A moment of Howells history

How the English composer's Cello Concerto is set to be performed for the first time ever in concert

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A moment of Howells history
Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
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On 9 July at Gloucester Cathedral, the world premiere concert performance of Herbert Howells’s Cello Concerto will be given by Guy Johnston and the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra, as part of the Cheltenham Music Festival. The Concerto was left unfinished at the English composer’s death in 1983, and has been completed by Howells scholar Jonathan Clinch. He tells us about the work…

 

When did Howells write his Cello Concerto?

He must have started it in 1933 as, in 1935, he talks about writing it a couple of years ago. He was writing it at quite an interesting stage in terms of how people thought about him as a composer. Many people think that Howells gave up composing for a while in 1925 when, after the premiere of his Second Piano Concerto, a chap stood up at the end of it and shouted ‘Thank God that’s over!’. Howells was very sensitive to criticism and he withdrew the work. However, it’s clear that he didn’t stop playing and composing.

 

Could we say that the Concerto comes from a particular phase in his composing life, then?

I think there were three periods of Howells’s life. The first one was when he was growing up and becoming successful, in the years coming up to 1925. Then we get a much bigger interest in Tudor music as shown in works such as Lambert’s Clavichord. He starts to experiment a lot before he becomes the acting director of music at St John’s College, Cambridge during the Second World War, at which point we get the third stage. The style of the Cello Concerto comes from his middle period.

 

It was, however, a work he left unfinished. How much of what people will hear at the premiere is Howells’s work, and how much is your completion of it?

The first movement was complete by 1935, and Howells revised the orchestration in order to submit it for his Oxford DMus in 1937. That is why we have a completed first movement. Then the second movement short score [a score without full orchestration] was finished immediately after the death of Howells’s son Michael in 1935. The final movement, which I orchestrated entirely, is based on Howells’s sketches. It is based on me analysing lots of other pieces of Howells and thinking, these sketches are going in this order. In those sketches, there are certain moments early on when he just writes the theme – there is no harmony or any other parts. So yes, there are certain moments where it’s his theme but it’s my counter-subject and it’s my harmony. But it’s all based on what’s in the other movements and also what’s in the sketches. It is only really the ending, when we get back into the final key of E, that is mine. But even that is based on several other pieces that follow a very similar form.

 

Is it a challenging work for the cello soloist?

I think it is very difficult. For starters, the first movement is about 17 minutes, and the cellist simply doesn't stop playing. Partly it’s stamina, but it’s also an awful lot of dissonant minor thirds and appoggiaturas. Certain motivic ideas are reworked and reworked which give this incredibly intense musical language.

 

In a nutshell, outline the character of the work…

You’ve got a very rhapsodic first movement. Then you’ve got a second movement where the tune is possibly the greatest piece of orchestral music that Howells wrote. There is one article in which he said just that – that he thought that the middle movement was one of his top pieces. And then you have a finale which, to be honest, comes as a hell of a shock. It is characterised by two chords, it’s very aggressive, it’s very fragmented and it’s not at all what you were expecting from the rest of the work. I think the finale provides a big wake up, because we’ve had a lot of very gentle rhapsodic music from the first movement. We’ve had a beautiful tune in the second movement, and then the third movement really hits you, as there is a lot of very aggressive music.

 

The Concerto has already been recorded on disc, but hearing it performed live will be a thrill, won’t it?

Yes, not least because of the involvement of the Royal College of Music, where Howells studied and then taught. Howells began at the RCM in the early 1920s and he didn’t retire until the end of the 1970s! He was a massive part of that institution.

 

To find out more about the Howells Cello Concerto premiere and to buy tickets, go to the Cheltenham Music Festival website.

 

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