, which is the world in which this work works.

The second movement is marked “Fairly Quick, But Always Rhythmical”, and is clearly the scherzo of the piece, but is less than two minutes in length, and even it is a kind of whispered, soft energy, like the hushed bustle of a quiet, secluded town in some forest somewhere. It reaches a liveliness the first movement didn’t but largely due to its length, it feels at most like an interlude, albeit with some nervous overtones.

The third movement is marked “Slow In Pace, With Much Feeling.” Do we hear here the background of Howells’ musical upbringing, with rich harmonies, like we might get from an organ or a chorus? It’s music of perhaps the greatest intensity in the entire work, a slow movement, sure, but poignant, powerful, and passionate, full of intensity. It might be at this point in the work that I start to think I’m really hearing something magnificent unfold… The power and charm in this work isn’t as extroverted as many other works, like Smyth’s quintet, say, but something deeply inspired. Howells’ virtuosity as a composer isn’t one of overt flash and bombast, but an incredible touch indeed.

The finale gives us the only non-English marking to a movement, “Allegro Vivace. Assai Ritmico,” and that it is, but not throughout. This movement is more outright in its drive and energy, but even amid this excitement, we still have the moments of introspection that mark this work overall, and indeed, the work ends quietly.

The power, the intensity, the passion of this work is one that might take a little more dedicated listening than usual, not because it’s difficult to appreciate, but because it’s made up, to my ear, of much subtlety. It’s so easy to dig into pizza or fast food, good fried chicken, and enjoy it, because it’s kind of overt, outright deliciousness, a guilty pleasure even.

Howells’s string quartet, then, would be a dish with much more delicacy, hints of flavors, layers, balance, something you take your time eating, actually think about, process, instead of inhaling. Maybe that doesn’t make any sense, but it does to me. In any case, it’s a work that I am coming to appreciate more, but not one I am terribly passionate about yet. It certainly has a spirit to it that I am inclined to like, but it might take some more familiarity before I really begin to appreciate the value of this work to the full.

Again, I included Howells almost solely because he is listed as one of the only teachers of a composer who I’m very excited to write more about in the future, Robert Simpson. I have to say, Simpson has probably been the greatest discovery of the three and a half years of my writing this blog.

What I mean by discovery is something or someone new. In writing here, I’ve discovered so much; Beethoven is an example. Everyone knows of him, but to get around to familiarizing yourself with his works is something different. Robert Simpson was a discovery for me in the sense that I knew nothing of his work, his name, his very existence. He, like many other composers who we’ve discussed in the past few hundred articles, was not someone I was aware of until I did lots of reading and research, but he has stuck out as one of the most consistently enjoyable and fulfilling, so I thought it only appropriate that one of his teachers gets a mention here, and certainly, of course, Howells’ music is worthy of mention on its own merits.

That’s it for now, but we have a couple more names coming up this week that you  might be slightly more familiar with, or one of them at least, so do stay tuned. We’re getting to the very exciting part of the series, as we get past the First World War and toward the Second, a period that greatly affected Great Britain, and the rest of the world, and we can surely hear it in the music. See you soon.

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