MUSIC / The sorrow that sounds like heaven: When Herbert Howells lost a son, the church gained some immortal music. Michael White pays a centenary tribute

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The cathedrals of the English-speaking world will be in celebratory mourning on Saturday, the centenary of the birth of the man who was effectively their house composer. Herbert Howells has probably touched more lives more deeply than any composer with twice his standing in the hierarchies of modern music.

Howells was central to the Oxbridge Anglican aesthetic: a supreme manipulator of the theatre of transcendent ceremonial and dignified nostalgia that the Church of England does like no one else. But what makes him interesting is that he gave that market more than it bargained for. Scratch the surface of a typical Howells choral work and you find decidedly un-Anglican qualities. One is smouldering sensuality (the rhythm of Like as the Hart, the most sublime of all Howells anthems, comes close to a slow tango, its harmony is thick with 'blue' notes), another is a lacerating, masochistic pain even in ostensibly joyful music. To understand why they are there you need to look beyond the music to the man.

Howells was born in 1892 into a poor Gloucestershire family: his father was a failed builder. He showed remarkable musical talent and was apprenticed to the organist of Gloucester Cathedral, before going on to London and the Royal College of Music, where he subsequently taught until he was 80. He relied on teaching for his income, and had other jobs at St Paul's Girls' School (succeeding Gustav Holst) and London University. In 1920, he married Dorothy Dawe, a contralto, with whom he was to have two children, Ursula and Michael.

A small, dapper figure, Howells lived a conventional life in the mainstream musical establishment. But he was also a passionate romantic, much given to extramarital affairs and with a charismatic effect on women. His daughter Ursula, now in her late sixties, was a pupil at St Paul's and remembers 'how awkward it was that all the girls invariably fell in love with him and would give me notes to pass on - to which, of course, he never replied'. His other passion was his children. In 1935, the Howells were on holiday when Michael, then aged nine, fell ill. They rushed him back to London, but he died that night in his father's arms of spinal meningitis. Howells was, in his own words 'completely frozen', and sank into an obsessive ritual of mourning. Michael was buried in Twigworth, Gloucestershire, and Ursula recalls that 'we went down there every weekend for the next two or three years to tend the grave'.

Ursula suggested to her father, deep in depression and not composing, that he write something in Michael's memory. It was the turning-point in his creative life. Until then he had written mainly instrumental chamber music in the pastoral shadow of Vaughan Williams. But from the late Thirties on came an extraordinary succession of choral works, all related to Michael: the Requiem, Hymnus Paradisi, a Sequence for St Michael, the motet Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing, and two hymn tunes - one called Twigworth ('God is love, let heaven adore him'), the other Michael ('All my hope on God is founded'). Hymnus Paradisi, which Howells for years withheld from performance, is certainly his supreme achievement; and Michael has a claim to be the greatest hymn tune of the 20th century.

It is hard to know whether Michael's death was the true origin of all this work, or whether it triggered an existing tendency to morbid melancholia. Howells's earlier music belongs to the

period when Georgian poets were absorbed in mourning lost youth and innocence, and the theme certainly appealed to him. But whatever the case, there is a poignant addendum to the idea of Howells as a poet of death: despite his prodigious outpouring of liturgical music - 15 settings of the canticles for various cathedrals and collegiate chapels, six Te Deums, five Mass settings, and numerous carols, anthems and motets - he saw death as final. 'People assume he must have been deeply religious,' says Ursula, 'and I have to tell them he wasn't. He loved the tradition of the church, and the Bible as literature. But he was never more than an agnostic who veered toward belief. In the last year of his life he told me he thought death would be it.' He didn't die expecting to meet Michael in heaven - which means that countless churchgoers who find Christian affirmation in the Howells oeuvre are hearing things he did not put there.

The centenary is an obvious time for reappraisal of the author's secular achievement, which has always been eclipsed by the religious works and remains largely undocumented. Howells wrote randomly and stuffed the results in drawers, which yielded a treasure trove when his house in Barnes was cleared after his death in 1983. Christopher Palmer, who is about to publish a biographical portrait of Howells (Thames, pounds 20), has been sifting through it, and 'new' works are being pieced together from fragments. Whether they will refute the criticisms that Howells's style never developed, and that he was a congenitally 'small voice' in music, remains to be seen. Perhaps Howells was a small voice. But it sang exquisitely, uniquely, and with missile-sharp directness on raw nerves. For much of this century he has been a principal reason why 'Some to church repair, Not for the doctrine but the music there'.

Howells evensong, Sat 3pm, and concert, 4pm, at Westminster Abbey; QEH concert (071-928 8800).

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