2015-03-22 Notes from the Bench

“Mass in the Dorian Mode” by Herbert Howells

A commentary on this week’s music by Dr. James T. Gerber, Music Associate


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 composed Mass in the Dorian Mode in 1912 in a modal-polyphonic style, reminiscent of the works written during the Renaissance era. He used a simple harmonic language with finely tuned vocal lines to produce a translucent sound ideally suited to the liturgy. This work is very different from the lush, late-romantic styled music normally associated with Howells’s compositions.





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 throughout the rest of his life. His daughter, Ursula, suggested that he channel his grief into his compositions; the works composed after Michael’s death reflect Howell’s personal emotions and experiences with tragedy.

In 1912, Stanford asked Howells to assist Dr. Richard Terry, organist at Westminster Cathedral (Roman Catholic) in London, in his project to re-introduce music composed by the English masters of the sixteenth century into the repertoire of the cathedral choir. Howells composed nine choral works intended for use during in the Catholic liturgy, all dedicated to Terry; “Mass in the Dorian Mode” being the first and the most significant of these works. Howells said in his old age, “all through my life I’ve had this strange feeling that I belonged somehow to the Tudor period.”

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