Herbert Howells: Music for Clavichord

pfcd065Lambert’s Clavichord Op. 41 (HH 165)

Howells’ Clavichord Book I (HH 237)

Julian Perkins, clavichord

Prima Facie PFCD065/66

The intimate tinkling twang of the clavichord immediately suggests Tudor galliards and other courtly dances, and songs written to fair ladies and noble knights. Herbert Howells was introduced to the clavichord by Herbert Lambert (1881-1936), a photographer and clavichord maker, and began composing miniatures for the instrument, delighting in its expressive qualities, colours and surprising range of harmonics. His two sets of pieces for clavichord, ‘Lambert’s Clavichord’ and ‘Howells’ Clavichord’, pay homage to Tudor keyboard music such as the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, with which Howells would have been familiar, and exploit the same textures, gestures, idioms, cadences, piquant harmonies and expression inherent in Tudor keyboard works. Writing about Lambert’s Clavichord in 1928, organist and musical scholar Dr (later Sir) Richard Terry observed: “Mr Howells has absorbed all the wealth and variety of Tudor rhythms, but keeps his own individuality intact. His music is modern inasmuch as he uses chords and progressions unknown in Tudor times, but the spirit of the old composers is there all the while.”

There are galliards and pavanes, fancies and groundes in Howells’ two suites, pieces common to Tudor and Renaissance dance suites, and Howells plays on the organisation of Tudor keyboard suites by giving his miniatures titles such as ‘My Lord Sandwich’s Dreame’, ‘De la Mare’s Pavane’ and ‘Sir Richard’s Toye’. The pieces are warm, witty salutes to Howells’ friends and fellow composers. Howells intended them to be thus – “to my friends pictured (or at all events affectionately saluted) within” – with references to the dedicatee’s own music, or in tribute of their life and work (for example, ‘Finzi’s Rest’ was written the day after Gerald Finzi died and its simple melody is a fitting honour to Finzi’s writing). Meanwhile, in ‘Walton’s Toye’, the opening theme suggests William Walton’s ‘Crown Imperial’, but it is quickly overtaken by rapid quavers which give the piece propulsion and animation. Some pieces are jazzy, replete with unexpected dissonances and satisfying resolutions; others are lyrical and tender. Some pieces stray into the realms of pastiche, but never to the extent that the musical strength and imagination is lost.

There is nothing po-faced or academic about the playing on this double disc album, and Julian Perkins brings vibrancy and colour to his performance, using a selection of clavichords for the recording by Dolmetsch and Goff.

Howells never intended the suites to be confirmed to the clavichord or harpsichord alone, and these pieces are equally delightful on the modern piano (a notable recording by John McCabe is worth exploring for comparison). The pieces are within the reach of the intermediate to advanced pianist.

This is the first complete recording on clavichord of this music, and this new recording is dedicated to the memory of Ruth Dyson, noted pianist, harpsichordist and clavichord player, in her centenary year.

There is some background hiss on the recording (more obvious when listening through headphones), but the instruments themselves sound bright and richly coloured. Comprehensive liner notes by Andrew Mayes, together with a note on the instruments by Peter Bavington and performance notes by Julian Perkins.

Release date: 3 November 2017.

Further information


  1. I was examined by Dr Howells for my grade 5 at the Royal College of Music in 1973 (or was it ’74?) – a lovely venerable gent who passed me by 1 mark – I still have the Little Prelude BWV 936 from that exam list in my fingers all these decades later – I am learning his There Was A Most Beautiful Lady as part of my 40 piece piano challenge in memory of that day.

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