Sir Herbert Howells (1892–1983) was part of the remarkable generation of twentieth-century English composers, heirs to Elgar and Delius, which included Peter Warlock, William Walton, and Gerald Finzi, and counted among its elder brothers Holst and Vaughan Williams. Howells’ velvety and unconventional harmonies and modally-inflected melodies lend his music a texture which also echoes the Impressionists, but he sent down his deepest compositional roots in English folksong and in the music of the Tudor church (indeed, Vaughan Williams once quipped affectionately that Sir Herbert surely was ‘a reincarnation of one of the lesser Tudor luminaries’). English composers of Howells’ generation were profoundly affected by the rediscovery of their Tudor heritage; to many of them, recoiling from the overworked vocabulary of Victorian Romanticism, the music of the English Renaissance came as a liberating revelation, one reinforced and refreshed by the concurrent folksong revival. During his studies with Stanford and Charles Wood at the Royal Conservatory of Music (beginning in 1912) and his assistantship to Sir Richard Terry at London’s new Roman Catholic Westminster Cathedral, Howells imbibed the best of what the revitalization of English music had to offer; during his subsequent tenure as professor at the RCM (from 1920 on), at St. Paul’s Girls’ School (1936–62, as successor to Holst), and at the University of London (appointed ‘King Edward VII Professor of Music’ in 1953), he had ample opportunity to transmit these riches to subsequent generations of composers. He was made Commander of the British Empire in 1953 and a Companion of Honour in 1972 by Queen Elizabeth II.
Although he also wrote chamber and orchestral works, Howells is most renowned for his contributions to Anglican liturgical music, of which he is the principal 20th-century composer; in the words of one biographer, he “created a limited but intense sound-world that has proved a durable mirror of both the restraint and the exultation of the Anglican experience.” Despite his identification with this music, he — like Vaughan Williams — kept a personal distance from the sacred music he composed (‘I am not a religious man any more than Ralph was,’ he once said). His Requiem was composed for painfully personal reasons: the sudden death of his only son, Michael, from spinal meningitis in 1935. This tragedy impelled the composer to seek solace in language and music of the most personal nature; he finished his memorial to his son in 1936, but considered it such a private statement that he suppressed it until nearly at the end of his life, only publishing it for performance in 1981. In the course of the work’s six movements — a series of texts assembled by the composer from the Bible, the Sarum (pre-Reformation English) liturgy, and the Book of Common Prayer — Howells guides us through an atlas of mourning, through music tender and poignant to innocent and folksong-like, from opulent and rhapsodic to luminous and atmospheric, until we finally come to a place where, in his words, “personal grief, itself spent, is merged and lost in the general pervasive light and warmth of consolation.”
Howells wrote his rather hermetic Missa Aedis Christi (‘Mass for the Temple of Christ’) in 1958 for the choir of Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, at a time when his stature as a composer of sacred music was growing dramatically. The present recording presents the movements in the standard Catholic order (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, Agnus Dei), but the original order follows the 1662 Book of Common Prayer service of Holy Communion, which places the Gloria at the end of the liturgy; also, to provide the fullest sense of this strangely beautiful work, the Quire has recorded both the three-fold and the nine-fold Kyrie settings Howells provided. The work, a showcase of Howell’s mature mastery of texture, line, and tenderly bittersweet harmonies, was premiered at Oxford in 1962 under the direction of Dr. Sydney Watson.
Quire of Voyces assistant director and conductor-in-residence Dr. Michael Eglin (b. 1975), originally from Niagara Falls, New York, earned his Bachelor of Music degrees in piano and composition from the State University of New York, Fredonia before obtaining a PhD in composition with William Kraft and Joel Feigin at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2009. Active as a conductor and singer as well as a composer, Eglin presently teaches at Santa Barbara City College, serves as Director of Music and Organist at El Montecito Presbyterian Church, and is former Artistic Director of the men’s vocal octet, Adelfos Ensemble.
Eglin’s five-movement Missa Maria for four-part divisi chorus and soprano and tenor soloists, written for Nathan Kreitzer and the Santa Barbara Quire of Voyces, was completed in 2008. Although titled a ‘mass,’ it does not entirely follow the conventional plan of texts for the Catholic Eucharist. Eglin omits the Credo (as one would see with a missa brevis or ‘short mass’), substituting a setting of the Ave Maria, the most popular of all Marian prayers and the central prayer of the rosary devotions. The first part of this prayer joins two scriptural passages (the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary with the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth) in a formulation dating back to the fourth century. The second, intercessory part, arose in the 15th century, and the complete prayer was made an official part of Roman Catholic usage in the reformed Breviary of 1568.
In another departure from standard procedure, Eglin has chosen to augment his Kyrie text with Latin verses. Since the time of the Catholic reforms of the 16th century Council of Trent we are only familiar with ‘unadorned’ Kyries, but prior to that point there was widespread use of so-called ‘Latin Kyries,’ which interleaved the original Greek “Kyrie [or Christe] eleison” with Latin verses, often specific to a particular feast day, or expounding on the Persons of the Trinity. For the Missa Maria, Eglin has chosen the “Auctor caelorum” Kyrie verses from the south Italian usage, composed around 1000 AD at the Monastery of Santa Sofia, Benevento. The verses function as an exegetical elaboration of the simple Kyrie–Christe–Kyrie pattern as the Father–Son–Holy Spirit of the Trinity. To begin, the verses are given mostly to the soloists, but as the texts build in intensity they come to permeate the entire choral texture.
Eglin’s musical language is harmonically rich, and his writing finds a satisfying balance between chordal lushness and intriguing counterpoint. As many of the movements are based on Gregorian chant melodies, he drew especial inspiration from the approach of Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986) — particularly the latter’s Quatre Motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, which include the well-loved “Ubi caritas”— in refashioning ancient linear material in a contemporary polyphonic setting.
© Temmo Korisheli, 2009