Friends reunited

Gloucester Cathedral

Gloucester Cathedral
Source: Saffron Blaze / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I can’t remember the year – it must have been around 1980 – that I attended the Three Choirs Festival in England, held that year at Gloucester Cathedral. What I can clearly remember, however, was the feeling of being in a brief time warp. I had met up with the cathedral’s former organist and composer Herbert Sumsion (1899–1995) for lunch, where we were joined by Joy Finzi (1907–1991), widow of composer Gerald Finzi (1901–1956), and the composer Herbert Howells (1892–1983), the latter joining us post-lunch because he had slipped off to have an afternoon nap! The three families were long-standing, very close friends. So, taking a cue from Naxos’ release this month of a new album of Howell’s piano music, I thought my blog could assemble a selection of works by these three characteristically ‘English’ composers – Howells, Sumsion and Finzi – in a sort of musical Friends Reunited.

Herbert Howells

Herbert Howells
Photo: Chersternovello

This month’s release of piano works by Herbert Howells is the second volume in pianist Matthew Schellhorn’s survey of that slice of his ouput. Howells claimed he could never write without a person or place in mind, so I’ve selected The Chosen Tune (1920) from the programme to air here. The short piece was named after the hill and village of Chosen in Gloucestershire, where composer-poet Ivor Gurney and Howells would walk to admire the panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Chosen was also the home of Howells’ fiancée, Dorothy, and this piano version was written for use at their wedding in August 1920. Likewise, A Mersey Tune (1924) was inspired by the River Mersey.

The Chosen Tune (8.571383)

A Mersey Tune (8.571383)

My next extract couldn’t be more different in scope and depth of expression. It was born of tragedy. In the summer of 1935 Howells and his family were on holiday in Gloucestershire, when their nine-year old son, Michael, felt ill; five days later he was dead, struck down by polio. In an attempt to help her inconsolable father, Howells’ daughter Ursula suggested he should commemorate Michael in music. As Howells later wrote: “The sudden loss of an only son … might impel a composer … to seek release and consolation in a language and terms most personal to him. Music may well have power … to offer that release and comfort. It did so in my case.”

The result was Hymnus Paradisi, for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Howells’ original title was too lengthy for practical purposes and so Herbert Sumsion suggested Hymnus Paradisi, having checked with a neighbour who had been Head of Classics at Radley College that his suggested alternative was semantically correct. Howells agreed that it could receive its first performance at the 1950 Three Choirs Festival only after Gerald Finzi, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Adrian Boult had all expressed a high opinion of the work. Our extract is the opening of the Sanctus movement.

Hymnus Paradisi (8.570352)

My final selection from Howells’ output is the second movement of his String Quartet No. 3, ‘In Gloucestershire’. It returns us to his delight in walking around the Gloucestershire countryside for hours on end, and even days at a time. Howells began the quartet in 1916 but left the manuscript on a train. He subsequently revised it several times before it received its premiere in 1920. The short scherzo movement both displays finesse of texture and smacks of homage to Ravel.

String Quartet No. 3 (8.573913)

Herbert Sumsion

Herbert Sumsion
Source: Gloucester Music Society

Herbert Sumsion was organist of Gloucester Cathedral from 1928 until 1967, and conductor of the Three Choirs Festival during that time, which brought him into close contact with musical luminaries such as Elgar. Finding myself working very close to his retirement home in the 1970s, he accepted me as a piano student. After each lesson, I would be entertained by reminiscences: how Elgar would invite Sumsion and his wife Alice to tea before proudly showing off his prize gourds in the garden; and how Elgar told them of his brush with death by food poisoning in the precincts of Worcester Cathedral, an incident not mentioned in any biographies and which Alice was keen to perpetuate by word of mouth.

After I left Gloucestershire, I remained in touch with Sumsion through a series of sacred choral works I commissioned from him. These included the anthem There is a Green Hill Far Away. It seemed to me a shame that such a famous hymn had not had the words cast in alternative music. The result was a beautiful anthem for 3-part soprano voices and organ. Sumsion’s publisher subsequently advised him it would sell better if scored for SATB, and that’s the version we hear now.

There is a Green Hill Far Away (DE3125)

A few years before making that commission, I was leafing through a psalter when it fell open at Psalm 107 and a dramatically engaging text that had somehow passed me by. I couldn’t understand why a composer had never set this text to music before. I was wrong, however, since Henry Purcell had already published his They that go down to the sea in ships in 1688! Sumsion’s setting, however, has proved a worthy alternative since the first performance in 1979 at an evensong in Lichfield Cathedral, with myself directing a choir from Repton School in the welcome presence of Herbert and Alice.

They that go down to the sea in ships (8.554823)

Gerald Finzi

Gerald Finzi
Photo: Boosey & Hawkes

Gerald Finzi (1901–56) was also among the most English of composers. He spent much of his life in the countryside of Hampshire and later near Newbury, where the string orchestra he founded became an important vehicle for the performance of his music. His interest in earlier English music and in English literature is largely reflected in his own works, which owe something to Parry, to his older contemporary Vaughan Williams, and to Elgar.

Finzi made an important contribution to British twentieth-century song, choral and orchestral repertoire. His acute awareness of the frailty of existence found its musical expression especially in his song settings. His Intimations of Immortality for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra sets Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. It’s a deeply touching lament for the passing of the innocence of childhood. Here’s the final song, And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills and Groves. The first performance was given at the 1950 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, conducted by Herbert Sumsion, the same festival that also included Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi.

And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves,
Forebode not any severing of our loves!
Yet in my heart of hearts I feel your might;
I only have relinquished one delight
To live beneath your more habitual sway.
I love the Brooks which down their channels fret,
Even more than when I tripped lightly as they;
The innocent brightness of a new-born
Day Is lovely yet;
The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills and Groves (8.557863)

In 1951, Finzi was diagnosed as having an incurable form of leukemia and was given only ten years to live; it turned out to be five. During that time, however, he did complete a number of works, including a Cello Concerto, written in two phases: 1951–2 and 1954–55. Writing such a work had long been in his mind; sketches for the slow movement exist from the mid-1930s. The spur to finishing the work was a request in September 1954 from Sir John Barbirolli for a major work that he and the Hallé Orchestra could perform at the Cheltenham Festival the following year. It’s difficult to imagine that the concerto wasn’t a reflection of Finzi’s desperate personal circumstances, as expressed in the turbulent and tragic opening of the work.

Cello Concerto (8.555766)

We end on a more uplifting note, despite the work having been written in that same year of his diagnosis, 1951. Finzi’s anthem God is Gone Up was commissioned for a St Cecilia’s Day service that year, receiving its first performance in London by a massed choir of choristers from the Chapels Royal, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral. They can’t have sounded more vibrant, however, than the performance we now hear from the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, directed by Christopher Robinson.

God is gone up with a triumphant shout:
The Lord with sounding Trumpets’ melodies:
Sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praises out,
Unto our King sing praise seraphic-wise!
Lift up your Heads, ye lasting Doors, they sing,
And let the King of Glory enter in.

Methinks I see Heaven’s sparkling courtiers fly,
In flakes of Glory down him to attend,
And hear Heart-cramping notes of Melody
Surround his Chariot as it did ascend;
Mixing their Music, making ev’ry string
More to enravish as they this tune sing.

God is Gone Up (8.557557-58)

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