Howells is principally known today for his sacred music, though this accounts for only part of his output and dates from relatively late in his life. While his importance as an instrumental and orchestral composer is currently being re-assessed, his position at the head of English church music in the 20th century, as the Stanford of his era, is unquestioned. His greatest work is probably the Hymnus paradisi for soloists, chorus and orchestra.
Howells was born in Gloucestershire on 17 October 1892 and was set on becoming a composer from a young age. He studied with Herbert Brewer at Gloucester cathedral and in 1912 won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music where he continued his studies under Stanford and Charles Wood. Stanford was an important early influence and the old master clearly recognised something of himself in his young pupil.
Having gained a position as sub-organist at Salisbury Cathedral, Howells spent three years from 1917 to 1920 recuperating from serious illness. During this time, he composed much of his orchestral and chamber music, and secured a position teaching at the RCM, a post he would hold well into his 80s. Howells also succeeded Holst as director of music at St Paul's School for Girls (1932-62) and became a Professor at Liverpool University in 1950.
By the early 1920s, Howells had already had a number of successes including In Gloucestershire (a string quartet), and the Rhapsodic Quintet for clarinet and strings. He had also completed a number of songs set to poems by his friend, Walter de la Mare. Major orchestral commissions followed but the failure of his Second Piano Concerto (1925) brought about a creative crisis. For the next ten years, Howells composed little, immersing himself in teaching instead.
In 1935, Howells' nine-year-old son died from polio and the grief seems to have unlocked his creativity. Elegies for his son can be found in the Concerto for Strings and a new slow movement for In Gloucestershire. Drawing upon an earlier Requiem he composed a masterpiece, the Hymnus paradisi. This remained unperformed until Vaughan Williams and Finzi persuaded him to present it at the 1950 Three Choirs Festival.
Howells now increasingly turned his attention to cathedral music, mostly written for specific buildings and choirs. His output includes 16 settings of the canticles, a Stabat Mater (1963-5), and large-scale anthems, including the well-known A Sequence for St Michael (1961). He also continued writing music for the organ and in his set of miniatures, Howells' Clavichord (1941-61), he alludes to the sound-world of Elizabethan virginalists.
Having won numerous accolades and received honorary doctorates from both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Howells continued his teaching activities at the Royal College of Music. He finally died at the age of 90 on 23 February 1983.
A talented composer of the Bliss, Benjamin and Gurney generation, much of Howells' mature music shows the formative influences of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Delius, and the modal counterpoint of Tudor music. His English characteristics are balanced however with a good helping of French harmonic richness and technical assurance, and though his instrumental and orchestral works are not as well known as the choral ones, this situation is beginning to change.