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Howells was not a 'double man' in the sense that made the Tallis Fantasia not only a rediscovery of England's past but also an expression of a contemporary dichotomy based on 'English' false relation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, while being also relevant to the then present. But although Howells wasn't a trail-blazer like Vaughan Williams, since he remained rooted in an Established Church founded on Merbecke's anglicization of plainchant and on the tradition of services and verse anthems that stretched unbroken from Tallis to Stanford and to Howells himself, he nonetheless had the discreet creative energy -- and also the innocence of spirit -- necessary to sunder the bonds of ecclesiastical convention. This he memorably did in his choral and orchestral masterpiece, Hymnus Paradisi, triggered by the unexpected death of his nine-year-old only son: a work on which Howells worked for a long time, finishing it in 1938, but withholding it from performance until the Three Choirs Festival of 1950. Taking its texts in Latin from the Vulgate of the Psalms and the Missa pro Defunctis, and in English from the 1622 Book of Common Prayer and the Salisbury Diurnal, the work justifies Howells's claim that it transmutes personal loss into a vision of peace that counters, though it cannot entirely resolve, 'the transient griefs and indestructible hopes of mankind'. Its idiom -- garnering something from late Elgar's command of the vast paragraph, more from the chromatic harmonic opulence of Delius in his grandest utterance, his (pagan) Mass of Life, and most from Vaughan Williams's free modalism and quasi-sixteenth century polyphony -- tells us something about the durability of England's Anglican tradition: unexpected in range, open in potentiality to embrace experience, even the loss of a beloved son.

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Copyright © 17 November 2002 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK


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