Sunday, November 20, 2016

16 Perfect "Chosen" Bars for Sunday

Note: This article contains a music track auto-generated by YouTube which might not be playable outside the USA.  There are several other performances available there, though.

I'll never stop singing the praises of Herbert Howells (1892-1983), one of the greatest British composers of all time in my humble opinion.  Widely known for his choral music, Howells also excelled in instrumental music of all shapes and sizes, including his brass band classic Pageantry and his luscious Rhapsodic Quintet.  Far lower on the fame rung are his piano works, few of which were published in his lifetime, perhaps due to the fact that he never had a really big work (no sonatas like Bax or Tippett) except for large sets, chiefly his brilliant Elizabethan throwback sets Lambert's Clavichord and Howells's Clavichord.  In the late '90's Thames Publishing, a sheet music outfit I've never heard of before, published a two-volume collection of his shorter piano works with dreadfully dull green covers, and for the benefit of everybody who likes good things the most wonderful Margaret Fingerhut recorded a pile of those works along with a couple previously published: selections from Lambert's Clavichord and one of his last works, a Sonatina written for a piano competition.  I'll get to more Howells later (especially the Two Folk Dances recorded on that same album), but for now I'd like to look at a piece which should have long ago become a standard encore piece, not just for piano concerts but for pretty much any concert - and considering how beautiful the piece is I'd bet even big-time composers would work for free just to get the chance to arrange it.

The introduction to the Thames edition sums it up quite nicely:

(Click to enlarge)

That's quite a bit of backstory for such a short piece, a mere 16 bars, but its concentrated artistry and resounding beauty justify its lengthy, personal germination.  Howells was very much a Pastoralist, my label for the English style of Impressionism that dominated the first half of the 20th century on the fair isles, and here we have one of his most soulful tunes, obviously influenced by his native folk music but crafted for maximum harmonic depth.  It was originally published for violin and piano as part of a set but to be honest I think a violin would only rupture the hymn-like perfection of the part-writing.  There aren't many pieces I would call "perfect", as perfection requires a great deal of restraint to achieve consistency and a lack of unnecessary elements.  Heck, one of my favorite pieces of music is Stravinsky's Petrushka, a ballet crammed with so many ideas it seems like he thought he'd never write again, so while it's far from a rigorously "perfect" piece it's still amazing.  The 'Chosen' Tune is perfect, perfect in its brevity, its craftsmanship and its timeless resonance.  It's so perfect that talking about it any longer is useless, so let's hear Ms. Fingerhut and have a warming Sunday evening in these cold days.


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