The composer and teacher Herbert Howells (1892-1983) is to be commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at 3 Beverley Close, Barnes, SW13, his home from 1946 until a few weeks before his death. The plaque will be unveiled at 2pm on the 14th January 2011 by Canon Richard Ames-Lewis, former Rector of St Mary’s Church, Barnes.
Considered by many to be the last of the great English Romantic composers, Howells composed works that were recognisably English. His canticle settings, anthems and motets are amongst the greatest contributions to Anglican church music of the twentieth century. At home and abroad he was well loved. The Times named him ‘the most distinguished of composers for the Anglican Liturgy’ and he was especially revered in the USA, for his 1964 work in memory of the assassinated President, Motet on the Death of President Kennedy.
Born in the country town of Lydney in Gloucestershire, Herbert Howells was the youngest of eight children of a painter and decorator. He was deeply affected by his father‘s bankruptcy in 1905, and as a consequence worried about money for the rest of his life. In 1909 Howells went to study as an articled pupil to the organist at Gloucester Cathedral alongside fellow students Ivor Gurney and Ivor Novello. It was here that he heard the very first performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis in 1910; he was profoundly influenced by the experience. In 1912 Howells won an Open Scholarship in Composition to the Royal College of Music, where he studied until 1917, notably under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, his greatest and most significant teacher. The first public performance of a work by Howells took place shortly after his arrival at the RCM in 1912, when his Mass in the Dorian Mode was sung at Westminster Cathedral.
In 1916 Howells became seriously ill and was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease. Unable to carry out his duties as assistant organist at Salisbury Cathedral, he instead worked at Westminster Cathedral editing Tudor church music. His health was much improved by 1920, when he joined the teaching staff of the Royal College of Music and married Dorothy Dawe. The couple had two children – Ursula, born in 1921 and later to become a distinguished actress, and Michael, born in 1926, who died tragically young in 1935 of polio. Grief-stricken, Howells began writing a requiem, Hymnus paradisi, in memory of his son; completed in 1938, this highly personal work was not performed until 1950 and is now acknowledged to be his masterpiece.
In 1936 Howells succeeded Gustav Holst as Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith, where he remained until 1962. During the Second World War, he spent time in Cambridge as acting organist of St John's College. This return to regular performance in chapel inspired him to compose a series of canticle settings for the Anglican liturgy, which included the Collegium Regale (1945) for King’s College, Cambridge, the Gloucester service (1946) and the service for St Paul's Cathedral (1951). In addition to his teaching duties, Howells lectured as King Edward VII Professor of Music at the University of London from 1950 to 1964. During these years, he wrote two large-scale works for choir and orchestra, Missa Sabrinensis (1954) and Stabat Mater (1965). Awarded the CBE in 1953, Howells received many honorary degrees and was appointed Companion of Honour in 1972
When widowed in 1972, Howells struggled with the ‘irksome experiment in finding a new type of existence now there is no Dorothy and only an occasional sight of Ursula’. He continued to teach composition at the Royal College of Music almost to the end of his life. Howells’ last public appearance was in October 1982 at the gala concert held at the Royal Festival Hall to celebrate his ninetieth birthday. He died on 23rd February 1983 at the Cintra Nursing Home, 7 Gwendolen Avenue, Putney, where he spent the last few weeks of his life.
Hon Secretary of the Herbert Howells Society Andrew Millinger said: “Herbert Howells was one of England’s greatest twentieth century composers and we are so pleased his life has been commemorated with this blue plaque. His music had a profound effect on people and for the place he lived to be marked in this way will hopefully mean his music continues to move people for generations to come.”
English Heritage blue plaque historian Susan Skedd said: “In composing some of the finest settings of the Anglican liturgy, Herbert Howells was always mindful of the architecture and atmosphere of the building in which his music would be performed, whether it be King's College Chapel, Cambridge or his beloved Gloucester Cathedral. Many of his best-loved works were written while he was living at 3 Beverley Close, Barnes, and it seems very fitting that his long association with Barnes is being marked by the blue plaque on his former home.”
Howells is known principally for his church music, although the last forty years have seen a growing appreciation of his songs, chamber music and orchestral works. In the years after his death, the tireless efforts of his daughter Ursula and the Herbert Howells Society (which she established in 1987) helped to promote his work to a wider public and gave financial support towards recordings of his compositions. Today the Herbert Howells Trust, administered by St John’s College, Cambridge, works in association with the Herbert Howells Society to support performances, recording, research and publication associated with Howells’s work.