As I Remember...
Philip Wilby offers some personal memories of Herbert Howells, Arthur Bliss, Brass bands, and an ancient piano...
In 1970, after a long career of enormous distinction, Sir Arthur Bliss published an autobiography called ‘As I Remember’. It is full of fascinating insights, including this Cambridge memory of the young Herbert Howells.
‘It was an age of brilliant students…Of these, Herbert Howells had the outstanding talent. His quickly written scores, showing a beautifully resolute calligraphy, with their technical maturity simply disheartened me. I had to learn one of the most painful lessons in life, that there are others who are born with more gifts than oneself…’
Of equal interest was his 1935 musical tour of the English regions, from Bath to Bolton, Leeds to Newcastle, and on to Birmingham. In his time in the North he famously came across the Wingates Temperance Band for whom he would compose ‘Kenilworth’.
‘ I am sure that any musician when he first hears the virtuosity of these amateur players is as astounded as I was. I note that Toscanini and Casals also expressed their wonder.’
Bliss’s respect for and contribution to the brass band literature is, of course, well represented in this recording. However, my own connection with his musical legacy is somewhat more tangential. Bliss died in 1975, five years after publishing his memoirs. His widow lived on until 2008, when she died at the age of 104. The family papers then formed the basis of the ‘Bliss Charitable Trust’ whilst the remainder of the estate was sold more widely. After some discussion, Sir Arthur’s piano, which had originally belonged to his mother, came north into an exhibition of historic instruments at ‘Besbrode Pianos’ in Leeds, where it stood proudly next to the instrument formerly owned by H.G. Wells…. Famously, the two men had collaborated on the futuristic film ‘Things to Come’ in 1936.
The instrument, although still handsome, was in a state of some disarray, and in need of restoration. However, the provenance was magnificent, and my wife and I bought it as seen. Made by Bluthner in 1886, it was lovingly restored by Besbrode, and now dominates our musicroom in Ripon. How remarkable it is to think that this is the piano on which he composed so much, and where the first sounds of ‘Kenilworth’ and the 'Belmont Variations’ were heard.
Here is Mark Gertler’s portrait of Bliss at this very piano. As he remembers in his biography:
‘In the finished painting, my head shows as a pale oval rising above the piano; what fascinated him was the beautiful scroll on the raised stand of my mother’s Bluthner, a very scarce and early one as piano tuners invariably point out…..’
My memories of Herbert Howells are more personal ones. As a violinist in the National Youth Orchestra in the 1960s, we were offered the chance to visit Dr Howells for informal composition classes on our free afternoons. Certainly no soft option, these extra-curricular meetings offered me my first experience of meeting a professional composer; more importantly, though unguessed at the time, they proved to be an unexpected turning point in my own musical life. As the orchestral courses progressed, and we grappled with Shostakovich’s new Tenth Symphony, or Bartok’s twenty-five-year-old Concerto for Orchestra, we also prepared our own juvenile scores for scrutiny by Howells…and (what was worse) by the other class members. This was no joke since these other students included composer David Matthews and Hallé Orchestra conductor Mark Elder! Of course in Howells, I saw a man who had been born in 1892, but I also knew some of his musical reputation. I was familiar with ‘Pageantry’, written in 1937, and his mighty settings for ‘Collegium Regale’ which appeared in 1945. I remember him recalling his own musical influences, his Requiem for his dead child Michael in ‘Hymnus Paradisi’ (1938) or his memories of the 1910 premiere of Vaughan Williams’ ‘Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis’ in Gloucester Cathedral, where, as a young man he had shared a score of Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ with Vaughan Williams himself. Here was a man who had studied with Stanford and Parry, as well as composing sets of church pieces for every major British Cathedral.
Looking back, it was a baptism of fire, but one which has shaped my musical outlook ever since. Like Howells, I have now written pieces for brass band, and like Howells I have composed music for the English Church. His words of wisdom stay with me, but his continuing influence in the nature and purpose of my musical creations has been intense.
Sir Arthur Bliss had occasional meetings with Gustav Holst in the early 1920s. There was an age gap of some thirty years. Between Howells and myself it was nearer sixty. Nevertheless, the youthful memories are as sharp now as if they happened yesterday. Bliss’s own memories of his mentor clearly mirror my own.
‘One is far too apt to take for granted the exceptional artist who can be seen living daily in our midst. There he is, just like us, getting on a bus, or sitting and eating in a tea shop! If we miss an opportunity to meet and talk with him—well, there will surely be other chances. And then he dies, and there is no second chance. I feel this deeply about Holst. I was with him only a few times, but each is indelibly engraved on my memory.’