Howells: Magnificat & Nunc dimittis in G

At our next evensong, 5pm Saturday 2 September, we will be singing Howells’ Magnificat & Nunc dimittis in G.

This is an early work by Howells, but already his distinctive musical language – and the impending revolution in church music he would lead – are very apparent. Writing about Howells’ compositional style, musicologist Sophie Cleobury compares it with impressionism:

‘Although not strictly impressionist, Howells’ evening canticles certainly displayed impressionist characteristics, which helped him create an aesthetic of “intellectual reflection … and delicate sensuality”, which so tied in with his love of creating the correct mood for the evening service.’

Published in 1920 – still during the lifetime of Stanford – Howell’s characteristic harmonic language is already clear in this work:

‘… the Service in G had a generous smattering of seventh chords throughout, many held in the organ part … This liberal use of sevenths, with a variety of chords in inversion immediately gave Howells’ music its unique colour, one which no church composer had yet used in such a way.’

Where the Service in G differs most from later, more famous works is in its relentless forward movement. Cleobury compares this feature with the 1945 evensong setting for King’s College Cambridge:

‘Whilst each phrase of the Collegium Regale also has forward momentum (the opening treble lines are very much written as they would be spoken), there are clear points of repose at the end of each half verse. It becomes a striking feature of this setting (and subsequent ones) that the harmony at the end of verses becomes very static. The final syllables of the verses are often held for a number of beats, which decidedly slows down the flow of the music. These features are rarely found in the Service in G. If they are, the organ part will often carry on regardless with its perpetual minim beat and harmonic movement.’

The Mag & Nunc in G is new for us, and is already a new favourite. For some church music lovers the Service in G is their favourite Howells setting of all! We are very much looking forward to singing it on September 2nd.

The image is a painting by William Turner of Clare Hall and King’s College Chapel (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons) – also not strictly impressionist!

Source: Sophie Cleobury, 2007, The style and development of Herbert Howells’ evening canticle settings, 1918-1975, Masters Thesis, University of Birmingham

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