Discovering Dorothy Howell

Discovering Dorothy Howell


Associate Conductor

Her music was performed at the Proms five times in one season and she was hounded by the press like a modern day celeb: how is so little known today about the life and music of Dorothy Howell? Ahead of our study day, we sent our Associate Conductor Rebecca Miller along with historian Dr Kate Kennedy to delve deep into archives, unearthing some treasurers for us all to enjoy.

It’s a lovely sunny morning in Bewdley, Worcestershire, and my travel companion, Dr Kate Kennedy, and I have been dropped in the wrong location on a quaint and bustling high street. 

L-R Merryn Howell, Rebecca Miller, Columb Howell, Kate Kennedy 

A bit of confusion and a few phone calls later, Merryn and Columb Howell, Dorothy’s niece and nephew, round the corner at the top of the high street with two giant smiles and imperial-sized waves. We are escorted through a pothole-filled dirt car park, 'round the back of a charming little church, into the top of their narrow and slightly-overgrown garden leading down into the back of the old cottage, home to the brother and sister. We arrive in the cosy and cluttered common room, which will be our home for the rest of the day. 

‘EVERYTHING takes place in here’ says Merryn with a knowing smile, offering us drinks. As I glance around, we are surrounded by old photos, trinkets, books, papers and little armchairs. We park ourselves at the large farmhouse table in the middle of the room and listen as Merryn and Columb reminisce about their memories of ‘Auntie D’: they are fascinating and entertaining to listen to, and we could happily go on for days hearing stories about their upbringing.

My eyes can’t help wandering, however, to the enticing box of brown paper packages - tied up with strings - on the floor in the corner…

Rebecca with one of Dorothy Howell's beautifully preserved scores 

Merryn has brought down from the attic all of Dorothy Howell’s orchestral music, meticulously kept as it was left, in the same brown paper packaging. Its lines show how many times each must have been carefully folded and unfolded during her lifetime, the packages still held together by the same knots that Dorothy tied.

Kate and Columb studying some of Dorothy Howell's scores

Like a child at Christmas, I am finally allowed to dive in. I extract one package at a time. The neat and tidy scores, on sturdy yellowed paper, have a wonderful warmth and smell to them. Just as with my previous experience of Dorothy’s music (when looking at the parts and scores for her Piano Concerto before recording the work) the manuscripts have – along with her unique hand – Henry Wood’s unmistakable blue pencil markings scattered through them, vibrant as though they were made yesterday. As with Howell’s other scores, these are neat, beautifully orchestrated, and full of imagination and personality. The colours and characters are so well-written that they jump off the page at me. I can’t wait until we unleash the contents of these inventive scores with the orchestra…

Join us for our Free Study Day on Monday 2 July where Rebecca and Kate will present their findings followed by an open rehearsal in which Southbank Sinfonia will play some of Dorothy Howell's work. Find out more here.

Learn more about our Associate Conductor Rebecca Miller here.