The musical worlds of Herbert Howells and the satirist and composer H.G. Pélissier
Updated: Feb 24
Personal reflections by their grandson, Jaudy Pélissier
Most of you will never have heard of my grandfather, the satirist and composer H.G.Pélissier (1874 - 1913). It is far more likely that you will have heard of my step-grandfather, Herbert Howells (1892 - 1983), the English composer famous for his beautiful choral work. As fathers-in-law, respectively to my stepmother, the actress Ursula Howells, and my father Anthony Pélissier, neither of these two composers met but on the anniversary of Herbert's death 40 years ago this week, it’s fun to speculate what they might have thought of each other.
I have vivid recollections of visiting Herbert at his home in Barnes. He was unfailingly polite; a diminutive and sparrow-like figure, always sitting in the same faded-pink wing-back chair. H.G. Pélissier aka Harry, I never knew, he died in 1913, when my father was a year old, and the only person I met who had known him was the poet, Robert Graves.
Herbert’s voice, even in old age, retained a slight Forest of Dean burr, a gentle fusion of a Somerset and Gloucestershire accent, moderated by many years of living in London. He was questioning, inquisitive and a patient listener, someone who clearly enjoyed the company of young people. When one considers how revered he is, I am fortunate to have known him and to have such clear recollections of time spent with him. For my family, ‘Sing Lullaby’ and ‘A Spotless Rose’, are simply ‘Herbert’s carols’ and ‘Like as the Hart’ remains a deeply personal work, having been performed at both my wedding and at Ursula’s funeral in 2005.
If Herbert’s work is mainly associated with the English choral tradition, H.G.Pélissier’s is firmly rooted in the tradition of the Edwardian light-hearted West-End musical revue. Would Herbert have been appalled that his daughter had married the son of such a light-weight composer? Somehow, I think not. I like to think that he’d be curious about Harry’s work and as a young man of 18 may even have heard of him. Herbert came to London in 1912, to attend The Royal College of Music when Harry and his troupe, The Follies, were coming to the end of their heyday at The Apollo in Shaftesbury Avenue. However, they were still very much a household name, and The Follies may well have attracted the attention of an impressionable young musician new to London. In September 1913, when Harry died, Herbert might even have caught sight of posters across London announcing: ‘Death of Pélissier’, ‘Folly Chief Dies’ and ‘Famous Actor Dead’
Had they met, Herbert would have discovered that underneath Harry’s boisterous comedic musical style there lurked a serious and sensitive composer as well as one who was knowledgeable about classical music. Harry was sufficiently talented to compose parodies of Wagner and Tchaikovsky. The former taking place at a royal ‘command’ performance at Sandringham for King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra on her sixty-first birthday; the latter being part of The Follies repertoire called ‘Take-offski’.
The French Connection
Like many composers of his generation Herbert was influenced by the so-called French impressionist composers: Ravel, Debussy, and Poulenc. This is something that he might well have shared with Harry, whose ancestry was Franco-German, and whose compositional style was Francophile in nature, being rich in a classical form of melodies françaises. As Anthony Binns points out in his biography of H.G.Pélissier, ‘The Funniest Man in London’:
“Pélissier’s songs ‘Alone’ and ‘Awake’ share something of the haunting, idealised intimacy that pervades the concert and chamber works of composers such as Reynaldo Hahn, Jules Massenet and Camille Saint-Saens…”
Harry may have appeared on stage as a very English satirist but musically he was French to his core. Another reason why he probably called his satirical and musical act, The Follies - a clear nod to the kind of revues he admired so much in Paris.
In keeping with this French style ‘Alone’ and ‘Awake’ are settings to classic poetic verses, written respectively by Heinrich Heine and Sir William Davenant, and which speak of love’s longing and deathly fears. Likewise, Herbert was also influenced by the verse of poets, in particular Walter De la Mare’s poems ‘Oh Lovely England’ and ‘Silence’.
Harry’s ‘Alone’, in the context of his death aged 39 is especially sad. It’s a beautiful, haunting, and touching composition; doubly poignant to listen to when one thinks that he left his 19-year-old wife, the actress Fay Compton, a widow with a one-year-old son:
And if the little flower could see
How pierced my heart with grief,
Then sure they would weep with me,
To bring my pain relief
And if the nightingales could tell,
How faint I am and sad,
Their summery songs would fill the vale,
To make my heart more glad.
Herbert’s first compositional performance at The Proms was in 1920, when he was 28. In that respect Harry beat him by one year. ‘Alone’ and ‘Awake’ were the pieces that he chose to perform for his Henry Wood promenade concert appearances at the Queen’s Hall on 11 September 1901. He was only 27 and was obviously to some extent a sufficiently respected composer to have his works performed alongside those that year by Tchaikovsky, Gounod and Wagner. Having been both personally invited by Henry Wood to take part, they would surely have had an interesting conversation and exchange of memories.
Pélissier the conductor
Throughout his short life, Harry was always dipping his toe into a classical repertoire and in parallel with his work with The Follies, he would present concert evenings under the title of Pélissiana. It was as if he was saying, ‘Look, I can do serious too’.
In 1912, under the guidance of Dan, later Sir Dan, Godfrey, he was even conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. In a letter to Fay, he writes:
“Dan Godfrey is letting me have a rehearsal with his orchestra for £7.10.00 so I can get into the way of constructing the ‘peace conference’ – I think it is very nice of him as I think the orchestra will hate it! - & [sic] his is going to give me tips about conducting it properly.”
