She was branded the English Strauss during her time, but the life of Birmingham composer Dorothy Howell had almost been forgotten, until now. Matt Lloyd reports.
Despite composing more than 130 pieces and being branded the “English Strauss” by the national press in the 1920s, the Handsworth composer Dorothy Gertrude Howell has been largely forgotten.
Now, thanks to an amazing discovery of archived photographs, letters, press cuttings and musical scores, some nearly a century old, the life of the musical legend has been brought back into the spotlight.
The old boxes chronicling the rise and life of Howell, who was born in 1898, were found by Birmingham music librarian Ursula Colville.
As she made her way through the archive, kept by Howell’s niece and nephew Merryn and Columb Howell, from Bewdley, Worcestershire, she discovered a lost legend who, in her day, was hounded by press and paparazzi, desperate to photograph the composer.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” says Ursula, “and it just came out of the blue.”
“I took a regular phone enquiry about photocopying some musical scores and it turns out it was the niece of Dorothy Howell.
“I invited her to the library and when she got here she’d been walking around with these complete scores in original handwriting in a carrier bag.”
After further enquires Ursula learnt the Howells had kept scores of photographs, compositions and cuttings from their famous aunt’s heyday.
Eager to see their ancestor’s work remembered they agreed to Ursula scanning and photographing the collection, preserving Howell’s life in digital form. The detailed archive shows she was born to the daughter of a Birmingham ironmaster and raised on Wye Cliffe Road, Handsworth.
She was also the granddaughter of Alfred Feeney, arts and music critic for the then Birmingham Daily Post and cousin of the Birmingham Post founder John Feeney.
After a convent education and musical upbringing she began composing aged just 13 and was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music at 15 years old.
But it was with her piece Lamia, based on a poem of the same name by Keates that she came to the attention of the national press.
The composition was championed by Sir Henry Wood, first conductor of the Promenade Concerts which exist today as the BBC Proms, and was performed a staggering five times in one season during 1919.
“At that time she was hailed as a genius. The press cuttings were amazing, they show she was hounded by the paparazzi of the day. In those days that was incredible,” says Ursula. “She read this poem Lamia and was inspired to put it to music. Sir Henry Wood was so taken with it and the fact that a girl of 21 could write it, he cancelled other shows and performed Lamia five times. It was played countrywide.”
Following the success Howell became friends with Sir Henry who sent her postcards which survive in the archive.
She continued to compose and perform and was a teacher at the Royal Academy for 46-years, retiring in 1970.
During the war she was a land girl with the women’s Land Army before returning to teaching, composing and performing afterwards.
The archives reveals she continued to teach pupils until her final years when she lived in Malvern and, although she had faded from the public eye, her death in January 1982, just weeks before her 84th birthday, was noted in newspaper obituaries across the country including The Birmingham Post.
Using the Howells collection, Ursula has now set up a month long exhibition on Howell’s life and work to bring her back into the spotlight of her home city.
“It’s really special because it’s not every day you come across someone who was so highly regarded and who has sadly gone out of view,” she said: “this is of national importance. I’ve had academics on the phone to me every day.
“I dare say after this there will be a lot of interest. This is a big exhibit but it’s only really touching the surface, there’s still so much more. It’s a very human story. Not only from a professional point of view there are lots of really nice things written about her, she seems like a lovely person.
“When she was being hounded by the press the family didn’t like it very much but she seemed to take it in good humour.”
During her later years Howell moved to Letchworth to care for her windowed mother and then to Malvern where she spent the last four-years of her life.
She was buried near Sir Edward Elgar, whose grave she tended for many years.
The archive left behind, which she had told family to throw away as rubbish, runs so deep that another exhibition has already been planned for next year in the Central Library’s main gallery.
And in a strange twist of fate on September 5, the day after the Birmingham exhibition opens, a special BBC Proms programme celebrating the music of Sir Henry Wood will include a performance of Howell’s most famous piece Lamia.
“I think it was written in the stars,” said Ursula, “it wasn’t planned at all. I couldn’t believe it when I saw.”
* The Dorothy Howell exhibition starts on September 4 on floor 3 of Birmingham Central Library, including live musical performances on the first day. The exhibition runs for a month.