2013-03-03 Notes from the Bench

“Like as the Hart Desireth the Waterbrooks” by Herbert Howells
A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James Gerber, Music Associate

“Like as the Hart Desireth the Waterbrooks” was written in January, 1941 and is one of four anthems originally titled “In Time of War,” but now simply known as “Four Anthems.” “O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem,” which was sung last week, is also one of the anthems from this set. These anthems were composed while London was under German air assault during World War II and many residents were confined to their homes or bomb shelters.

“Like as the Hart” is based on Psalm 42: 1-3, and is among his best-known church anthems and part of the standard Anglican choral repertoire. The lyrical melodies and quiet intensity contribute to the beautiful and rhapsodic qualities of this anthem that is enduring and mysteriously foreboding. Herbert Howell’s music engages our human emotions, our questions, our doubts and allows us to experience the feelings of ambiguity, longing distress, and anguish that convey the meaning of the text.

The English composer, organist and teacher, Herbert Norman Howells (1892-1983), is famous for his large output of Anglican church music that include anthems and Anglican service music such as Communion and Evensong settings. In additional to his many choral works, Howells wrote music for orchestra, chamber ensemble, organ and piano. Howells was born in Lydney, Gloucerstershire. His father, Oliver Howells, was an amateur organist who played for a local Baptist church. At an early age, Herbert demonstrated promise as a musician and expressed interest in composition; he began playing the organ and periodically substituted for his father. At 11 years old, he sang as a choirboy for a local Anglican Church and assumed the duties of a deputy organist on an unofficial basis. He continued his organ studies with Herbert Brewer who was the organist of Gloucester Cathedral at that time. In 1912, he was accepted as a student of the Royal College of Music in London where he studied with Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Parry and Charles Wood.

In 1920, Howells joined the staff of the Royal College of Music where he taught composition and remained there until 1979. In addition to his duties at the RCM, he was active as a competition adjudicator, the Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, and served as acting organist of St. John’s College, Cambridge from 1941 to 1945. King Edward VII appointed Howells a Professor of Music at London University in 1950. During his lifetime, Howells received a number of academic awards and honorary appointments including an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge, Companion of Honour, Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), and Collard Life Fellowship (Worshipful Company of Musicians). He died in London at the age of 90.

During his lifetime, Howells faced a number of personal tragedies that affected his compositions. In 1915, he was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, and autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid. His poor health spared him from military duty during World War I and ironically the fate many men of his generation suffered. During his illness, Howells received experimental radium treatments which ultimately saved his life. The sudden death of his son, Michael, in 1935 affected Howells deeply, which he commemorated through the rest of his life. His daughter, Ursula, suggested that he channel his grief into his compositions; the works composed after Michael’s death reflects Howell’s personal emotions and experiences with tragedy.

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