In its mysterious and brooding textures, something about Herbert Howell’s ‘Paean’ resonated immediately with me when I first heard it in 2013. I had played ‘Pageantry’ and knew of ‘Three Figures’, two staple works within the brass band repertoire. I was curious to learn more about one of of England’s great 20th century composers, and discover more of his music, perhaps to even introduce more of it to my fellow brass musicians. Now in 2019, a ‘brand new’ Howells work is being presented to the brass band community.
I suppose it was inescapable that this music would connect so deeply to me. I have partly followed in a path trodden by Herbert Howells, though almost a century apart and in differing times. We had both grown up the shadow of Gloucester Cathedral, with roots in the Forest of Dean. His father, Oliver Howells was a builder and decorator in Lydney, and might have known the Walkleys, who were also running a haulier and coach business in Cinderford around that time. The church at Twigworth, where Herbert married and later buried his wife and son Michael, I passed almost daily on the route to school. Later, I followed his path to London. His ashes are interred in Westminster Cathedral, where I have played many a fanfare during my time with the Guards.
I knew at first hearing that ‘Paean’ was a piece I wished to play myself, and something to transcribe for the ‘ædelfrith’ brass ensemble. I immediately went searching in the organ music section of the Royal Academy of Music library, and retrieved a dusty copy of ‘Six pieces for Organ’. Soon, after I was well into the first draft of a virtuoso 10 piece brass version. Later that year, the only 10 piece concert given by ædelfrith brass ensemble would feature the premiere of the arrangement in St Martin in the Fields, London.
It was a hefty work for 10 players, especially without conductor! A torturous experience for the musicians perhaps, though the music itself was loved. I shelved the idea, thinking that if I ever return to the brass band world it might be be less of a strain for 28 musicians and conductor.
In 2018, the opportunity came to return to that idea. After discussion with Trond Husebø, we agreed it would be a great feature for Manger Musikklag’s Christmas concert. I set to work once more, and produced a first draft of the work just in time for the band to begin work. Trond found some wonderful shapes in the music, impossible on an organ and difficult for an undirected ensemble of 10 to achieve. The addition of a first class conductor brought out lines and phrasing in Howells’s manuscript which perhaps even the composer himself had not imagined, though reminiscent of his orchestral and choral work. Now this music was finally swelling and sweeping like the Gloucestershire landscape, and trickling and flowing like the River Severn. A ‘Paean’ is a celebratory work, in which now I heard the bells of Gloucester Cathedral ringing out triumphantly towards the Malverns and the Cotswolds.
…this music was finally swelling and sweeping like the Gloucestershire landscape, and trickling and flowing like the River Severn.
In that time, rights were being acquired for the publication of the work under permission of the original publisher. I understand the royalties from purchasing and performing this music find their way back to the Herbert Howells trust, set up by his daughter Ursula. The trust in turn gives grants to assist with the recording and performance of works of Howells, to ensure his artistic triumphs are not forgotten.
Now, a day after St Georges Day in 2019, two Englishmen are preparing another performance of this work in Oslo, Norway. Joe Cook will this time conduct Manger Musikklag, who will again perform ‘Paean’ at the Oslo Brass festival on 26th April. After several revisions, the final version is also being published and sold by NW notes. It is hoped then that this transcription will find a place in the brass band community alongside ‘Pageantry’ and ‘Three Figures’ as much-loved repertoire by one of England’s great musical minds.