Herbert Howells: Elegy


Herbert Norman Howells was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire on 17th October 1892. After beginning to learn piano and organ at home with his parents, Howells continued his musical studies at the prestigious Royal College of Music, London. Here, Howells studied under the likes of Hubert Parry and Charles Wood alongside other young British composers such as Arthur Bliss and Arthur Benjamin. 

By 1920 Howells began teaching at the RCM, as well as being appointed Director of music at St Paul’s Girls’ School in 1936. His final day of teaching at the RCM was on 12th July 1979 – after 59 years of teaching at the college. The following year Howells was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the RCM to commemorate his services to music. Howells died on the 23rd February 1983 at the grand age of 90, which drew his incredible 60-year composing career. 

Howells’ compositional output spans many genres and includes a number of works for voice, strings and piano, however he is perhaps most remembered for his organ and sacred choral music. His choral works are performed often around the world, with his orchestral and choral work Hymnus Paradisi being particularly well-received in concert halls.



Elegy, for viola, string quartet & string orchestra

Elegy was composed in 1917 and is scored for solo viola, string quartet and string orchestra. Modelled on Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Howell’s Elegy was composed as a personal tribute to a fellow student at the RCM, who was tragically killed in the First World War. The work serves as an early indicator to Howell’s later memorial works, and was a gateway to some of his more complex chamber works.

The genesis of Elegy comes from an unpublished three-movement work Suite for String Orchestra that Howells composed around the year 1917. The slow middle movement was taken out of this work and transformed into what we know now as Elegy. The premiere took place at the RCM, with Charles Villiers Stanford conducting. The work was popular and was performed around the country, especially around London. Gerald Finzi was particularly fond of Elegy and commended it on its workmanship. The early popularity of the work was evidently important to Howells as it confirmed his skill set and determination to become a composer full time. 

The Music

Elegy begins with the solo viola oscillating around a G. This sensitive opening paves the way for nearly all the motivic material in the work. The motif is then imitated by the orchestra with full harmonisation, highlighting the development of the motif. The basis of this theme is moving in thirds, which is then kept as the underlying constant throughout the work. This technique is very Vaughan Williams-esque, with his works The Lark Ascending and Phantasy Quartet using similar orchestration ideas. This further cements the fact that Howells took much inspiration from his British contemporaries. 

Howells constant adapting and developing of texture is one of the highlights of Elegy. From the distant solo opening, to using a full string orchestra and quartet, who are also split in parts to create even denser harmony, the texture is an ever-developing factor throughout the work. Howells’ use of solo and full tutti passages also support this idea. Using the string quartet Howells is able to create a much smaller sound due to having less players. By adding a soloist this creates scope for much more dynamic melodic lines. The string orchestra then add to the drama of the work by utilising Howells’ quintessentially British harmonic language and adding a depth of sound that supports the woody timbre of the viola. 

The melancholic atmosphere carries throughout the work, with a few snapshots of hope developing through major-minor harmonising in the accompanying strings. The lower tone of the viola adds to this feeling of melancholy, with its moody timbre and slow tempo throughout. Howells also supports this atmosphere by his use of modal harmonisation, notably his use of the Phrygian mode. The use of modes was highly popular amongst British composers of the time, especially those who were contemporaries of Howells. 

Final Thoughts

Elegy is a quintessential British work that foreshadowed Howells’ later musical output. Its solemn atmosphere represents the tribute to Howells’ friend who died in the war. The work was very personal to the composer, and became one of his most beloved works. Howells’ decision to use a string quartet, full string orchestra and a solo viola shows his willingness to experiment with various structures and timbres, which then feeds into the manipulation and delivery of melodies, modes and tonal harmony. Although the work offers a lot, it is seldom heard in today’s concert halls – a real shame indeed. 

Ⓒ Alex Burns 2020

Happy Reading!

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