On completing Herbert Howells's Cello Concerto

Jonathan ClinchWed 4th March 2015

A fascinating project to complete a work that Howells regarded as among his finest

My interest in Herbert Howells started, like most people, with his church music. Anthems such as Like as the hart and the frequently performed Collegium Regale settings for King's Cambridge appealed to me as much for their satisfying use of form, as for their overt sensuousness. I got a real shock when I then came to Richard Hickox's fabulous recording on Chandos of the two piano concertos with Howard Shelley and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Here was a Howells that I didn't know and who seemed to be as comfortable in the concert hall as the cathedral.

Professor Jeremy Dibble at Durham University was very keen for me to pursue my interests in the 'other' Howells for a PhD and it was then that I started to analyse other orchestral works such as the Concerto for String Orchestra, the Pastoral Rhapsody and the Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra. I enjoyed the Fantasia in particular. Howells wrote it in the 1930s as part of a projected Cello Concerto, sketching two further movements around the same time. He finished the first movement in short score and then orchestrated it in order to submit it for the degree of DMus at Oxford University in 1937. Oxford's regulations required the title 'Fantasia' and Howells passed. 

The death of his nine-year-old son, Michael, in 1935 came as great shock and it was his daughter Ursula who suggested her father return to composition as a means of coming to terms with his grief. The Cello Concerto was the first work he came to and, alongside his masterpiece Hymnus Paradisi, it became what Howells referred to as 'medical document'. He completed the second movement in short score and continued to write sketches for the finale for the rest of his life, often around the anniversary of Michael's death. Several people asked him about the concerto, including his godson Julian Lloyd Webber, but he never finished it. Possibly because he didn't want to, it was too personal.

Christopher Palmer orchestrated the second movement for Howells's centenary in 1992 and it was performed in Westminster Abbey, where Howells's ashes are buried alongside those of Stanford (his teacher) and Vaughan Williams (the composer who influenced Howells most). Palmer gave the movement the title 'Threnody'. Despite never releasing it, Howells regarded the movement as one of his finest. 

When I came to study the movements in 2010 I was intrigued by Palmer's comments that 'the last movement is no more than a collection of random sketches and jottings'. As I began to study the sketches I was particularly struck by the quantity of material (34 pages in total) and the contrast it provides to the other two movements. Like most music undergraduates, I'd spent a lot of time writing music in the style of other composers, from Bach chorales and Schubert Lieder through to Hindemith fugues and even some Messiaen-esque organ pieces. Having analysed so many of Howells's works for my PhD and spent a lot of time looking his manuscripts and how he went about composing, I felt that I should at least attempt a score. The chance to hear what the finished concerto might have sounded like as a whole seemed an extremely interesting ‘what if?’

After a few months of working on the sketches I realised that the page numbering (that had been subsequently added) was incorrect, which allowed me to reorder them, giving 24 pages of continuous music in short score (often just outlined). The other 10 pages demonstrated Howells's ‘working’, including the reworking of several ideas from the initial 24 pages. From this I created a single edition of the material, incorporating his later changes and adding an ending based on the earlier material in a manner which matches Howells’s form in several other works. I also ‘filled out’ the bars in the earlier sketches where he left only a single part (without harmony) in order to indicate his intensions. Finally I orchestrated the movement to match the forces of the preceding two, particularly noting Howells’s own orchestration of similar material in the Fantasia. I then went through a series of drafts and sought out advice from various people including John Rutter, Robert Saxton, Anthony Payne, Christopher Robinson, Julian Lloyd Webber and Jeremy Dibble. Eventually I had a score which I felt honoured Howells’s original intentions closely. We'll never know what he actually would have done, but I think my score gives a very interesting glimpse.

The first recording of Howells's Cello Concerto as completed by Jonathan Clinch has been recorded by cellist Alice Neary with the Royal Scottish National Orchsetra and Ronald Corp on the Dutton label. Buy from Amazon

Jonathan Clinch

Jonathan Clinch teaches at Birmingham and Oxford Universities and is active as both an academic and organist. His research focuses on 20th-century British music and he is currently writing on the links between TS Eliot and musical modernism.

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