In 1916 Herbert Howells had been diagnosed with Graves’s disease and was given only a short time to live. Radium injections, which were then an advanced medical procedure, were largely successful in providing a cure; however it left the composer in a weakened state. His first major appointment as sub-organist at Salisbury Cathedral was cut-short due to the stress of travel and this treatment. During his long convalescence between 1917 and 1920, Howells was employed by the Carnegie Trust as an editor of Tudor manuscripts, assisting R.R. Terry of Westminster Cathedral. During this period he composed a considerable corpus of orchestral and chamber music. These include Puck’s Minuet, Merry Eye and the Elegy, Op.15, for viola, string quartet and string orchestra. In 1918 he composed the second and third Rhapsodies for organ. The two Violin Sonatas also date from this time. Howells also wrote three important choral works during these years: the cantata Sir Patrick Spens for baritone, chorus and orchestra, the Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis in G major and the Three Carol-Anthems.
The first carol-anthem was ‘Here is the Little Door’ (1918) to a text by Francis Chesterton, the wife of the poet and writer G.K. Chesterton. In 1919 Howells composed ‘A Spotless Rose’ to words from an anonymous 14th century carol. The present ‘Sing Lullaby’ was set to words by F.W. Harvey during 1920.
We are lucky to possess a short note by the composer about ‘Sing Lullaby’: they were written for the Argo record sleeve notes (RG507 Herbert Howells Church Music) - ‘This was the third in the set. Here too a poet found the verses for me. FW Harvey, the Gloucestershire poet, friend of Ivor Gurney had written and published the poem only a short time before this setting was made.’ (Palmer, 1992)
Frederick William Harvey was born in Hartpury in Gloucestershire in 1888. He was educated at the King’s School in Gloucester and then at Rossall School on the Lancashire coast. During this period he formed close friendships with the composer/poet Ivor Gurney and with Herbert Howells. Prior to the Great War, Harvey began training for the legal profession. However, in 1914 he volunteered for the Gloucestershire Regiment. He served in France, was promoted to Lance-Corporal and was awarded the DCM. After officer training, he was again posted to France where he was captured whilst operating behind the German lines. Harvey was held in a prisoner-of-war camp until after the Armistice.
After the war he returned to the legal practice where he worked largely as a defence solicitor. However, this was not financially secure and he sold the practice in the 1930s. The remainder of his life was spent in a Bohemian manner and he was much involved in the promotion of his beloved Forest of Dean and Gloucestershire. He died whilst living at Yorkley in 1957. Harvey wrote a considerable quantity of poetry which was mainly published between 1916 and 1926. His most famous poem is ‘Ducks’ (From troubles of the world/I turn to ducks). Some of the poet’s work was set by Ivor Gurney, Herbert Brewer and Herbert Howells.
Sing lullaby, sing lullaby,
While snow doth softly [gently] fall,
Sing lullaby to Jesus
Born in an oxen-stall.
Sing lullaby to Jesus,
Born now in Bethlehem,
The naked blackthorn’s growing
To weave His diadem.
Sing lullaby, sing lullaby
While thickly snow doth fall,
Sing lullaby to Jesus
The Saviour of all.
F.W. Harvey (1888-1957)
‘Sing Lullaby’ was first published in Harvey’s volume Farewell in 1921. Interestingly, it is not included in the Collected Poems of F.W Harvey (1983) or in Anthony Boden’s F.W Harvey Soldier, Poet (1988, 1999). There is a significant textual variation in the first stanza: Howells has set the line, ‘While snow doth gently fall’ whereas the published text is While snow doth softly fall.’ Both words are equally effective as the idea is to counterpoise this ‘gentle’ image with that of ‘thickly falling’ in the final verse. It is possible that Howells’ ‘setting’ reflects the poet’s original thought and that it was revised by Harvey for publication in the book.
The carol was dedicated to Harry Stevens-Davis. Davis was a City of London banker who became a pupil of Herbert Howells. He was one-time organist of Beaconsfield Parish Church. In 1920, the carol was published by Stainer & Bell in the Church Choir Library series No.228.
