Herbert Norman Howells CH (17 October 1892 – 23 February 1983) was an English composer, organist, and teacher.
Howells was born in Lydney, Gloucestershire, and was the youngest of six children born to Oliver and Elizabeth Howells. His father was an amateur organist, and Herbert himself showed early musical promise. He studied first with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral, as an articled pupil alongside Ivor Novello and Ivor Gurney, the celebrated English songwriter and poet, with whom he became great friends. A September 1910 concert in Gloucester Cathedral included the premiere of a mysterious new work by the yet little-known Ralph Vaughan Williams. Howells not only made the composer's personal acquaintance that evening, but (as he often recounted) the piece, the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, profoundly moved him. Later he studied at the Royal College of Music (RCM) under C.V. Stanford, Hubert Parry and Charles Wood.
In 1915 he was diagnosed with Graves' disease and given six months to live. Since doctors believed that it was worth taking a chance on a previously untested treatment, he became the first person in the country to receive radium treatment. The treatment was successful, and Howells lived for another 70 years.
Howells was briefly assistant organist at Salisbury Cathedral in 1917, though his severe illness cut this appointment short. Friends then arranged for a grant from the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, whereunder Howells would assist Richard Runciman Terry in editing the voluminous Latin Tudor repertoire that he and his choir were reviving at Westminster Cathedral. Although they were envisioning an undemanding sinecure, Howells took great interest in this work, absorbing the English Renaissance style which he loved and would evoke in his own, and continued it until joining the faculty of the RCM in 1920. During World War II, he served as acting organist of St John's College, Cambridge.
In 1935 his nine-year-old son, Michael, died suddenly from polio (or meningitis; accounts vary); several of his subsequent works reflect this tragedy , most notably his great choral masterpiece "Hymnus Paradisi".
In later life Howells was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University, and was made a Companion of Honour in 1972. He died in 1983 in London and his ashes reside in Westminster Abbey.
His daughter Ursula (1922 - 2005) was an actress. Following her father's death, she instigated the "Herbert Howells Society" and became a standard bearer for the promotion of his work, financially supporting the recording of his compositions.
Herbert Howells was godfather to the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. Among his pupils were composers Robert Simpson, Robert Turner, and Paul Spicer.
In his twenties and thirties his compositional output focussed chiefly on orchestral and chamber music, including two piano concertos. The hostile reception given to the second of these in 1925 largely silenced Howells' compositional activities for almost ten years. The death of his son Michael in 1935 did, however, appear to unleash a new period of creativity; both Howells himself and his music were never the same after this period of his life. Though not an orthodox Christian, he became increasingly identified with the composition of religious music, most notably the Hymnus Paradisi for chorus and orchestra. This was composed after his son's death but not released for performance until 1950, at the insistence (according to Howells' own account) of his close friend and mentor Ralph Vaughan Williams. It incorporates passages from the earlier unaccompanied Requiem, begun before Michael's death but not published until 1981, with a dedication to his memory. Again, this private account of grief remained in his desk drawer for forty years before he submitted it for publication. Two shorter works from 1961, the Coventry Antiphon (Coventry Cathedral being dedicated to Saint Michael) and "Sequence for Saint Michael" are also associated with his son, as is his hymn tune "Michael".
He wrote two works for brass band: Pageantry and Three Figures. Pageantry was written for the 1934 British Open brass band championships. Howells arranged its first movement, King's Herald, for full orchestra for the coronation of King George VI in 1937.
Howells is particularly known for his large output of Anglican church music, including complete services (canticles for Matins and Evensong, and the Ordinary of the Mass for the Holy Communion) for King's College, Cambridge (the Collegium Regale) and settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for the choirs of St John's College, Cambridge, New College, Oxford, Westminster Abbey, Worcester, St Paul's, Gloucester, Hereford cathedrals, among others, as well as for two parish churches, St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, and St Augustine's Church, Edgbaston. These settings are often tailored for the building after which they are named. For example, the St Paul's Service has a very slow rate of harmonic change to suit the prolonged reverberation in that cathedral. The motet Take him, earth, for cherishing, written shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is dedicated to Kennedy's memory, and is considered by many to be perhaps his finest a cappella anthem. Two other anthems, Like as the hart and O pray for the peace of Jerusalem are similar in style and rhapsodic beauty and enjoy a firm and deserved place in the Anglican choral repertoire.
Of his several hymn tunes appearing in current hymnals, "Michael" (written for the words "All my hope on God is founded") is particularly widespread.
Hymnus Paradisi was the first of four large-scale sacred choral works. His Missa Sabrinensis is on the same scale, in terms of length and forces required, as Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, while An English Mass is scored for significantly smaller forces, is performed almost entirely in English, and follows the order of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in placing the Gloria last. Finally, Howells' setting of the Stabat Mater, at about 50 minutes, is one of the longest extant settings of that text.