Friday, 20 June 2008

Herbert Howells: A Sailor Tune



Recently I was listening to what is perhaps Herbert Howells’s most massive work –the Missa Sabrinensis. This is a complex work that presents the players and singers with ‘prodigious difficulties.’ Yet earlier in the day I was playing ‘A Sailor Tune’ on the piano. It certainly offered little in the way of formidable technical challenges or demanded concentration from the listener. Yet in its own way it epitomised the invention and the craftsmanship of the composer.
Although, typically, Howells is not seen as being a composer for piano, there are many pieces to his credit. His major works are of course the Lamberts and Howells Clavichord – which is more often than not played on the piano. But there are many other pieces of excellent keyboard music – including the Rhapsody and Gadabout. However Howells did write a number of short pieces which are suitable for teaching purposes or for the use of amateurs. Perhaps the most significant of these are the Sarum Sketches, the attractive Country Pageant and the Little Book of Dances. All these offer interesting, well constructed pieces that do not wear their pedagogical nature.
A Sailor tune was written shortly after the Dances in 1930 at a time when Howells was spending more time as a teacher than composer. 
Like many pieces that would seem to be simple, it does have nuances that lie in wait for the unwary performer. This is especially true of the cross rhythms which occur from time to time. Furthermore it is important to ensure that the hands keep out of each others way as the ‘hornpipe’ progresses. The work is written in G major and is signed to be played ‘brisk and clear cut’. Although it is Grade 4, the overall impression of this bright piece is that more impressive than its grading may suggest.
Certainly the work seemed to be quite popular when it was reviewed. The Music & Letters reviewer suggested that it was “a well written short piece, a nice sense of humour.” Another suggested that it was “delightful, not easy, but very much worth working at and will wear well in the meantime.”

Interestingly enough this work was originally conceived as Sayler’s Tune. This would appear to be less of an archaic spelling as an eccentric one!
Unfortunately there appears to be no recording of this work available. The work was published by J.B. Cramer in 1930.

2 comments:

Can Bass 1 said...

Of course, one can't move in an Anglican cathedral for Howell's canticles and anthems. Mind you, most of them are rather good!

The Dotterel said...

Don't know the Missa Sabrinensis, but I did record the Hymnus Paradisi (another large-scale choral work) in Liverpool some years ago. Amazing work - mirroring exactly the mood-swings of mourning.