Michael Howard  
September 14th 1922 - January 4th 2002

Organist, choir director and founder of The Renaissance Society.


 

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 music.

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 scholarship to 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 Perosi.

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 top 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 in 2001.

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 Goose"

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 music lists.

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.


Alistair Dixon
Chairman Renaissance Society
January 9th 2002, revised June 29th 2002