by Donald Meineke
The prolific English composer and organist, Herbert Howells (1892 – 1983), could arguably be the posterchild of 20th century Anglican music. His contributions to church music built on the Golden Era of the English Cathedral Choir and Organ tradition established by composers such as Vaughan Williams, Stanford, and Charles Wood and inspired a new generation of composers both throughout the United Kingdom and abroad.
In 1941, as the 2nd World War raged through Europe, Howells composed a set of four anthems entitled In Time of War after his London home had been destroyed in an air raid. Today’s anthem, O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem, is the first in the set and quotes two verses of Psalm 122. While set in the key of d minor and a somber lament dominates the overall affect, a refreshing calm, in a major key, illuminates the words “Peace be within thy walls; and plenteousness within thy palaces.”
Howells’ signature harmonic and orchestral style of composing was surely influenced not only by the great composers who came before him, but by the immense personal struggle he endured throughout his own life. His family was ruined by bankruptcy when he was 11 years old; he was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease in 1915 and injected with radium in the neck twice weekly for two years; the trauma of WWII; and tragically, in 1935, his 9 year old son, Michael, contracted polio and died 3 days later. It is said that Howells never stopped grieving the loss of Michael, and his death was the inspiration for many of Howells’ most famous and profound works and hymns.