• Herbert Howells
  • Oboe Sonata (1942)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

ed. Sarah Francis and Peter Dickinson

  • Oboepf
  • 24 min
  • There are no performances of this work

Programme Note

Herbert Howells: Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1942)

Herbert Howells was born in Gloucestershire in 1892 and died at the age of 91 in 1983, just a few days after his close friend and champion Sir Adrian Boult. The Sonata for oboe and piano was written in the middle of the Second World War. The manuscript was dated "H.H. London 27 August 1942" and inscribed "For Leon Goossens". When writing his study of Howells, published in 1978, Christopher Palmer borrowed the manuscript from the composer and fortunately made a photocopy of it. Now the manuscript seems to have disappeared. Much earlier Goossens had returned it to Howells, who seemed uncertain about the work, which explains why it has had to wait forty-two years for performance.

The sonata was written four years after Howells' masterpiece the Hymnus Paradisi. He was uncertain about that too, and needed Vaughan Williams' persuasion to have it performed. Both cases are what we may now see as unfortunate examples of British reserve.

During the war Howells was Director of Music at St Paul's Girls' School and organist of St John's College, Cambridge. At the time of the oboe sonata he was starting on the long series of liturgical works, both services and anthems, for the Anglical rite. The organ, and the atmosphere surrounding its use in cathedrals and collegiate chapels, was essential to his musical temperament. So was the practice of improvisation. It was in his own playing that he could develop his personal blend of modal folksong, plainsong and Tudor influences, and he regularly improvised during services at St John's.

The oboe sonata reflects Howells' ruminative and personal fusion of sources, sometimes regarded as English Georgian. No wonder his favourite poet for musical setting was Walter De La Mare, whose work was nevertheless recognised by a modernist such as Auden. The sonata has four movements, but the first two and the last two play without a break. Thematic interconnection is so widespread that the work's integration is very close. There are also connections with those of the Six organ pieces (nos 1,3,4 and 6) which were written before the sonata.

The work's principal theme begins unobtrusively on the piano, followed by the oboe, but not in exact imitation. Recurrences are almost always varied, in the folk tradition deriving from oral roots. The oboe introduces a more rhythmic theme and the two ideas are developed into a sonorous climax, winding down to the end of the movement.

The Lento, opening with sustained piano chords, brings a new melody in the oboe - a nine-bar folksong-type within the range of a minor sixth, and the whole twelve-bar period, including accompaniment, in the Ionian mode transposed to B. The work's main theme re-enters in the piano to prompt a central section. The folksong returns and the movement ends calmly, the oboe falling, the piano rising.

The third movement is a scherzo, a genuine one with cadenzas for the oboe but balanced by a return of the slow music from the two previous movements in an epilogue as a fourth movement at the end. Howells may have regarded the fast music with its constantly changing time-signatures and sections in 7/8 as rather experimental. This may have been the cause of his uncertainty about the work: there is even a marginal - queried - mark of 4/4 against the second 7/8 section. The movement opens with backchat between oboe and piano which turns out, over the first, soft 7/8 section to be related to the second theme of the first movement and its rhythm. This is extended and exciting, leading to the second 7/8 section which this time is loud, bringing back the theme of the Lento in unaccustomed glare. Quiet oboe solos lead to the final epilogue - slow reminiscences confirming the sonata's overall tonality of A.

Herbert Howells' oboe sonata was given its world premiere by Sarah Francis and Peter Dickinson at the Cheltenham International Festival on July 9, 1984. Herbert Howells: Sonata for Oboe and Piano (1942)