Dorothy Howell: Lamia


Fresh out of the Royal Academy of Music aged 21, Dorothy Howell achieved her biggest fame with the symphonic poem, Lamia. Based on the Keats poem of the same name, the work was premiered by Sir Henry Wood at The Proms on 10th September 1919, and then again later that same week. Wood programmed Lamia in another six Proms seasons, the latest being 1940. After this point, the work was largely forgotten until it was reintroduced to the Proms stage in 2010. Howell dedicated the published score in 1921 to Wood. The most recent Proms performance of Lamia happened in 2019, when a centenary performance was given.


The Music

Lamia took audiences and press by storm in 1919, and considering this was Howell’s first big orchestral work, it is a fantastic way to kickstart a career as a composer. Full of wonderfully English pastoral sounds, big dramatic lyrical lines and an orchestra bigger than the stage it needs, Lamia offers listeners an exciting tour of Howells’ pen. Keats’ poem is about a snake that transforms into a woman, who then falls in love with Lycius, but their relationship is ultimately doomed. During the wedding scene, she is recognised, and is forever turned back to her original form, never to find last love again. 

The ebb and flow throughout Lamia is resonant of this story, with the bold brass lines accentuating the intensity of the story and revelation at the end. Howell writes beautiful lyrical themes that are often initially assigned to a soloist and then is played by the ensemble. For instance, a central oboe solo builds the story about falling in love, with a minor version played by the strings later on showing the impending doom of the story. Howell writes with such style and class, with no stone left unturned within the orchestra. At the time of the premiere lots of critics wrote about her bold use of brass, which dominates sections of Lamia. Her daring style and talented ear for detail makes the piece one in a million.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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