At 1 p.m. this Wednesday, I am in my office with the door closed. My speakers are pouring forth the joy and sorrow of Herbert Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi, live via the miracles of technology from Royal Albert Hall in London.
I know this piece so well . . . .
This weekend, as I was poking around in the basement looking for some DVDs, I stumbled onto the folder of cards and articles from my mother’s death. I haven’t touched this folder in years, but I pulled out the state Baptist newsletter and re-read the obituary. Then I started reading the sidebar commentary by Betty Poor that accompanied the article, and I melted into tears.
Hymnus Paradisi, written by Howells to help assuage his grief at the death of his six-year-old son Michael in 1935 (and perhaps to help work out his grief over the death of his dear friend Ivor Gurney), is an intensely personal work, one that he kept to himself for nearly 15 years before he allowed its first public performance.
Somehow, some way, I need this piece today.
And after the opening prelude from the orchestra, there is the BBC Symphony Chorus singing “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,and let perpetual light shine upon them.” Such simple words, so full of truth and meaning and comfort.
- Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.
- This is hyper-Romantic music, tinged with lush and lascivious chords and prone to moments of ecstasy. Little of this music is pathos; rather, it is sometimes hesitant, but always hopeful when not somber. Howells knew what he was doing.
- “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
- And the low strings and harp promise just that, with the rest and repose of F major after the drama of the 23rd Psalm.
- The conflagration of Sanctus and “I will lift up my eyes to hills” is a masterstroke. We think of Psalm 121 as something comforting. Here Howells makes it triumphant and joyous with the swirling shouts of ‘Sanctus’ swinging round. Violins add their own throaty joy in their highest positions, their sound the cloud of incense round the hills . . . and the throne.
- And the words of St. John: “I heard a voice from Heaven, saying, ‘Write, from henceforth, blessed are the dead which die in the Lord’.” Blessed, blessed, blessed. Howells keeps piling on the assurances, ones that sometimes we need. Sometimes I need.
- I was scheduled to rehearse and perform, in 1998, Howells’ Requiem for unaccompanied voices. The Requiem is the source material for much of Hymnus Paradisi. On March 23, 1998, my mother died. Suddenly this performance of the Requiem was a memorial to her, and a catharsis for me. Today, hearing these same strains now with orchestra, magnified and exalted, I am one again with those days in April 1998 as I lived with this music for hours each day.
- “Holy is the true light, and passing wonderful. Alleluia.” As I taught this morning, enharmonic third relationships can create magical transitions. Howells . . . brilliant as ever! . . . goes from the heaviness of D-flat major to the light of A major, using the D-flat and C-sharp as enharmonics. One could not find a more textbook example!
- But that moment is also embued with glory. The release comes at the right time. For an instant, we inwardly shout “alleluia” with the angels and the choirs of heaven and earth. “Alleluia. Evermore.” The wind-down commences, the final alleluias tender and peaceful and intensely piercing in their ecstasy.
- Requiem dona eis sempiternam.
- One final raised fourth scale degree (the Lydian Howells touch!) and we are home. And Home.
- Visionary climax. Luminous tranquility. Comfort for the living. Blessed peace for the dead.
- Said Howells, “The texts are immemorial reflections on the transient griefs and indestructible hopes of mankind.”
- (I shall be in London at HH’s grave this year on the 30th anniversary of his death. I expect I shall shed a tear or two.)
- Requiem æternam, Marie, and Herbert.