Saint Michael and All Angels. A day on which to think about those who bear the name of the great archangel, the one who struggles with evil. Perhaps a day to worry about those who bear the name; particularly if one of them is one’s own son. (Perhaps there is never a point when one stops worrying. My grandmother died at the age of ninety-four and still worried about her children – who had reached retirement age by then).
Herbert Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi was played on the radio yesterday. A piece inspired by the deep grief Howells endured at the death of his son Michael. It has been described as one of the greatest ever pieces of church music. It is a piece that lay in a drawer for fifteen years, such was the intensity of Howells’ pain that he felt unable to share his composition. The loss of a child is the greatest loss of all, what mixture of emotions must have passed through his mind as he heard his work for the first time.
Born on 12th April 1926, Michael was just nine years old when he developed polio on 3rd September 1935 .This was how Herbert Howells recorded the events of the following days;
“Wednesday 4 (September): Mick’s coming to our room in early morning. Temperature. Bad Back. Dr. Nanda sent for. Herbert arrived with coat he thought Mick had lost. Dr. N at 2:30 (PM), Chill? To St. B (riavels) for medicine. At 9 o’clock in Taylor’s car.
Thursday 5: Mick worse. Dr. N at 11:15. Orders for London. Ambulance and Cheltenham Flier – London – Dr. Dowling, Nursing Home, Dr. Hunt, Fearful anxiety.
Friday 6: Nursing Home at 8:45 (AM) – Dr. H at 9 AM. With M most of the morning – lunch with Scotts. M again at 2:30 (PM). Grave change. Mrs. Fisher came – Mick worse always. Dr. H 7 PM. Hope, then despair. Dr. Brunton. Dr. Fisher, Mick died at 10:10 PM .”
“Mick died at 10.10 pm”. The pain of those words would have been indescribable. The pain seems to have become a well of inspiration for Howells. The experience of the loss of Michael inspired Hymnus Paradisi and the writing of a tune for Robert Bridges’ translation of Joachim Neander’s Seventeenth Century hymn, “All my hope on God is founded”: Howells named the tune after the son he had lost. Each time I hear the hymn, I think of Howells and Mick lying in the nursing home bed and say a silent prayer of thanks for the blessing of all Michaels.