Herbert Howells: The Westminster Service – The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys

First, when will Jeremy Filsell, the Organist and Director of Music at Saint Thomas Church, order the score for the anthem, “I love all beauteous things” by Howells and have the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys add that rarely-performed but beautiful anthem to their repertoire? They would perform that anthem superbly. The “atmosphere” of the anthem is similar to that of The Gloucester Service (one of my favourites).

Unless you’re Anglican, CofE (Church of England), Episcopalian — they are different names for the same Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion — I suspect most readers have never heard the name Herbert Howells. He’s my favourite Anglican composer.

Dr Howells was a very prolific Anglican Church Music composer — although he wrote other music as well such as orchestral and symphonic choral works, but you wouldn’t know it because his music is rarely performed — and he’s especially known for his canticle settings and anthems. His music is sometimes described as “smokey” due to the beautiful dissonances which resolve and his glorious soaring lines. Having sung some of his canticle settings — Saint Paul’s Service and The Gloucester Service come to mind — I can tell you that his music is not easy to sing because of his long phrases, they take a lot of staggered breathing from the choristers. Your average podunk Church Choir cannot perform his music and do it justice, in part, because it’s beyond their vocal, talent and skill level. His music requires the finest and experienced choristers trained in choral excellence.

I was once in a cathedral church of the Anglican Communion and sat down in the pew for Mass. I remember saying “Oh they’re doing Howells today” after looking at the service leaflet. Some woman next to me said, “He’s too modern for me.” I said: Oh really? He’s my favourite Anglican composer. That’s all that was said. I thought to myself: I suspect CV Stanford is “too modern” for you, if you know his music. Well take the Anglican chant by Stanford for Psalm 150. It’s in C Major. It’s a beautiful setting and one of my favourites but it’s really quite basic in a musical sense. Or the Stanford canticle setting in C Major. Point being, I suspect C major chords and their inversions with no dissonances were “too modern” for that woman sitting in the pew next to me.

You may be asking “what are canticle settings?” The canticles are a part of the Anglican Choral Evensong, specifically the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord…”) and Nunc Dimittis (“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.”) Although the Magnificat can be used as an anthem in other liturgies. It’s not limited to Choral Evensong. The Magnificat is sung after the reading of the First Lesson and the Nunc Dimittis is sung after the reading of the Second Lesson during Evensong. The “setting” or Service means the composer’s musical composition for those texts. There are probably hundreds of canticle settings/Services by various Anglican composers, all on the same text but the music is different for each. Similar to all the settings of the Mass we have by various composers, such as Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. That’s a Mass setting, or those by Haydn, for example. There are lots of Mass settings. With Howells, many of his Services had specific names named after the building (parish or cathedral church) that each Service was written for. Such as the Westminster Service which was written for the Choir and acoustics of Westminster Abbey, or to be more official: For the Collegiate Church of Saint Peter in Westminster. The Westminster Service was composed in 1957.

Usually only parishes and cathedral churches with the finest Choirs trained in choral excellence have Choral Evensong because they’re capable of performing the repertoire written for it and performing it well. Cathedrals may have a Choir School and some parishes do if they’re lucky. Saint Thomas, a parish, has a residential Choir School — the only one in the United States of North America — and their trebles/boys sound like it. They are amongst the best you will ever hear. To my knowledge, Westminster Abbey in London has the only residential Choir School there. Some people mistake Saint Thomas for being a cathedral. It’s not. The seat of the Bishop (cathedral) in New York City is the Cathedral Church of Saint John The Divine.

Herbert Howells was unique in that he went around England writing canticle settings (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) for the acoustics and the Choir of the parishes and Cathedral Choirs he was writing for. That took some work because he listened for the acoustics of the building. Don’t ask me how often he visited each church to do this. Perhaps once was enough or maybe he went there multiple times. So for example, the Saint Paul’s Service — written for Saint Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in London — thas slower harmonic changes than the Collegium Regale Service (the Chapel at King’s College), for example, due to the echo and vast acoustics of Saint Paul’s Anglican Cathedral. Having sung that Service I can tell you that it’s not necessarily easy to sing because of the long phrases requiring lots of breath control and staggered breathing from the well-trained choristers. Although I don’t remember really thinking about that as a chorister or any of us choristers mentioning to each other (“Oh, these long phrases will wipe you out,”) but as a listener I do think about that, because with a Cathedral Choir there are a small number of choristers in each section (I’m talking about the maybe two counter-tenors, two tenors and two or three basses on each side) and maybe 7 trebles on each side so that’s a total of 14 boys. As opposed to a Symphony Chorus where each section can have 50 basses, 50 tenors and so forth if it’s a Symphony Chorus of 200 voices. Whereas the Howells’s Collegium Regale Service has faster harmonic changes since that was written for the Choir and acoustics of the (smaller) Chapel at King’s College, Cambridge.

