MICHAEL HOWARD 1922-2001

 

Michael Stockwin Howard, conductor, composer, organ recitalist, writer, wit and crusader, who founded the Renaissance Singers and Cantores in Ecclesia - truly a renaissance man.

 

Michael Howard had a considerable influence on British musical life. He was one of the defining choral conductors of his generation; he helped to lay the solid foundations of performance practice that we now accept as common place and who as a scholar played a significant role in the revival of renaissance music in post‑war Britain.

He was born in London in 1922. His mother was a talented artist while his father, Frank Henry Howard (who was immortalised in Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood), was a foundation member and principal in Sir Thomas Beecham's London Philharmonic and violist in the International String Quartet. Educated at Ellesmere College, Michael won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where he studied the organ with G.D.Cunningham and composition with William Alwyn, before going on to advanced organ study with Ralph Downes at the Brompton Oratory in London, and Marcel Dupre at St Sulpice in Paris.

Due to a weakened heart following polio in his youth, he joined the ARP while continuing his studies in the early years of the war.

In 1943 he became organist of Tewkesbury Abbey, and in 1945 returned to London to become organist of Christ Church, Woburn Square. He had in 1944 founded the Renaissance Society in order to redress the neglect of choral music from the Renaissance, Reformation and Restoration Periods and was Director of the Renaissance Singers from 1944 to 1958; during which period they made numerous broadcasts, recordings and festival appearances. In 1998 he was invited to conduct a reunited Renaissance Singers at a special event and became a Vice‑ President of the Society.

In 1953 he was appointed Organist and Magister Choristarum of Ely Cathedral fulfilling what had been his overpowering ambition since he was six. Here he introduced renaissance polyphony and gave the choir a strongly distinctive sound, making it one of the finest cathedral choirs. The choristers and the Renaissance Singers regularly performed and recorded together. In 1958 he resigned from Ely for personal reasons, and from the Renaissance Singers; but not before recording Palestrina's Missa Christi Aeterna Munera written for the choir of the Sistine Chapel including castrati, he took the pioneering step of including sopranists (male sopranos singing falsetto) to sing the top line, so producing the first authentic recording of this composer. This is to be re‑recorded on CD next year.

1964 saw him founding the Cantores in Ecclesia, a group of professional singers, with whom he toured abroad appearing at all the major European music festivals, the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, broadcasting with the BBC and making many recordings which consistently won prizes including in 1975 the Gustave Charpentier Grand Prix du Disque. During this time he worked for the BBC , 1972 saw him Organist of St Marylebone from which he retired in 1979 with the title Organist Emeritus, and in 1976 he co‑founded the Rye Spring Festival with George Dushkin.

Michael's own personal demon had to be vanquished and he left the international stage to live with his beloved dog Dushkin, his books (Proust, Jane Austin, and P.G.Wodehouse among them) and The Great Western Railway a passion since childhood. During the 80s he was Organist to the Franciscans at Rye and later Rector Chori at St. Michael's Abbey, Farnborough with its magnificent Cavaille‑Coll organ. On this instrument he made recordings of the French Romantic School (Widor, Vierne, Messiaen and F Mock); his CD J.S.Bach and Aristide Cavaille‑Coll recorded in 1992 was his final recording, followed by a short recital tour. His recordings cover six decades.

Michael was not least a composer. Many of his works were performed but never printed or recorded; but to name a few his Songs for Counter Tenor, Evocation Memoriam Louis Vierne with its plainsong melody Salve Regina and his setting Ave Verum written for the choir at Farnborough.

Inevitably he became involved as a Vice‑President with the CTCC, which continues the work he had begun over half a century earlier in addressing the state of music and its performance in the Anglican liturgy. Leading by example with a re‑issue on CD of the Ely recording The Music for the Feast of Christmas and speaking at meetings.

Michael was a fine writer with a sense of humour he found hard to conceal, which included a monograph A Tribute to Aristide Cavaille‑Coll and many article Last year saw the publication of his autobiographical reflections Thine Adversaries Roar. The writing of which gave him great solace at a time when ill health prevented him from driving his car or walking his collie, Emma.

His last year found him stoically and uncomplainingly viewing a limited horizon and the death of Emma, but, devotedly looked after by his wife Elisabeth, he confounded the doctors and enjoyed a book launch, which brought many of his Ely Choristers, Renaissance Singers and Cantores in Ecclesia to see him. Meanwhile, his advice was constantly sought through lengthy telephone calls.

In the final chapter of his book, Michael wrote: “When in March 1937, Widor lay in his fatal illness, he said to Marcel Dupre, ‘I cannot complain for I have had a wonderful life’ - I would not hesitate to echo Widor's words, even though it is not given to me to know when my life will end, only that one day the Hound of Heaven will over take me.”

 

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