by Maks Adach
All through Oriel Arts Week 2015, we’re providing a daily shot of musical inspiration to set you off to a good start! Make sure you come back daily for your music recommendation & explanation provided by Oriel College Music Society members.
A family of four from Barnes are enjoying a short trip to Gloucestershire; looking at churches, enjoying countryside walks etc. The son, a nine year old boy named Michael, enjoys a swim in a stream. Twenty-four hours later, he is black and blue, gasping for air in his father’s arms on an express train to London – he had contracted Polio. When the family arrived in London, it transpired that there was only one iron lung in the city, a whole three miles away from St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. It was here that on the 9th September 1935, when the family and doctors were deliberating the course of action, Michael died.
The boy was the son of Herbert Howells, a Professor in Composition at the Royal College of Music and highly respected composer who counted Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst as close colleagues. The death of his beloved son plunged Howells into both mourning and a compositional drought that lasted the length of the Second World War. From this torturous episode in his life, Howells managed to find a great deal of inspiration for composition – indeed, a great deal Howells’ sacred music (he is now chiefly remembered for his Church Music) is inspired by or dedicated to the memory of his son. The hymn-tune for All my hope in God is founded is called ‘Michael’, the ‘Sequence for St Michael’ and the anthem written in memory of JFK in 1963, Take him Earth for Cherishing, are all examples of Howells’ musical response to his son’s death.
If one of the myriad works dedicated to his son’s memory can be singled out as a musical gravestone, it would be the Hymnus Paradisi – The Hymn of Paradise. Although the earliest sketches for the work date from week after Michael’s death in 1935 and was, most probably, complete by 1938, it remained in Howells’ desk draw for a decade – symbolic of the deeply personal nature of the work. He showed it to both Herbert Sumsion (The Organist of Gloucester Cathedral) and the composer Gerald Finzi, who insisted he run it past Vaughan Williams. The work was premiered in Gloucester Cathedral during the 1950 Three Choirs Festival.
Half-requiem and half-cantata, the work is scored for a large chorus, symphony orchestra and a pair of soloists – one tenor, one soprano. The Hymnus Paradisi sets texts from the Latin Requiem Mass alongside texts from the Book of Common Prayer and GH Palmer’s translation of the Sarum Diurnal. The result is an insight into the paradise that Howells hoped, and possibly believed, his son was now occupying. Howells was not a man with a conventional, Christian faith – it is believed that he was an agnostic who hoped for the existence of the Christian God. The choosing of the texts was a long process, and a flick through his compositional sketches shows that he spent years finalising the choice of texts. For example, the original first movement – Hymnus Circa Exsequias Defuncti – was jettisoned after about a month. The text, a piece of Latin poetry by Prudentius, does not get used again until 1963.
Textually and indeed musically, the over-arching mood of the work is one of hope. For example, in the fourth movement the splendour of the Heavenly Liturgy as seen by the Prophet Isaiah in a vision (Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus etc.) is juxtaposed with Psalm 121 (‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help…’). The last movement sets the translation of a medieval English text, a meditation on how those who endure hardship and suffering in this life, are warmed by the light of God and assured a Salvation through faith in Christ:
Holy is the true light and passing wonderful, lending radiance to them that endured in the heat of the conflict: from Christ they inherit a home of unfading splendour, wherein they rejoice with gladness evermore. Alleluia.
Listening to the Hymnus Paradisi will take about 40 minutes out of your day. I have embedded a YouTube link to a performance of the work at the Proms in 2012. If you haven’t got enough time to do this, fast forward to 21.55 (IV – Sanctus) and 37.10 (VI – Holy is the True Light), though I recommend you listen to the whole thing – only then does the incredible epilogue that is ‘Holy is the True Light’ truly blaze…
Keep following The Poor Print for your daily shot of music recommendation! Provided for you by Oriel College Music Society!