I took part in a concert on Saturday night which contained a certain piece of music by a rather well-known composer. There are some sections in said piece that could easily upon first listen be thought to have come from the pen of Herbert Howells.
The composer of this piece is hardly alone in that regard. I have encountered many works with a Howellsian aspiration, and have been easily guilty of the same tendency on more than one occasion in my own work.
On Sunday morning the offerings at Hampstead were both by Herbert Howells, the Collegium Regale setting of the Mass and Behold, O God our defender, and coming face to face with the original article served merely to highlight just how inadequate all those imitations are. Even the more workaday Howells is better than the best imitations.
On the surface it would appear quite easy to imitate – go to the acoustic scale (raised fourth, lowered seventh) and waft around for a bit dropping in short motivic ideas here and there – but that is just the surface. Where Howells wins hands down is in his understanding of line, his affinity for delicate and subtle counterpoint, and his deep sense of phrasing and structure.
More deadly for the imitator, though, is that when they stop attempting to be Howells they need to go back to being themselves, whoever that may be. All the way through that long career Howells was developing his own eloquent voice, and I will always rather have that than any imitation, especially one written by me.