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Alongside this exotic offering I'd like to draw attention to a CD that has a comparable magic, though it is as insularly and politely English as the Mexican music is apparently remote from, if not really alien to, us. Born in Gloucestershire, Herbert Howells had a rural background. Although he was not actively involved in the rediscovery of English folksong, it coloured his imagination, enabling him to resist the Brahmsian Teutonicism favoured by his teacher at the Royal College of Music, Stanford. As a student Howells composed chamber music characterised by a calm lyricism and elegiac gravity that amount to a personal voice, despite his respectful subservience to the three major British composers who reanimated our music in the first decade of the twentieth century: Elgar in the valedictory mood of his last years, Delius in his fusion of 'innocent' pentatonic melody with 'experienced' (and nostalgic) chromatic luxuriance, and Vaughan Williams in his multi-modal blend of earthy toughness and airy mysticism. Howells was more conservative than his three great predecessors in that he became a composing servant of the Anglican Church, for the rites of which he produced many services and verse anthems. At the same time he understood why the central figure in the Anglican tradition was the agnostic Vaughan Williams, admitting that it was the sense of the numinous, if not unsullied faith, revealed in VW's Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis that, on its first performance in 1910 in Howells's beloved Gloucester Cathedral, sealed his decision to become a professional composer.

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Copyright © 17 November 2002 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK


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