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At a price of £50 this volume of course marks itself off as something of a specialist publication. In that regard it represents a highly welcome scholastic overview of broad swathes of the Howells output, extending far beyond the church music which came to dominate his work from the time of the second world war.

Thirteen Howells authorities contribute in all, among them such luminaries as the composer’s biographer Paul Spicer and such passionate advocates for British music as Jeremy Dibble, Lionel Pike and the ubiquitous Lewis Foreman. For the most part this is fibrous stuff, garlanded with detailed analysis and many a musical example. But overall a narrative comes through, not least in American musician/writer Byron Adams’s haunting account of the impact on Howells of the death of his young son, Michael – while placing the tragedy in the context of other brushes with death in the composer’s life.

The range of musical material covered embraces everything from the inevitable choral and organ music to the still far too under-explored corpus of songs and a string of chamber works. At a time when we’ve been considering the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, Lionel Pike’s exploration of the breathtaking motet Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, written for Kennedy’s memorial service, was especially welcome. Among the eye-opening dimensions is a fascinating chapter from Graham Barber on the place of the saraband in Howells’s output.

Hopefully The Music of Herbert Howells will go some way towards rescuing the composer from the taint of the ghetto – whether via that church music identification or simply the broader ‘British music’ label. We’re reminded of just how ambitious Howells was to swim with the international musical mainstream in the earlier years of the 20th century. Above all, this collection of essays emphasises purely and simply what a sophisticated and accomplished composer he was – headed up by a cameo of a foreword in which Howells enthusiast John Rutter expertly and engagingly sets the scene.

ANDREW GREEN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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