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Organ Music of Herbert Howells played by Christopher Stokes on the organ of Manchester Cathedral

Psalm Prelude Set 1 No. 1

Psalm Prelude Set 1 No. 2

Rhapsody No. 3 in C# minor

Psalm Prelude Set 2 No. 1

Saraband For the morning of Easter

Master Tallis’s Testament

Saraband In modo elegiaco

Scherzo and Epilogue
Sarabande for the 12th day of any October

Total playing time 67m 29s

Sounds Atmospheric

Herbert Howells

Born in Lydney, Gloucestershire in 1892, Herbert Howells’ contribution to the twentieth century organ repertoire is one of the most significant of any British composer.

He was Herbert Brewer’s articled pupil at Gloucester Cathedral for two years before taking up a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1912. There he studied with, among others, Stanford, who described the young Howells as his “son in music”. It is interesting that the man, who in many ways, set the tone for Cathedral music in the nineteenth century should be so closely linked with the man who set the tone for the twentieth. In fact, Howells’ contribution to the Cathedral repertoire dates largely from the 1940s onwards, his considerable early successes being chiefly as a secular composer. Stanford conducted the premiere of his First Piano Concerto (1913), and his 1916 Piano Quartet and 1919 Rhapsodic Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, which both won awards from the Carnegie Trust.

Howells’ career as an organist was brief: he was forced by ill health to quit the post of sub-organist at Salisbury Cathedral in 1917. He later deputised for a conscripted Robin Orr at St. John’s College, Cambridge between 1941 and 1945. He taught at the RCM for many years, was director of music at St.Paul’s Girls School, Hammersmith, between 1936 and 1962, and was King Edward VII Professor of Music at London University from 1950. He was awarded a CBE in 1953.

The death of Howells’ nine year old son, Michael, in 1935 exerted the most profound influence on his music. In fact, he had composed relatively little during the years following Michael’s birth, but the child’s tragic death resulted in the creation of some of Howells’ most beautiful and heartfelt music. A deeply felt cello concerto dating from this time was never completed, but in the late thirties appeared Hymnus Paradisi – perhaps his greatest work. The second set of Psalm Preludes date from the same period.

Much of Howells’ organ music enjoys popularity – the first set of Psalm Preludes and certain of the Six Pieces in particular are regularly heard. The more challenging second set of Psalm Preludes and the three Rhapsodies (op.17) are also familiar. It is a shame that his larger-scale works are unjustly neglected. Of his two Sonatas, the second from 1932 contains some of the most impassioned organ writing from an Englishman. The remarkable, and much later, Partita fortunately is given an airing here. Of her father’s final decline, Howells’ daughter Ursula wrote the following, which is quoted in Paul Spicer’s book, Herbert Howells: ‘In the last months I saw that ‘Hymnus’ was on the radio and I told him it was on. He asked what it was. I told him that he had written it for Michael. He said “I don’t want to hear it”, but I just left it on. And I went through at the end of it, and there he was just lying there with tears streaming down his face saying “did I write that?”’

Psalm Prelude Set 1 Nos.1 & 2 & Set 2 No.1

There are three Psalm Preludes in both sets and, of all of them, it is perhaps set 1 no.1 that is the most often heard. Unlike the Rhapsodies and many of Howells’ other solo organ works the Psalm Preludes are programmatic – as their collective title implies they illuminate in music verses from the psalms. The first set date from 1915 - 1916; the hallmarks of the composer’s unmistakable style all being in evidence despite his young age – Howells was merely 24 in 1916. The first is dedicated to Sir Walter Parratt and takes as its inspiration Psalm 34, verse 6:

Lo, the poor crieth and the Lord heareth him; yea saveth him out of all his troubles.

The form of the piece is a classic Howellsian crescendo-climax-diminuendo.

The second Psalm Prelude has a similar shape, though it is much quieter. Dedicated to Harry Stevens-Davis it is based on the 11th verse of Psalm 37:

But the meek-spirited shall possess the earth; and shall be refreshed in the multitude of peace.

Dating from the late 1930s, the first of the second set is quite clearly a musical response to the death of Michael. This is Howells at his most passionate – the cavernous opening of the piece leading ultimately to a climactic fff before the music falls away again.

Out of the deep have I called unto thee O Lord; Lord, hear my voice
Psalm 130 v.1

The piece is dedicated to John Dykes Bower.

Rhapsody No.3 in C# minor

The third of Howells’ op.17 Rhapsodies is unquestionably one of the most dramatic and effective pieces in the organ repertoire. Whilst it is not programmatic in the manner of the Psalm Preludes, it does have a story: whilst recovering from illness in 1918, Howells spent some time staying with Edward Bairstow in York. Disturbed by a zeppelin raid, Howells wrote this turbulent piece in a single all-night sitting.

Six Pieces

Howells started work on the Six Pieces in 1939, the set eventually being completed after the Second World War and dedicated to Herbert Sumsion. Three of the pieces are presented here:

Saraband For the morning of Easter is the second of the set, and was written in 1940. Howells’ use of an archaic dance-form reveals his interest in Tudor and Elizabethan music, though of course everything about the piece beyond this is utterly his own. It ends as it begins – in a brilliant C major. Also reflecting Howells’ interest in his musical forebears, Master Tallis’s Testament (also written in 1940, the third in the collection) is a particularly important piece in his output. It was always one of his favourite works, and was strongly linked in his mind to Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia. The fifth of the Six Pieces, Saraband In modo elegiaco was the last to be completed, being finished on the 16th September 1945. A few days earlier was the tenth anniversary of Michael’s death, and no doubt this intense and moving work was influenced heavily by both this and the carnage of the World War II.