‘Sing Lullaby’ is a four-part ‘a cappella’ setting for mixed chorus. The key structure is largely modal, with the prevailing tonality being F Dorian. Jeffrey Shawn Wilson (1996) has noted how the carol begins with ‘the soft lulling of voices in a seamless flowing texture in which bar lines appear to be unnecessary.’ It is a perfect musical analogy to the text ‘Sing lullaby, /While snow doth gently fall.’ The effect is created by parallel second inversion chords with the occasional root position triad for variety. When the bass part enters it is independent of this flowing harmony and creates a good melodic phrase. This tune is then taken up by the sopranos.
The second stanza is treated very differently to the opening gentle lullaby. The words of this section allude to the Crucifixion – ‘The naked blackthorn’s growing/To weave His diadem’. This is presented in chordal harmony with little in the way of passing notes. Howells has used some very complex modulations which add to the unsettling feel of this part of the carol. However, the mood of the opening pages returns with the third stanza. Once again the basses and then the sopranos provide the tune whilst the other parts sing flowing ‘lullabies’’. Shawn Wilson (1996) notes that the ‘soporific snow’ which characterised the opening verse and ‘symbolized the sleeping of a newborn baby’ now represents ‘the completion of the acts required for the salvation of the world, that is, the death and resurrection of Christ.’
In his thesis ‘The Music of Herbert Howells,’ Peter John Hodgson quotes the musicologist and composer Marion Scott. Writing in The Music Bulletin in May 1924 she suggested that: - ‘The three carol anthems...are singularly lovely, and afford examples of Howells’ command of flexible rhythm and sensitive beauty of melodic line. In the simple, highly finished design of ‘A Spotless Rose’ there is something indeed difficult to describe in words, but which, when heard or seen upon the pages of his score, raises insistent sense of kinship with the designs of Celtic art during its great period hundreds of years ago.’ It is a sentiment which equally applies to ‘Sing Lullaby’.
I asked the musicologist Pamela Blevins what Scott meant by her reference to ‘Celtic art’. She referred me to her book Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott (2008). In her Introduction to Herbert Howells (in manuscript) Scott had noted that Howells’ music was influenced by both his Celtic heritage and the landscape of Gloucestershire - ‘He came naturally by an inheritance of beauty, hill, sky, cloud, river ‘blossomy plain.’ Scott continued by suggesting that ‘[A]ll these things are Gloucestershire and behind them one glimpses the successions of centuries flowing down from the mists of Celtic times in an almost unruffled and ever-widening intellectual tide. She further observed that Howells had an ‘extraordinary affinity with the Latin, the Celtic type of design towards which he tends when embellishing a passage, his innate sympathy with Folk Song, his strong natural attachment to the countryside, particularly under its pastoral aspects, his spontaneous intimacy with Tudor thought in music, all these can be related to each other and to him as a son of Gloucester.’
Patrick Russill (liner notes CHAN 9458) has suggested that the Carol-Anthems as a group were the first of Howells’ choral works to ‘consistently display the same level of aural imagination and technical refinement as his chamber music and songs of the same period...’ It is certainly the case that Howells has managed to create an almost ‘impressionistic’ mood in ‘Sing Lullaby’ that transcends and elaborates its Christian origins.
Blevins, Pamela, Ivor Gurney & Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2008)
Boden, Anthony: F.W. Harvey – Soldier, Poet (Stroud, Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1988, 1999)
F.W. Harvey: Collected Poems (Coleford, The Forest Bookshop, 1983)
F.W. Harvey: Farewell (London, Sidgwick & Jackson, LTD., 1921)
Hodgson, Peter John: The Music of Herbert Howells (Diss. University of Colorado, 1970)
Palmer, Christopher: Herbert Howells – A Centenary Celebration (London, Thames Publishing, 1992)
Scott, Marion: Introduction: XVII Herbert Howells, The Music Bulletin VI (May, 1924), 142
Spicer, Paul: Herbert Howells (Bridgend, Seren, 1998)
Wilson, Jeffrey Shawn: The Anthems of Herbert Howells 1892-1983 (Diss. University of Illinois, 1996)
Herbert Howells Choral Music Hyperion CDA67494
Adeste fideles Christmas Music from Westminster Cathedral Hyperion CDA66668
Howells Choral Works Chandos CHAN9458
A Winter’s Light Naxos: 8573030
YouTube The Choir of the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, New York with James Kennerley, Organist and Music Director.