Born in Lydney, Gloucestershire in 1892, Herbert Howells’ 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”. It is interesting that the man, who in many ways, set the tone for Cathedral music in the nineteenth century should be so closely linked with the man who set the tone for the twentieth.
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.
Much of Howells’ organ music enjoys popularity – the first set of Psalm Preludes and certain of the Six Pieces in particular are regularly heard. The second set of Psalm Preludes and the three Rhapsodies (op.17) are also familiar.
Howells has remained the quintessential English church composer of the twentieth century. The first set of psalm preludes was written between 1915-16 as three miniature tone poems which each comment on a particular verse from the Book of Psalms. The first of the set quotes Psalm 34, verse 6: "Lo the poor crieth and the Lord heareth him, yea and saveth him out of all his troubles."
Many of the features that came to characterise Howell's organ music can be seen here for the first time, but especially a clear architectural sweep from the still opening through the blazing and impassioned climax to the quietest of endings. The period when this work was written marked the first of several melancholic stages in the composer's life, when many of his friends were enduring the horrors of the First World War and something of this melancholy can be detected in this Psalm Prelude.