The stark, almost neo-classical nature of Partita probably comes as something of a shock to anyone familiar with the Herbert Howells of the first set of Psalm Preludes. Originally entitled Sonata in Division, it became Partita between its completion at the beginning of September 1971 and its presentation on the 28th of September to its dedicatee, Edward Heath. Many years earlier, Howells had promised to write Heath (then organ scholar at Balliol College Oxford) a piece should he ever become Prime Minister. Almost as soon as Heath arrived in Downing Street in 1970, Howells began writing.

Tom Bell 2005

Christopher Stokes

Christopher Stokes was appointed Organist & Master of the Choristers of Manchester Cathedral in 1996, having previously been appointed Organist of the Cathedral in 1992. Prior to that he worked in London, having held posts in two of London’s leading churches: as Organist & Master of Music at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square and Director of Music at St. Margaret’s, Westminster Abbey.

As a conductor in London, he directed the professional choirs for services at St. Martin’s and St. Margaret’s. He also founded The Baroque Soloists of St Martin-in-the-Fields, (a group of leading baroque players and singers in London). In Manchester he directs the Cathedral Choir, which, in addition to the essential Opus Dei, sings for regular television and radio broadcasts and has recorded a number of CDs, which have receive critical acclaim. He also conducts the Cathedral Chorale, which performs with the Manchester Camerata and the Northern Chamber Orchestra.

Christopher is also one of the regular directors/organists for Daily Service on BBC Radio 4. He directed the music for the 2001 live transmission of the Ascension Day service on Radio 4, conducting the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and the Daily Service Singers. He again directed the service in 2002 with His Majesties Sagbutts and Cornetts.

As a soloist, Christopher has performed extensively both in the UK and abroad. In 1997 he was the first to record on the Marcussen organ in Manchester’s new Bridgewater Hall with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, and played Elgar’s Organ Sonata in G there as part of the ‘Concert Plus’ series for the BBC. Since then, he has given two further recitals there. He has appeared as concerto soloist with numerous orchestras including the Manchester Camerata, the Northern Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Golden Age. This year he has given concerts in Germany, during which time he made a live concert-recording of a Handel organ concerto with the German Radio Orchestra in the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. His CD recording of Elgar and Stanford’s organ works has received critical acclaim.

As a continuo player, Christopher has always been busy. He has performed, toured, broadcast and recorded with most of Britain’s leading orchestras including the Hanover Band; the London Mozart Players; the London Symphony Orchestra; the London Bach Orchestra; the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra; the Hallé Orchestra and the Northern Chamber Orchestra. He has also performed and recorded with the Salzburg Bach-Chor and the German Radio Choir. He has a great many television and radio broadcasts to his credit. Christopher also works as a piano accompanist.

Whilst in London, Christopher was professor of organ at Trinity College of Music from 1976-1992, where he also studied from 1972-1976. He was invited to become Head of Organ Studies at Chetham’s School of Music in 1994. He is a Council Member of the Royal College of Organists and was the Artistic Director of the College’s Performer of the Year 2000 competition.

The Organ of Manchester Cathedral

An organ was built for the Cathedral by “Father” Smith in 1684. It stood on the screen until 1861, when it was removed to a side chapel and a large three-manual organ was installed in the Jesus Chapel by Nicholson & Co.

In 1871 a new organ was built by Hill & Son, the main part of which stood on the screen in a new case by Sir George Gilbert Scott. This organ was rebuilt by the same firm in 1910, with the majority of the organ divided each side of the choir stalls, and a second Great division on the screen. It was revoiced and altered by Harrison & Harrison in 1918.

In 1934, Harrison & Harrison carried out a further scheme of restoration and additions, with the provision of new electro-pneumatic action. The Choir Organ was enclosed and remodelled, and the small Father Smith organ was connected to the main console (while also remaining playable from its own keyboard).

In December 1940, the organ was partially destroyed in an air raid. The Swell, Solo and most of the Pedal organ were seriously damaged; the Great, Choir and Screen departments were only slightly harmed; and the console alone remained intact. The Father Smith organ was destroyed. In 1943, a temporary two manual organ was constructed by Harrison & Harrison.

The present organ, which incorporates pipework of the 1934 organ, was installed between 1952 and 1957. The specification was drawn up by Norman Cocker, the Cathedral Organist, in consultation with the organ builders, with certain modifications suggested by his successor, Allan Wicks.

The organ stands within two westerly bays of the choir aisles. The Choir and Great Organs are on the South side; the Swell and Solo on the North; the Pedal on both sides, with the Open Woods and Ophicleides in the Jesus Chapel. A new console was placed in the chancel; the old console was retained and placed in the nave.

Restoration work was carried out in 1974 and 1979, when solid-state coupler and combination actions were provided. The nave console was removed, and the chancel console rebuilt on the choir screen. A new sequencing/general system was added in 1995 by Alan Taylor & Co.

Recorded in Manchester Cathedral on 21st, 22nd and 23rd July 2005 by kind permission of the Dean and Canons.

Produced by Paul Provost
Console assistant: James Norrey
Recorded and edited by Lance Andrews
Recording assistant: Andrew Bell
Photograph by Lance Andrews