Herbert Howells' (1892-1983) contribution to the twentieth century organ repertoire is one of the most significant of any British composer. He was Herbert Brewer’s articled pupil at Gloucester Cathedral for two years before taking up a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1912. There he studied with, among others, Stanford, who described the young Howells as his “son in music”. Howells’ career as an organist was brief: he was forced by ill health to quit the post of sub-organist at Salisbury Cathedral in 1917. He later deputised for a conscripted Robin Orr at St. John’s College, Cambridge between 1941 and 1945.
He has remained the quintessential English church composer of the twentieth century.
Howells started work on the "Six Pieces" in 1939, the set eventually being completed after the Second World War and dedicated to Herbert Sumsion, then the organist of Gloucester Cathedral.
"Saraband for the morning of Easter" is the second of the set, and was written in 1940. Howells’ use of an archaic dance-form reveals his interest in Tudor and Elizabethan music, though of course everything about the piece beyond this is utterly his own. It ends as it begins – in a brilliant C major.
The Six Pieces are a remarkable set. Written between 1940 and 1945 they naturally reflect the anxieties of war-time, but there is both a profound Englishness and confidence in God to be found in them.
Who but Herbert Howells would compose an Easter piece in the form of an "old-fashioned" courtly dance?!? However, he transforms the ancient stylized form into an ecstatic statement of joy, with all the rhythmic and figurations demanded by the nature of the form.
The piece is a true Saraband, and not just a "title," as you will hear from the first notes to the final chord.
A photo of Howells, dating from the 1920's is attached.