Dan Godfrey was obviously sensible enough not to let Harry completely loose with his orchestra! But, as Anthony Binns points point, it shows that Harry moved in high musical circles. He knew the right people and they were sufficiently respectful of him musically to give him advice or help from time to time.
The ‘peace conference’ was a musical satire on the London Peace Conference that was held in December that year, in an attempt for the major European powers to resolve their differences in the Balkans. With the outbreak of WW1 18 months later it was obviously not a success.
Different backgrounds and personalities
Their knowledge and love of music would certainly have forged some connection between the two men, but with their wildly different personalities it’s hard to imagine any lasting friendship. If Herbert was disciplined, precise and meticulous, Harry was none of those things, he was wild and impetuous and someone who thrived on spontaneous improvisation.
They also came from completely different backgrounds. Herbert was the son of a builder who had gone bankrupt at a time when such a thing was deeply shameful. Harry in contrast was the privately-educated son of a wealthy Franco-German diamond merchant. He was the family rebel, not at all aspirational just passionate about the world of musical entertainment. He had no formal musical training only a compulsive musical and theatrical inventiveness.
Herbert was musically gifted, and the music pupillage he gained at Gloucester Cathedral was his passport to The Royal College of Music and an escape from an impoverished upbringing. Herbert was aspirational and with his good looks and charm was happy to be swept along by wealthy influentials such as Lady Olga Montague. At a time when patronage in the arts was more available than today, he was a grateful beneficiary of it.
In contrast, Harry needed none of that. A natural entrepreneur he established The Follies as a seaside act in 1896, when he was only 22, and swiftly progressed from seaside entertainer to West End impresario. His commercial instincts coupled with a willingness to take risks made him a wealthy man. It was an approach to life that was a million miles away from Herbert’s who quite understandably sought financial security and stability after his troubled childhood. As a Director of Music at St Paul's Girls School or as a teacher at The Royal College of Music, risk and adventure was not what he sought. Some have even argued that had he been prepared to take more risk he would not be known primarily as a composer of choral music but of a wider musical repertoire.
Both no angels
Herbert lived to the ripe old age of 90, whereas Harry was dead from cirrhosis at 39. Harry lived life at 100 mph and with a fondness for cuvée champagne, brandy, and cigars it was only a matter of time before it caught up with him. He lived and breathed the risqué life, creating much controversy when marrying my grandmother at 17, partly because of the 20-year age gap between them but also because of what his librettist Compton Mackenzie called his ‘depraved lifestyle’.
Herbert in contrast married Dorothy Dawe in 1920, a singer who he had met in 1911. Despite appearing to live a life of middle-class respectability in Barnes it was not a happy marriage. Herbert was serial philanderer with a sex drive that constantly needed satisfying, and the older he got the more dangerous it became. His wandering hands and attitude to women would most probably have got him into trouble being seriously questionable by today’s standards. Herbert was no angel, fortunate to have been protected by the veneer of respectability that came with being a respected teacher and composer of religious music. Whilst he enjoyed the limelight and his peccadillos, Dorothy was stuck in Barnes where she one-day sadly reflected to Ursula, ‘I’m just the back-room girl."
Ursula was always extraordinarily forgiving of her father's behaviour, almost complicit in his relationships on the understanding that, as the composer Paul Spicer and Herbert's biographer wrote, “… his sex drive was the inner motor which kept his creative live humming.” As Ursula herself said, “Herbert was ruled by sex. He was unbelievably attractive to the female sex and was just as attracted to them.”
A few years after Herbert’s death the film director, Ken Russell, approached Ursula to make a film about Herbert’s life. Knowing full well that ‘sex as the creative motor’ would be his theme, she refused to support it, not for any prudish reason but simply because it was too soon after his death. Such a film, warts and all, is surely overdue now that forty years have passed and we can be objective both about the man and his creativity.
The Howells and Pélissier legacy
Obviously, Herbert has a marvellous legacy of music by which we can remember him and there probably not a Sunday in the year when some of his music is not played in a church or cathedral. You may be surprised to read that Harry Pélissier, the fellow father-in-law he never knew, has a legacy too. Harry composed over 60 songs and plans are underway to produce a songbook of his wonderfully diverse music. Few are likely to ever be heard on ‘Songs of Praise’ but you can listen to a few snippets on the Songs page
Over the past few years, Anthony Binns and I have uncovered 18 recordings of his songs, produced in 1910 and 1911. For the period this was highly unusual as very few composers or performers entertained the idea of recording their work; it was an expensive undertaking and only the very wealthy had gramophones.
Like Herbert, Harry was also no angel but how much richer and interesting our world is for characters like them. If certain peccadillos or behaviours are what drove them, so what? Whilst this is not necessarily the magic ingredient for creativity, history is littered with characters who behaved badly. It's why we are always fascinated by them. Forty or a hundred years after Herbert and Harry's deaths it is too easy to censure them and, heaven forbid, appraise their lives through a woke lens. We want to know the person behind the inventiveness even if at times it is a little shocking. It all adds to our enjoyment and understanding of what they achieved - and more significantly their contribution to musical and theatrical history.
Next Blog: Anthony Binns on Pélissier's hidden musical legacy in the British Library
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The first ever biography of H.G. Pélissier, satirist, composer and bohemian – one of the most famous Edwardians before WW1. A visionary forerunner of The Goons and Monty Python.
Recommended in The Times Writers' Favourite Books of 2022 by Quentin Letts.
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