Saturday, 11 April 2015

Herbert Howells: Puck’s Minuet, op.20 No.1: Part 1

by Arthur Rackham
I was delighted to hear for the first time Herbert Howell’s Puck’s Minuet from the Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, op.20 which has recently been released by Dutton Epoch. (CDLX 7317) The CD also includes a realisation of Howell’s Cello Concerto. I have wanted to hear the Minuet ever since purchasing the Lyrita recording of the Sir Adrian Boult conducting Merry Eye which is the second of the two pieces.
Puck’s Minuet was completed in November 1919 as a commission for the amateur Gloucester Orchestral Society conducted by Sir Herbert Brewer, who was organist of the Cathedral. The work is dedicated to his (Brewer's) daughter, Eileen Brewer.
Paul Spicer has noted that Howells wrote the entire piece, in full score, in a three-hour ‘sitting’ at Reading Station whilst waiting on his train to Gloucester. However, in a diary entry quoted in Palmer (Herbert Howells: A Centenary Celebration, 1995) Howells states that it was ‘composed in a public reading-room, in 1917!’ The ‘Reading/reading’ words may have caused confusion or false memory.
Christopher Palmer notes the work’s popularity just after the end of the Great War.  He tells how the manuscript reposed in the offices of the publisher Messrs Goodwin and Tabb. Seemingly it was published before it was first heard. Sir Hamilton Harty ‘chanced upon it’ and decided to take it up, hence its popularity. The work received its first performance at the Queen’s Hall, London on 4 March 1919 with Harty conducting elements of the London Symphony Orchestra. The work was given an immediate encore.  Two days later it was performed in Gloucester by the Gloucester Orchestral Society
Puck’s Minuet has an unusual scoring – two flutes, two clarinets, bass clarinet, timpani, percussion, piano, three solo violins and strings.  Palmer notes that this was ‘determined by the constitution of Brewer’s orchestra’.  Yet Howells manages to use these forces to create ‘subtly individual coloration’ resulting in a work that displays ‘freshness and piquancy.’
The composer was unable to attend due to ill health, but eagerly awaited the reviews of the concert. He wrote ‘I had ‘Puck’ in mind all day, thinking of how it would fare at the Queen’s Hall where Hamilton Harty would be playing it tonight with the London Symphony Orchestra, at Miss Murray Lambert’s recital (violin). To know its fate meant waiting till tomorrow morning.’ However, his wait was not to be disappointed: ‘And on this first day of Lent I learnt from the Daily Telegraph and the Times and all the other press, how the little Puck had so delighted the people gathered at the Queen’s Hall that it had to be repeated immediately…a most unusual occurrence…And the critics always follow the crowd. So I had a headline in the Times, and all the lesser fry were gracious.’
The work was heard at Bournemouth four times and at the ‘Proms’ on eight occasions.

I will post some reviews of the concert and early recordings of Puck’s Minuet on subsequent posts. 

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