Herbert Howells' (1892-1983) contribution to the twentieth century organ repertoire is one of the most significant of any British composer. He was Herbert Brewer’s articled pupil at Gloucester Cathedral for two years before taking up a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1912. There he studied with, among others, Stanford, who described the young Howells as his “son in music”. Howells’ career as an organist was brief: he was forced by ill health to quit the post of sub-organist at Salisbury Cathedral in 1917. He later deputised for a conscripted Robin Orr at St. John’s College, Cambridge between 1941 and 1945.
He has remained the quintessential English church composer of the twentieth century.
Howells started work on the "Six Pieces" in 1939, the set eventually being completed after the Second World War and dedicated to Herbert Sumsion, then the organist of Gloucester Cathedral.
"Preludio 'Sine nomine'" is the first of the set, and was written in 1940. It tends to get less play than some other pieces by Howells that are "louder," but it is a fine piece, showing the immediately recognizable musical fingerprints of the composer.
In the key of F# minor, there is a combination of the modern and the archaic in the work. Touches of the delicacy of an English clavichord are present, as well as a wonderfully lush "chorale-section" in the center, where Howells calls for the strings of the Swell. In this performance, I've coupled the fabulous strings of the Solo to those of the Swell, leaving the swell box essentially open, and letting the solo box provide the expression. The effect is magical.
The final hushed chords personify the word "atmospheric."
The Six Pieces are a remarkable set. Written between 1940 and 1945 they naturally reflect the anxieties of war-time, but there is both a profound Englishness and confidence in God to be found in them.
Several photos of Howells, of Herbert Sumsion, the dedicatee, and of Gloucester Cathedral are attached below.