||In a musical career spanning
over four decades Michael Howard influenced many hundreds of musicians,
both amateur and professional. He holds a significant place in the
history of the twentieth century revival of interest in pre-Baroque
Michael Howard was born in 1922 the son of Frank Howard a distinguished viola player
who had been a founding member of Beecham's Philharmonic orchestra and
player in Andre Mangeot's International String Quartet.
His lifelong love of steam traction was sparked by the family home's
proximity to the GWR ("God's Wonderful Railway") and to
Walpole Park in Ealing which was used by the travelling fairgrounds.
Howard was educated privately until the age of 14 when he won a
Ellesmere College. He learned the organ under Byng Johnson but his
inability at mathematics meant that no place at Oxford or Cambridge
would have been forthcoming. In any case his preference was for a
continuing musical education and Howard entered the Royal Academy with a
scholarship and continued his organ studies under G. D.
Cunningham. Howard's lack of a university degree
perhaps contributed to the sense of self doubt that informed the rest of his life.
A further blow came when a faulty heart valve prevented Howard from
seeing active service in the war and he instead served in the ARP.
During the war Howard deputised at local churches and spent time in the
organ loft at Westminster Abbey observing Ernest Bullock playing and
directing the Abbey choir.
An appointment at St Mark's, Marylebone Road (1942-1943) led to his
appointment as organist of Tewkesbury Abbey in September 1943. During
his few months there he was struck by the lack of 16th century music in
the Anglican church's repertoire and he was greatly affected by
recordings of Renaissance music by the Sistine choir directed by Lorenzo
Howard returned to London and founded The Renaissance Society and its
performing arm, The Renaissance Singers. Their first concert was in July
1944 in Marylebone Parish Church and shortly afterwards Howard became
organist at Christchurch Woburn Square. He began furthering his ambition
by developing The Renaissance Singers' profile, giving talks on the BBC
and applying for cathedral organist positions.
Howard was unsuccessful in his application to Ely in 1949 but when
Sidney Campbell moved on in 1953 Howard was invited to re-apply. The
appointment by Dean Hankey was both a brave and an inspired one. By now
Howard had already married and divorced twice and his appointment was on
the condition that there were no further indiscretions.
Although an experienced trainer of adult choirs, Howard had little
experience of training boys, and in the early days he enlisted the help
of Day McAusland and John Whitworth from The Renaissance Singers.
Without completely dismissing Campbell's methods Howard developed a new system of choir training
that concentrated on the production of pure, open "Italianate"
vowels that were consistent from the bottom to the top notes. The
genesis of this approach was his war time experience of hearing Henry
Washington's choir at Brompton Oratory whilst deputising as organist for
his life long friend Ralph Downes. There was a striking parallel here
with the work being done by George Malcolm at Westminster Cathedral.
Howard understood the human voice and he taught the boys to sing with a
thorough grounding of technique - "Lips Tongue and Teeth" was
his favourite aide memoire. Diction was perhaps his greatest
preoccupation and his legacy of recordings demonstrates the extent to
which he demanded that his singers project their consonants.
A feature of choir practices was the presence under the piano of
Howard's beloved Samoyed bitch, Anna. Howard maintained his love of dogs
for the rest of his life.
Howard was a hard task master and after a few months the "Ely
Sound" began to develop. The choir appeared more and more regularly
on Radio 3 and began to make LP recordings.
Howard's Byronesque approach to the opposite sex prevented him from
keeping his promise to the Dean. In 1956 he secretly married his third
wife and set up household in Framlingham. In 1958 violence brought the
marriage to an end and realising that a scandal was about to break,
Howard tendered his resignation to the Dean. He was succeeded by his
already accomplished assistant, Dr Arthur Wills.
Howard returned to London and combined his work with The Renaissance
Singers with teaching and broadcasting. A temporary decline in the
number of sopranos in The Renaissance Singers led to an short-lived
experiment using male sopranos who were expected to sing as high as a
In 1964 at the suggestion of the BBC producer, Basil Lam, Howard formed
a new, professional, choir Cantores in Ecclesia which was to remain
active for over a decade. Between 1968 and 1978 he assisted Deryck Cooke
in the BBC Music Information department, and accepted the position of
director of music at Marylebone Parish Church (1971-1979).
Howard never recovered from the loss of his position at Ely and with two
further failed marriages behind him he eventually became seriously ill
from the effects of alcohol. A crisis in the mid-seventies was the
turning point and for the remainder of his life he remained teetotal.
After a position with the Franciscans at Rye (1979-1983) his final
major appointment was as Organist and Rector Chori at Farnborough Abbey
(1984-1986). His intended recording of the works of César
Franck on the fine Cavaillé-Coll organ was cut short by a mild stroke.
He spent his remaining years living quietly in Sussex.
His autobiography "Thine Adversaries Roar …" was published
No one who knew Michael Howard could ever be ambivalent in their
feelings towards him. He could be sharp tongued and his quick wit and
sarcasm was often used to devastating effect. One day whilst rehearsing
with the Singers, and having discovered one too many misprints in the
Annie Bank edition they were using, he threw down his copy and exclaimed
"I think this woman must be a direct descendant of Mother
He had a genius for musical interpretation and was an important link in
the early music movement bridging the gap between the pre-war work of
Edmund Fellowes and the emerging younger generation of musicians in the
1960s. His strength was his vision of the "big picture". The
shape of the musical phrase was paramount and he sought to interpret
rather than simply present the music. He had an ability to mesmerise his
singers with his personality and to impose his will on the music.
Although performances could be eccentric - even egotistical - they left
a strong impression on the listeners and performers alike.
Howard brought a new quality to Anglican church music. Cathedral
organists had traditionally accompanied their choirs from the organ
loft, leaving the singers to conduct themselves. Howard conducted the
Ely choir whilst his assistant played. Most cathedrals have now adopted
this pattern and 16th century music is now always to be found on the
Michael Stockwin Howard was born in London, 14th September 1922 and died
of heart failure in Groombridge on 4th January 2002. He married six
times, leaving five children and his widow Elisabeth.
Chairman Renaissance Society
January 9th 2002, revised June 29th 2002