Monday, 30 March 2009

Herbert Howells: Merry Eye for orchestra

I was listening yesterday to a fine Lyrita CD of music recorded by Sir Adrian Boult. This included works by Patrick Hadley, George Butterworth, Peter Warlock and Herbert Howells. I have known these works for many years, but I was struck anew by the attractive and well-written Merry-Eye by Herbert Howells. This work was written in 1920 whilst the composer and his newly-wed wife were staying at Soudley in Gloucestershire: it was their honeymoon. Apparently Howells had received a commission for a new work for that years Promenade Concert. The wedding had delayed work on this piece. The sleeve notes from the CD quote Howells's diary:-"Merry-Eye occupied me often on brief and early walks on the hilltops. Dorothy and I legged over Bailey hills, and saw miles of the Cotswolds and Severn".
The only recording of this work can be found on Lyrita SRCD245

Printed below is a review of the first performance by the great musicologist Marion M. Scott from the Christian Science Monitor, 30 October 1920

LONDON, England - Merry Eye, a new composition by Herbert Howells was produced at the Queens Hall Promenade Concert on September 30, the composer himself conducting. It is what may be called a big-little work, and possesses qualities which pique the listener's attention. Short as to length, delicately handled, and scored for a small orchestra, it achieves a music effect as if it were a symphonic poem. Upon the surface it appears to be light music; beneath there runs a vein of deep seriousness. The number of instruments employed looks small but it sounds wonderfully full and soft. Out of the resources of two flutes, one piccolo, two clarinets, two bassoons, three horns, percussion, piano and strings, HH has produced a score which for skill and beauty of color could hold its own beside anything by Debussy or Stravinsky.
The work itself however is English; merry, pathetic, lively or wistful in turn. Its full story is only divulged by the music, never in words, though the composer does go so far as to say in his note: "This piece has not necessarily a program; but if an idea of such be entertained, it can be supposed that the listener meets with an average-type character out of the domain of folklore - called "Merry-Eye" - who reveals more about himself and his personality than folklore itself ever tells of him or his kind. Much that he relates is true to his name and to such part of his history as is common reading - public property; much else, on the other hand, contradicts this."
As in some of Howells' other works - notably the opening movement of the Piano Quartet in A minor - the first subject is of less importance than the second. Here in "Merry-Eye" the second subject takes the form of a lovely melody treated canonically. The work was well received and is to be given again at the Queen's Hall in the near future.
This article appears here with the kind permission of Pamela Blevins

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