The anthem for our Evensong this Saturday, 12 March at 5pm will be Howells’ ‘O pray for the peace of Jerusalem.’
The horror of war hit home quite literally for Herbert Howells in September 1940. He wrote in 1941: “Our house was blitzed and bashed one awful night in Sept. of 1940. Ursula was mercifully in Scotland…D(orothy) and I were visiting a brother-in-law that night in Sanderstead – and only by that lucky chance escaped pretty certain death. Our part of Barnes was simply devastated – for no military cause whatsoever.”
Homeless, he moved to Cheltenham for a time and would commute to the Royal College of Music to continue his teaching work. The RCM’s Director at the time, George Dyson, provided Howells with a makeshift bedroom in the College basement. Sadly, the bombing raid that destroyed Howells’ home took with it his entire library of books, manuscripts and scores. We will never know how many original compositions were lost.
New Year 1941 saw the composer snowed in at his temporary accommodation in Cheltenham. Housebound, he put his time to composing and on January 5th he began writing a series of anthems described as ‘In time of war’. Howells said of the collection in 1943: “The set at first bore the title ‘In time of war’, because the words – taken from the Psalms of David – were so apposite to a wartime frame of mind: but then, I reflected, the Psalms are relevant at all times and in all situations: and the anthems (one hoped) useful at any season. So the group dropped the general title. And anyhow, they’d have been composed, war or no war.”
Each anthem was composed in a single day – the third and most famous of the set, ‘Like as the hart’ was in fact composed in a single sitting on January 8th. ‘O pray for the peace of Jerusalem’, the first in the set, composed on January 5th takes its text from Psalm 122 (so often associated with Parry’s ‘I was glad’) but unlike Parry’s setting sets only verses 6 and 7, Howells describing the result as “…of course mainly quiet and contemplative.”
The photo is of the cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral, where Howells commenced training as a church musician.
Sources: Herbert Howells – a celebration, Christopher Palmer, Thames Publishing, London, 1996; Herbert Howells, Paul Spicer, Seren Books, Bridgend 1998.