Review: Dorothy Howell’s Lamia, at the Royal Albert Hall, London
It’s too easy to say that a piece of music becomes neglected because it justly deserves to be, and in the case of Dorothy Howell’s Lamia it certainly isn’t the case.
Premiered at the Henry Wood Proms in 1919, when the Handsworth-born composer was just 21, this symphonic poem went on to receive four more performances during that short season alone, and altogether was to be heard nine times at the Proms, the last time in 1940. And this was not the only major piece by Howell to be performed to great acclaim.
I suspect the reasons for her eventually becoming unfashionable are quite complex, and have something to do with the fact that her sex counted against her as she gradually left behind the persona of the fascinating slip of a girl who first hit the musical scene at the end of the First World War.
Also she was part of a generation of composers who were rapidly ousted by the bright young exponents of the new modernism.
Whatever the case, it came as a genuinely exciting surprise to have the opportunity of hearing Lamia broadcast on Sunday, Paul Watkins conducting the Ulster Orchestra, as part of a Prom devoted to works closely connected with Sir Henry Wood, whose mighty baton indeed premiered several of them.
And the piece turns out to be a delight, the absurd story-line of Keats’ poem inspiring equally exotic – often veiledly erotic – material from the composer.
The sound-pictures are well-imagined, and though there is the occasional coarseness of orchestration, there are many deft touches of scoring. I particularly remember delicate woodwind tracery, and a lovely oboe melody answered by the strings.
This brilliant score has resonances of Dukas’ similarly-built ballet La Peri (now that really is erotic), and Howell’s composing personality reminds me a little of Lili Boulanger, the immensely gifted French composer (adored sister of the formidable Nadia) who died of illness so tragically young.
Yes, in many ways Lamia is young people’s music. It would be wonderful if the CBSO Youth Orchestra were to return it to the city of its composer’s birth.
* An exhibition celebrating the life of Dorothy Howell will be held at the Music Library in Birmingham’s Central Library until September 30.