Monday, 8 July 2019

Herbert Howells, Ambrose Porter and an Organ Sonata

The information and photographs in this post were collated by Lay Vicar Emeritus, Michael Guest, for a forthcoming display in the Cathedral, and are reproduced here with permission.

The celebrated teacher and composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983) was born at Lydney in Gloucestershire, and became an articled pupil of Sir Herbert Brewer at Gloucester Cathedral in 1905.  Ambrose Porter, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Lichfield from 1925-1959, was also a Gloucestrian, born in Coleford in 1885; he likewise became one of Brewer’s pupils.

Howells and Porter were members of what turned out to be a remarkable group of budding musicians, which included  the composer/poet Ivor Gurney, and Ivor Davies (later known as Ivor Novello) the composer of popular musicals.

Friendships formed in the organ loft at Gloucester ran deep, and Howells dedicated his first attempt at an Organ Sonata to his contemporary, Porter. The manuscript is specifically dated and, in all probability, formed a part of the portfolio of compositions which Howells submitted as part of an application to become a student at the Royal College of Music, in which aim he succeeded in 1912.

The title page of Howell's First Organ Sonata

On the title page of the remarkably clear manuscript, the complete inscription in Howells’s handwriting reads
To my friend
Ambrose P Porter
who first performed it.

Sonata in C Minor
For Organ

Composed by
Herbert N Howells

In  Lydney
October 26th-30th 1911

For many years it was believed that the manuscript of this sonata was lost, and Howells tended to regard it as a work of somewhat immaturity, giving wider publicity to his second Organ Sonata which he composed in 1933 and published the following year.

However, Dr Tustin Baker, another pupil from the Gloucester stable, had made his own copy from the original, and many years later as retiring organist of Sheffield Cathedral bequeathed this to his successor, the organist Graham Matthews,who collaborated with David Wells to produce an edition for publication which Matthews subsequently recorded for commercial distribution.

Recently, the grandchildren of Ambrose Porter presented a significant corpus of his unpublished work to Lichfield Cathedral and among the manuscripts was this supposedly lost treasure.

The opening page of Howells's First Organ Sonata

Title and autograph detail from the cover of Howells' First Organ Sonata