Howells: Hymnus Paradisi & An English Mass

Howells: Hymnus Paradisi & An English Mass

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir, Vernon Handley (conductor)


Although composed between 1936 and 1938, Hymnus Paradisi, Herbert Howells’s acknowledged masterwork, lay hidden from the public for over a decade before its first performance at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 1950 when it was conducted by its composer. Howells had showed the work to Herbert Sumsion, the organist of Gloucester Cathedral, who in turn passed it to Vaughan Williams. Had it not been for the latter’s insistence that it must be performed, Hymnus Paradisi might have remained unknown for many more years. The title of the work was Sumsion’s suggestion. Howells had kept the work private since he had written it as a purely personal document. It had been ‘called into being much earlier’, he wrote, as a response to the sudden death, at the age of nine, of his only son Michael in 1935. At the time his grief was so overwhelming that he recalled he could neither work nor think; only when his daughter enquired whether writing music would help him come to terms with his grief did he realize that this would provide the succour he needed. Later, when writing about Hymnus Paradisi, he recalled that such a loss, ‘essentially profound and, in its very nature, beyond argument, might naturally impel a composer, after a time, to seek release and consolation in language and terms most personal to him. Music may have the power beyond any other medium to offer that relief and comfort. It did so in my case.’

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