On Herbert Howells’s ‘Master Tallis’s Testament’…

November 10th, 2016

As well as writing about the composition process and compositional issues (in the broadest sense –  which includes the Pope) I thought I’d occasionally write about pieces that particularly inspire or move me – these aren’t necessarily the world’s greatest or most important pieces, just pieces that do something specifically for me – Herbert Howells’s Master Tallis’s Testament is one of them.

The work is one of Howells’s Six Pieces for Organ, a collection that was published in 1953, though Master Tallis’s Testament was written thirteen years earlier in 1940. Not everyone is sympathetic to organ music, often with very good reason, but this work exemplifies everything good about organ music to me – mainly that it is very loud – extremely loud. It also captures the essence of the ‘Second English Renaissance’ of Howells, Vaughan Williams, and Holst et al with its seamless blending of sixteenth century modality and twentieth century sensuality. But it is mainly because it is loud.

The work is essentially a set of gradual variations on the opening theme, each subsequent variation growing in intensity, complexity and volume. The tone of the piece at the beginning is that of a restrained pastoralism, with the modal G minor gently washing against the numerous ‘Tudor’ chromatic inflections.

By the time we reach the fourth ‘variation’ at bar 37 the music has moved from the pastoral to the grandiose as the organ begins to gradually wind its self up ready for the apocalyptic climax that occurs with the cadence at bars 53 – 54. Here we are treated (in this recording) to the cathedral organ in all its glory, diapasons blaring, a vision of the almighty in terrifying majesty (or something like that).

The piece then finishes with a soft, adagio coda returning to the opening mood, neutralising much of the flamboyant drama of the previous section.

Master Tallis’s Testament might be nowhere near as subtle as its more famous cousin Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams, but there is a raw power in the work that never fails to make the hairs stand on the back of my neck, and I return to the piece often. And did I mention that it is very loud?


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