My birthday is this week. . . . and this is my birthday gift to DK.
I've wanted Herbert Howells' Hymnus Paradisi to be my "next" classical music diary for about 2 years(!) now. What held me back is the lack of a YouTube video for it. Well, I finally found one, from the 2012 BBC Proms.
That said, if you have iTunes or Spotify, I encourage you to seek out other versions: all of them (Naxos, EMI, Chandos, and Hyperion) have their own selling points, although my personal favorite is the Hyperion version. In any case, the timings here are for the BBC Proms version (which you can find over the fleur-de-Kos).
Howells wrote Hymnus Paradisi as a private document to channel the grief he felt upon the sudden death of his nine-year-old son Michael from polio in 1935. Although Howells completed the work in 1938, it was not until 1950 that this work saw the light of day, when Howells' friend Ralph Vaughan Williams finally convinced Howells that it was simply too good to remain private. (In fact, one writer in The Telegraph has called Hymnus Paradisi the greatest English choral work ever written.) While it is rarely performed in the U.S., it became quite popular in Britain; for the rest of his life, Howells received letters from listeners moved by hearing it.
1. Preludio [0:00]
This purely orchestral movement introduces some of the major themes of the work. One of the first themes you'll hear will return more than once in the rest of the work.
2. Requiem aeternam [4:29]
The chorus finally enters at the beginning of this movement; after three bars, the chorus, now divided in two, proceeds a cappella for several bars before the orchestra returns. About halfway into the movement, the soprano soloist enters [8:12] to flute, harp, and celesta accompaniment. The delicate scoring here is reminiscent of the quieter moments of Mahler's Eighth Symphony. The choir then joins in again, rising in intensity, peaking at the words "et lux perpetua," emphasizing the theme of light that will be so powerful in the finale. The music returns to the sound world of the Preludio, although it is less brooding.
Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.
(Grant them Eternal rest, o Lord, and shine perpetual light upon them.)
3. The Lord is My Shepherd [14:31]
Once again, the soprano soloist enters, singing a gorgeous setting of Psalm 23 (although, for my money, I prefer Ralph Vaughan Williams' version in Pilgrim's Progress). At 15:23, the tenor soloist finally enters, at "He shall convert my soul." A few bars later, the choir enters, although the music is surprisingly dark here. It finally lightens again at "And my cup shall be full" [17:30]. Pay attention to the orchestra after the soloists quiet: we will hear music similar to this one more time.
4. Sanctus. I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes [22:15]
The women of the chorus begin this movement with the words of the "Sanctus", in Latin. The soprano and tenor then enter with the words of Psalm 121. At 23:46 the tenor sings "I will lift up mine eyes" as the organ descends; the Hyperion recording of this moment is quite simply one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. The movement builds to two climaxes: one at "Saboath/Sanctus" [25:00], and a second time, at "Pleni sunt coeli" [26:45]. The latter is notable as it contains the only cymbal clash in the entire work (a point lost on the cameramen, and not clearly audible in this video). The movement then coasts along to its conclusion as the soloists lead the chorus through the final lines of the Psalm.
Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth. Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
(Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.)
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh even from the Lord, who hath made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved, and he that keepeth thee will not sleep. Behold he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord himself is thy keeper, the Lord is thy defense upon thy right hand, so that the sun shall not burn thee by day, neither the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil, yea, it is even he that shall keep thy soul. The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in, from this time forth for evermore.
5. I Heard a Voice from Heaven [31:48]
This is a slightly reworked version of the finale of Howells' Requiem. It has the most subtle orchestration of any movement, and ends on a beautiful a cappella chord in D major.
I heard a voice from Heaven, saying unto me, Write, from henceforth blessed are the dead which die in the Lord: even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labours.
6. Holy is the True Light [37:13]
The finale starts with the cellos, basses, and organ playing a low B♭ pedal point, as we find ourselves in the rather interesting key of B♭ minor (the same key used to open Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings). [Note B♭ minor has five flats—B♭, C, D♭, E♭, F, G♭, A♭—so, aside from the C and F, it's the pentatonic scale on the black keys!]
In bar 2, a trumpet comes in, heralding the brilliance of that True Light, playing that pentatonic scale. In bar 4, a second trumpet enters, also playing that same scale. They continue on until the violins and violas enter in bar 12. Remarkably, they hold a D♭ and an E♭, for about two bars: for a short period of time, there's a double pedal point, one above, and one below.
The B♭ pedal point lasts for 60 bars, about 3 minutes. The first half is purely orchestral, while in the second half, the chorus sings lines from the Salisbury Diurnal: "Holy is the true light, and passing wonderful. Alleluia." The part above the pedal point builds in complexity, but Howells continues to draw the listener's attention back to the pedal point by constantly having the harp and piano play that B♭ staccato, until the music, having reached fortissimo, spills over into a new key, A major. It slows down for a moment, as the choir continues singing from the Salisbury Diurnal, but then picks up again, leading to a second climax—this time with the music momentarily coming to a complete halt. With proper reverberation, though, the music should echo through the silence until the chorus re-enters, once again a cappella.
Finally, as the music moves toward its conclusion, the soprano enters, singing "Alleluia"; at 43:20 the tenor joins her. The music then darkens one last time, although the orchestra quotes "The Lord is My Shepherd" one more time [44:09]. Finally, after a surprisingly dark chord (E♭-G-B-D) as choir and soloists sing "Requiem dona eis," the light breaks through one last time on the word "sempiternam." The image I get here as the choir and then the orchestra fade out is one of birds taking flight at sunset. (I wonder, given the origins of this work, if Howells meant this to represent souls ascending to heaven.)
Holy is the true light, and passing wonderful. Alleluia.
Lending radiance to them that endured in the heat of the conflict. Alleluia.
From Christ they inherit a home of unfading splendour,
Wherein they rejoice with gladness forevermore. Alleluia.
Requiem aeternam, requiem dona eis sempiternam.
(Eternal rest, grant them everlasting rest.)