Howells is especially known for The Big Three canticle settings: Collegium Regale Service (written for the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, the Saint Paul’s Service (written for Saint Paul’s Anglican Cathedral) and the Gloucester Service (written for Gloucester Abbey/Cathedral or formally the Cathedral Church of St Peter and the Holy and Indivisible Trinity). Most Choirmasters have been in a rut for decades using just those three services. But Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue — with their superb residential Choir School — is breaking out of that rut and fortunately performing some of the other beautiful services of Howells, such as the Westminster Service (written for Westminster Abbey).

I watched the trebles of Saint Thomas perform the Westminster Service. Amazing is not a word I normally use — although many people these days use it as often as they use the period at the end of a sentence — but it was amazing to see boys that young superbly performing music that difficult and effortlessly. This is music that even seasoned adult choristers may have some trouble with initially. Your average (podunk) Church Choir couldn’t begin to perform the piece and make it sound like this performance. Yet the Choir of Men and Boys of Saint Thomas performed it beautifully. I would say effortlessly, but those long phrases are not exactly sung without serious effort. And some of these boys look like they’re barely 6 years old and they’re performing this music. That is amazing to see and hear. One wonders if the congregation these days at Saint Thomas know what they are fortunate to have their with the stellar Choir of Men and Boys, or do most not have the ear to tell the difference between the Choir of Men and Boys and one’s average Church Choir? They are world’s apart.

Howells also wrote some outstanding organ works. He was a High Church Anglican and that shows in much of his music. He’s considered “too modern” for some people because of his dissonances. His dissonances are part of the appeal of his music to me.

I thought Saint Thomas was High Church, no? I’ve never been there, and it wasn’t until the installation of the video production system — during the continuing COVID pandemic — that I could see what they do there. From my understanding, they are an Anglo-Catholic (High Church) parish. Is that still true? Or has COVID made the parish more lower church? Most of the people in the pews aren’t clear on the concept of High Church based on their behaviour. They act very low church. I think I’ve only seen one person genuflect at the side of the pew. During the Gloria of the canticles, I’ve only seen a few people bow. Some people bow to the processional crosses, but many do not.

I was always under the impression and assumption that the congregation of Saint Thomas was “the most devout of the devout.” Not from what I’ve seen. Has something changed or did I have a false impression based on what I read online about the parish? For example: For the Gloria of the Westminster Service, I saw four guys bowing in the Nave. No females bowed in the Nave. They couldn’t be bothered. The priests bowed of course. I also thought they used incense more often than they do such as in procession. I haven’t seen incense used much in the processions, nor do they use incense during the Gospel reading. Did some of the congregation complain about the incense and that was that? It’s mainly used around the High Altar. The music makes the Liturgy feel more High Church, but I do miss the rich, lush and full-organ grand and glorious organ hymn playing and High Church interludes between some verses that one heard when Organist Jeremy Bruns was there. He was superb. I was sorry to see him leave. For the most part these days, the organ playing seems “toned down” by comparison to the days of Bruns. Not sure why that’s the case. And they have a new pipe organ. How many churches these days are installing new pipe organs? Practically none. If anything, many/most churches are abandoning their pipe organs in favour of fad pop-culture rubbish/music and praise bands. Let’s hope Saint Thomas never goes that way. When churches start doing that it often become a mess because of the mixing of styles. Anglican one minute. Southern Baptist/Pentecostal/Gospel-style the next. A mess. Such a clash in styles.

I think the trebles/boys are the envy of every Choirmaster in the Anglican Communion. I suspect other Choirmasters are “seething with envy” that those boys are at Saint Thomas and the repertoire they are capable of doing, which many adult choristers would struggle with or not be able to do at all.

In the video below, if you don’t want to watch the entire Evensong, the Magnificat begins at around 30.00 into the video. The Nunc Dimittis begins at around 37.20 into the video.