On Herbert Howells’s ‘A Spotless Rose’…

November 8th, 2016

With Christmas just round the corner and feeling full of festive cheer after making a second batch of Christmas jam (watch out friends and family…) my thoughts turned to Christmas music, and after deliberating on what to write about, one piece stood out above the others – Herbert Howells’s beautiful carol-anthem A Spotless Rose.

A Spotless Rose is one of Howells’s most well-known and enduring works, a tender, if somewhat slight unaccompanied choral piece that encompasses much of Howells’s early choral writing and points towards the glories of Collegium Regale and beyond. It is beautiful yet understated, succinct yet not laconic, poised but not mannerist – a triumph of poignant and powerful word setting. And apparently he wrote it in Gloucester overlooking the train station – which makes it all the more impressive – I can’t imagine much creative inspiration stemming from Gloucester train station. At all.

The piece was written in 1919 and is one of the Three Carol-Anthems, a set which includes the equally melodious Here is the little door and Sing Lullaby, but it is A Spotless Rose that stands out amongst the others. It is a simple setting of the anonymous fifteenth-century poem about Jesus’ birth and the purity of Mary, and the naivety of the words seem to give Howells the springboard to create something that appears the model of simplicity on the surface, but hides a deeper complexity – how many carols written in 1919 move mellifluously between 7 8, 5 4 and 5 8 with the subtle changes of metre emphasising the stresses of the words and Howells’s restrained homophony? The harmony moves seamlessly from a modal E major to the minor (0.27) before returning to the major for the end of the first verse – then the magic happens! The second verse (0.58) has a stunning tenor solo that brings a radiant glow to the music, but the skill is in the accompaniment given by the rest of the choir – understated again, but not a note out of place – again pointing towards similar sections in later works.

Perhaps the most celebrated moment of the piece is the very end, in fact the final cadence – this cadence (on the words “cold winter’s night) is one of Howells’s most sublime and affecting moments and the composer Patrick Hadley famously wrote to Howells saying “I should like, when my time comes, to pass away with that magical cadence.” The cadence itself (2.50)moves from A minor to E major through some wonderfully piquant suspensions and unusual dissonance resolutions, all with a good helping of emotion and ‘feeling’ – it is mature Howells through and through and it is indeed wonderful.

So there you go, a great piece of Christmas music – in fact a great piece of music in general. Next year Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe and Wine. Merry Christmas.


(to buy this recording, Polyphony, Hyperion, click here)

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