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12 - Austerity, Difficulty and Retrospection: The Late Style of Herbert Howells

from PART IV - Howells the Modern

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 December 2013

Phillip A. Cooke
Affiliation:
Lecturer in Composition at the University of Aberdeen
David Maw
Affiliation:
Tutor and Research Fellow in Music at Oriel College, Oxford, holding Lectureships also at Christ Church, The Queen's and Trinity Colleges
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Summary

Herbert Howells's setting of the Stabat mater (HH 309) of 1965 is rightly held up as his masterpiece, the culmination of all that he had been striving for in his compositional career, a work that not only defined his mature musical language but also represented a composer at the height of his artistic powers, comfortable with his highly wrought and idiosyncratic idiom. It was a piece that would cast a shadow on all Howells's work both during and after its composition, and its place is as important in the composer's oeuvre as the early chamber music successes or the triumph of Hymnus paradisi (HH 220). However, if we view the Stabat mater as being the zenith of Howells's career, how do we then view the works that followed? For Howells continued to compose regularly for another thirteen years and composed in excess of forty works. It is easy to view these final works as being a somewhat irrelevant addition to his legacy, lacking the burning intensity of the Stabat mater, dealing mainly with smaller-scale genres and invariably being written for cathedrals, Oxbridge colleges and various luminaries. The difficulty, austerity and modernity of these final works has led to few performances, which only emphasises the perceived irrelevance of these pieces and the composer's slow, autumnal coda.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2013

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