Herbert Howells: Rhapsodic Quintet 

The Music

Rhapsodic Quintet sketches date back to 1919, just after World War I. A landmark work for British chamber music, the quintet acts as a timestamp of times gone by, vividly creating its own epoch for the listener to delve into. Set into one flowing movement, Rhapsodic Quintet is scored for string quartet and clarinet. The clarinet takes the leading role throughout the piece, as well as adding a luscious woody tone to the music. 

Although it may sound like Howells has jotted down a series of beautiful melodies in succession, the piece is actually very organised in its structure. There are two main themes which are explored in the two halves of the piece. The first, a rich and sonorous string-led theme that grows into swells of climaxes throughout the first half of the quintet thanks to the clarinet’s virtuosic lines. The second, a tranquil theme that takes the music in a new direction.

Each new section of the piece is determined by a new mood within the ensemble, with highly lyrical, muted phrases being sandwiched between more energetic material. Howells himself described the quintet as conveying a ‘mystic quality’, which can certainly be heard in the passionate lyrical melodies led by the clarinet. The second theme very much encompasses this idea, with the tranquil atmosphere seeping into the slowly developing melodies. By the end of the quintet the tempo has slowed dramatically, with the final bars turning to a breathtakingly beautiful serene farewell to the world we once knew. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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