Home > Opinion > On Herbert Howells’s ‘Master Tallis’s Testament’…

On Herbert Howells’s ‘Master Tallis’s Testament’…

As well as writing about the composition process and compositional issues (in the broadest sense –  which includes the Pope) I thought I’d occasionally write about pieces that particularly inspire or move me – these aren’t necessarily the world’s greatest or most important pieces, just pieces that do something specifically for me – Herbert Howells’s Master Tallis’s Testament is one of them.

The work is one of Howells’s Six Pieces for Organ, a collection that was published in 1953, though Master Tallis’s Testament was written thirteen years earlier in 1940. Not everyone is sympathetic to organ music, often with very good reason, but this work exemplifies everything good about organ music to me – mainly that it is very loud – extremely loud. It also captures the essence of the ‘Second English Renaissance’ of Howells, Vaughan Williams, and Holst et al with its seamless blending of sixteenth century modality and twentieth century sensuality. But it is mainly because it is loud.

The work is essentially a set of gradual variations on the opening theme, each subsequent variation growing in intensity, complexity and volume. The tone of the piece at the beginning is that of a restrained pastoralism, with the modal G minor gently washing against the numerous ‘Tudor’ chromatic inflections.

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(bars 1 – 18 of Master Tallis’s Testament)

By the time we reach the fourth ‘variation’ at bar 37 the music has moved from the pastoral to the grandiose as the organ begins to gradually wind its self up ready for the apocalyptic climax that occurs with the cadence at bars 53 – 54. Here we are treated (in this recording) to the cathedral organ in all its glory, diapasons blaring, a vision of the almighty in terrifying majesty (or something like that).

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(bars 37 – 58 of Master Tallis’s Testament)

The piece then finishes with a soft, adagio coda returning to the opening mood, neutralising much of the flamboyant drama of the previous section.

Master Tallis’s Testament might be nowhere near as subtle as its more famous cousin Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams, but there is a raw power in the work that never fails to make the hairs stand on the back of my neck, and I return to the piece often. And did I mention that it is very loud?


To purchase this recording (Christopher Dearnley, St Paul’s Cathedral Organ, Hyperion CDD22038) click here.

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  1. James
    October 3rd, 2010 at 14:23 | #1

    Thanks for this. Though I did have to google a few things like diapasons. I’d find it useful to have the time in the track that certain things happen (rather than bar numbers) – mostly because I’m lazy!

    Enjoyed the piece more than I expected for organ music!

    • philll
      October 3rd, 2010 at 17:38 | #2

      Thanks for your comment. I agree about the timings – I’ll do that next time. Did you think the language was too technical? More to come, when I get the time! PAC.

  2. Daniel
    October 20th, 2010 at 18:18 | #3

    Although I had originally questioned whether the return to the opening neutralized the climax, I think that what I really wanted to express is that the quiet return has a chilling effect because I still hear the thunder of the climax in my ears. Last night I heard Till Fellner play Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas in Philadelphia. The variations movement of Opus 109, which opens and closes with a quiet aria passage, made me think of the Howells piece. In the Beethoven I think there is a striking feeling that one is more experience and wiser after the journey of the variations and that the quiet opening now has new meaning. I think the same goes for the Howells piece, but on a smaller scale.

  3. June 7th, 2011 at 15:42 | #4

    I write in a blur of tears – such is the effect this wonderful piece has on me. I have had the Dearnley recording for about a year now. PC absolutely spot-on: this piece needs a mighty instrument and an acoustic that makes one feels the walls are being pushed at the climax.
    The deep strain of English melancholy (the noble, almost heroic kind) in MTT is a quality which Howells, like VW and Britten perfectly possessed.

  4. June 7th, 2011 at 15:48 | #5

    I meant ‘pushed out’, not ‘pushed’. Howells’ development over the decades was extraordinary. When you think back to ‘Here is the Little door’ and ‘A spotless rose’, the challenging later harmonies and textures could hardly be foreseen.