John and Jacqueline Kennedy, photo courtesy www.maryferrell.org

On November 22, 1963, forty-six year old John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the nation's thirty-fifth President, was assassinated on a Friday afternoon in Dallas, Texas.  The first music performed in his memory may well have been at Boston’s Symphony Hall.  People who were at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Friday afternoon concert were given the shattering news by Erich Leinsdorf who then conducted an impromptu performance of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. 

And not long after Kennedy's death, British composer, Herbert Howells, was asked to write a piece for a joint Canadian-American Memorial Service.  The piece, the motet Take Him Earth for Cherishing, was completed the following spring, and was first performed November 22, 1964—the first anniversary of Kennedy’s death—by the Choir of the Cathedral of St George from Kingston, Ontario.  George N. Maybee conducted in Washington’s National Gallery.  The concert featured commissioned works, not only by Howells, but also by a Canadian, Graham George, Professor of music at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and an American, Leo Sowerby, the Director of the College of Church Musicians of Washington Cathedral.  Graham George’s piece was set to Herrick’s text, “In God’s Command Ne’er Ask the Reason Why”; Sowerby’s was a setting of six verses of Psalm 119.

November 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death, so it seems fitting that Boston Cecilia, led by its new director Nicholas White, will perform the motet on November 2nd at All Saints Church.  The November 2nd concert will also include three pieces by Charles Villiers Stanford, Howell’s first professor of composition; Stanford called Howells “My son in Music.”

At the time that Howells was asked to compose a piece in memoriam, he was well known as the composer of a choral symphony of death and transfiguration, Hymnus Paradisi, composed in memory of his beloved son Michael who died at age nine of polio.  Howell’s anguish is vividly recorded in his diary with the words, ”One feels the futility of all the things one usually sets value on when one is faced with reality.”  The title of the Hymnus comes from Prudentius, a fourth century scholar in the judiciary of Emperor Theodosius who wrote Hymnus Circa Exsequias Defuncti, translated by Helen Waddell as Hymn for the Burial of the Dead.  (Much later it was suggested that Howells change the title to the more manageable Hymnus Paradisi.)

The first two lines of this poem—initially intended for the Hymnus itself —became the epigraph for the Hymnus.  Those lines “Nunc suscipe, terra, favendum, gremioque hunc concipe molli,” Waddell translates as “Take him earth for cherishing, To thy tender breast receive him.”  Nearly fifteen years after composing the Hymnus and thirty years after the death of his son, Howells would return to those lines for the motet in memory of Kennedy.    

In a sleeve note to an Argo (RG 507) recording of the piece, Howells wrote:

I was asked to compose an a cappella work for the commemoration (of Kennedy). The text was mine to choose, Biblical or other. Choice was settled when I recalled a poem by Prudentius (AD 348-413). I had already set it in its medieval Latin, years earlier, as a study for Hymnus Paradisi. But now I used none of that unpublished setting. Instead I turned to Helen Waddell’s faultless translation:

Take him, Earth, for cherishing,
To thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
Noble even in its ruin.

Here was the perfect text—the Prudentius ‘Hymnus Circa Exsequias Defuncti’. The motet is sung here as intended—wholly for unaccompanied voices. Formally it is roughly A-B-A; in texture variably 4- to 8-part. Tonality anchors (first and last) on B, but admits chromatic phases, as at:

Ashes that a man might measure
In the hollow of his hand.

Finally, a near-funeral match tethered again to B, but in the more consoling major mode.
— sleeve note to an Argo (RG 507) recording of Take Him Earth For Cherishing

Howells composed Hymnus Paradisi as a way of working through the pain of his son’s early death.  With Take Him Earth for Cherishing, he would return to the words of the Hymnus epigraph to bring consolation to an entire nation.  Take Him Earth for Cherishing would then be performed at Howells’ own Memorial Service in St John’s College Chapel, Cambridge in May of 1983, nearly twenty years after it was first performed in memory of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.