This concerto for String Orchestra is a "new-old" work revived in January 1974 at a Hallé Orchestra Concert, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, to whom it is dedicated. The work is new only in its revival in Manchester, and more recently in London. It was composed in 1938. It had its first performance in December of that year, by the BBC Orchestra, under Sir Adrian Boult. It was composed in circumstances essentially personal to me: sketched a short time after Sir Edward Elgar's death in 1934, and at a still brief interval, after the loss of an only son, Michael Kendrick Howells, - a loss specifically and more extensively related to Hymnus Paradisi which was composed in the same year as the Concerto for Strings.
For these and other reasons the slow movement of the Concerto is dedicatory in origin and nature. It bears the note: "In memoriam E.E. (1934) and M.K.H. (1935)".
Of that twofold link the first is, obviously, the more immediate concern to the music qua music, idiomatically and technically. It was meant to be a modest expression of the abiding spell of music for Strings and to be in that genus, in humble relationship to two supreme works: Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis and Elgar's Introduction and Allegro. In 1910, at the Three Choirs' Festival in Gloucester Cathedral, I was present at the first performance of the Fantasia. Within days, and for the first time, I heard the Introduction and Allegro. I was at the time seventeen; deeply impressionable. Twenty-one years later, again at Gloucester, walking with Sir Edward Elgar in the Cathedral precincts, he spoke quietly but earnestly of the technique and nature of writing for strings. One name dominated his talk; George Frederick Handel.
In the Concerto the flanking movements are other than dedicatory or elegiac forms. The first was determined by the nature of the already completed slow movement. Nearly all its factors - both in general and particular ways - had to obey the need for a more energetic mood. Not only pace, but melodic contours and rhythms, and the harmonic background to the solo viola in the second theme's statement and variants had to meet that need, even if they also brought a near counterpoise to the general animation of the movement as a whole.
The central movement, submissive and memorial in its intention and purpose, begins in fragile terms - a solo trio's statement of the main theme. Elegiac as always, its concern technically is with the interplay of soli and tutti. It moves over wide levels of tone, and feeling momentarily and briefly outdistances the prevailing teneramente (tenderly) marking.
For the most part the slow moving Parry-cum-Elgar leaping sevenths of the second movement are dismissed in the third. Pace and melodic rhythms are, mainly, expected priorities. There is a lengthy episode, pizzicato and contrapuntal. C major brings an extrovert theme. There is too, an unexpected late transition in mood - lento dolente ma dolce - just before the brief final activity.
Programme note © 1974 Herbert Howells