Four of the choral movements (II-V) are settings of Latin and English texts. These are drawn from the Psalms and the 'Miss pro defunctis', the book of Common Prayer, and are immemorial reflections upon the transient griefs and indestructible hopes of mankind. All are appropriate to the mood and purpose of a Requiem. Movement VI is a setting of lines from the Salisbury Diurnal, used here in the translation by Dr G. H. Palmer appearing at the end of Robert Bridges' Anthology The Spirit of Man.
Hymnus Paradisi is best regarded as two-fold. Part One (movements I, II and III) is continuous. In general this part is contemplative, but not wholly so. There are moments of intense feeling, even in the brief concentrated Prelude (I) as well as in the choral 'Requiem aeternam dona eis' (II) to which that Prelude is linked. And the twenty-third Psalm (III) is itself touched by the brooding, darker colours of the orchestral Prelude. The last-named presents three or four brief themes that have place, under many variants, in all the succeeding movements (except V).
Part Two (movements IV, V and VI) comprises three separate sections. These - especially IV and VI - mark a new level in the work: one that is more dynamic, higher-charged, further-ranging. The rhythmic drive of the middle phases of 'I will lift up mine eyes' and the gradual subjugation of Psalm CXXI by the 'Sanctus' (in IV, at the first major climax of the Hymnus) are the chief factors in the changed mood of the work. This simultaneous setting of a double text (one English, the other Latin) is a point of departure, at which the work turns for a time away from its initial brooding contemplation, and takes on an almost defiant activity. In movement IV (a union of Psalm and Sanctus) there is a constantly increasing heightening of colour. The semi-chorus, the two soloists, and the main chorus all move towards a climax in which the Sanctus for a time supersedes the Psalm. And the long quiet stretches in which the Psalm is again taken up and completed do not essentially diminish the new luminous quality of the choral and orchestral texture.
The fifth movement ('I heard a voice') is a temporary easing of tension and elimination of complexities. Placed between two big movements (IV and VI), its restraint and quiet give it the character of an Interlude. In the scheme of the work it is, in function, a tranquil preparation for the final section that follows.
The sixth and last movement is a gradual oncoming of 'the true light' and 'radiance' that will issue in the 'unfailing splendour' of those who have 'endured in the heat of the conflict'. It is as if personal grief, itself spent, is merged and lost in a general pervasive light and warmth of consolation. To the translated text from the Salisbury Diurnal the composer has added a series of 'alleluias'. These finally prepare and launch the climax of the 'unfailing splendour wherein they rejoice with gladness evermore'. Thereafter a return to the immemorial 'Requiem aeternam, requiem dona eis sempiternam' is both retrospect and ending, in terms of complete tranquillity.
The first performance was at the Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester on 7th September 1950, which the composer conducted. The Bach Choir gave the first London performance early in 1951, and recorded the work in 1970 with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Sir David Willcocks.
© Herbert Howells