Michael Howard

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Michael Stockwin Howard, choir director and organist, born September 14 1922; died January 4 2002 

He was appointed t at St Mark's, Marylebone Road (1942-43) which led to an appointment as organist of Tewkesbury Abbey in September 1943. During his few months there, he was struck by the lack of 16th-century music in the Anglican repertoire, and was greatly affected by recordings of Renaissance music by the Sistine Chapel choir, directed by Lorenzo Perosi.

On his return to London, Howard founded the Renaissance Society and its performing arm, the Renaissance Singers. Shortly after their first concert, in July 1944 in Marylebone parish church, he became organist at Christ church, Woburn Square; he gave BBC radio talks, and the Renaissance Singers' activities grew.

Howard was appointed organist of Ely cathedral in 1953. Although an experienced trainer of adult choirs, he had little experience of training boys, and, in the early days, he enlisted the help of Day McAusland and John Whitworth, from the Renaissance Singers. Building on the methods of his predecessor, Sidney Campbell, he concentrated on the production of pure, open, Italianate vowels consistent from the bottom to the top notes.

The genesis of this approach was his wartime experience of hearing Henry Washington's choir at Brompton Oratory; George Malcolm was doing similar work at Westminster cathedral. Diction was perhaps Howard's greatest preoccupation, and his legacy of recordings demonstrates the extent to which he demanded that his singers project their consonants. He was a hard taskmaster, and, after a few months, the "Ely sound" began to develop, making itself heard with increasing regularity on the BBC Third Programme.

His landmark 1957 LP  was Music For The Feast Of Christmas. The disc brought the music of Ely cathedral, of which he was then organist, to a wide audience that had heard rumours of "the Ely sound". Unforced cantabile singing (at a time when some choirs had a regrettable tendency to hoot) was marked by great attention to balance between voices, careful phrasing and s immaculate diction. The style has since become a standard for other choirs.  

Howard brought a new quality to Anglican church music. Cathedral organists had traditionally accompanied their choirs from the organ loft, leaving the singers to conduct themselves. But he conducted the Ely choir while his assistant played: most cathedrals have now adopted this pattern, and 16th-century music is now always to be found on the music lists.