Friday, 5 December 2014

Hymns for Advent (6): ‘A Spotless
Rose’ by Herbert Howells



Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I am looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. This morning I have chosen A Spotless Rose, by the English composer, organist and teacher Herbert Howells (1892-1983).

Herbert Norman Howells was the son of an amateur organist, and he studied first at Gloucester Cathedral, alongside Ivor Novello and Ivor Gurney, before studying later at the Royal College of Music under Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Parry and Charles Wood.

He was the assistant organist at Salisbury Cathedral in 1917, and later the acting organist at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, during World War II.

His potential in church music was identified at an early stage in his career. Eric Milner-White (1884-1963), Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, and one of the Church of England’s more visionary priests, heard an early performance of A Spotless Rose in the Chapel of King’s College in 1920 and immediately wrote to Howells to encourage him to do more for the liturgy of the Church of England.

While he was Dean of King’s College, Milner-White introduced the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve 1918. This was first broadcast in 1928 and is now a major item in the BBC’s Christmas schedule.

It was Milner-White who again, in the 1940s, sowed the seeds of the idea that bore fruit in the Collegium Regale settings written for King’s College. This is the setting we are singing at Choral Evensong in Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday week [14 December 2014], the Third Sunday of Advent or Gaudete Sunday, when I am presiding in the morning at the Cathedral Eucharist.

A Spotless Rose is one of Three Carol Anthems by Howells – the other two are Here is the little door and Sing Lullaby. They were composed between 1918 and 1920, with A Spotless Rose written in Gloucester in 1919. According to Patrick Russill, they are the first of the choral works by Howells to “consistently display the same level of aural imagination and technical refinement as his chamber music and songs of the same period ...”

In the 1920s and 1930s, Howells focussed mainly on orchestral and chamber music, including two piano concertos. He became increasingly identified with the composition of religious music, most notably the Hymnus Paradisi for chorus and orchestra, composed after his son’s death but not released until 1950 at the insistence of his close friend Ralph Vaughan Williams.

His large output of Anglican church music includes the Collegium Regale, a complete service for King’s College, Cambridge, and settings of the canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for the choirs of Saint John’s College, Cambridge, New College, Oxford, Westminster Abbey, Worcester Cathedral, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and Gloucester Cathedral, and for the parish churches of Saint Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, and Saint Augustine, Edgbaston.

Two of his anthems in particular, Like as the hart and Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem, retain strong affection in the Anglican choral repertoire.

His pupils include the Lichfield-based composer, Paul Spicer, who began his musical training as a chorister at New College, Oxford, and studied with Howells at the Royal College of Music in London.

My choice this morning is a simple setting by Howells of an anonymous 15th-century poem about Christ’s birth and the purity of the Virgin Mary.

The most celebrated moment of the piece is at the very end, in the final cadence. This cadence, on the words “cold winter’s night,” is one of Howells’s most sublime and affecting moments.

A Spotless Rose, by Herbert Howells

A spotless Rose is blowing,
Sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers’ foreshowing,
Of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winter,
And in the dark midnight.

The Rose which I am singing,
Whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing
In Mary, purest Maid;
For, through our God’s great love and might,
The Blessed Babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter’s night.

Tomorrow:Saint Nicolas’ a cantata by Benjamin Britten.