Groundbreaking and influential, Hubert Parry was at the heart of the renaissance of British music in the early 20th century, says Jeremy Dibble
Hubert Parry is one of England's most eminent composers who rose to prominence during the latter half of the 19th century. He is perhaps most famous for composing the much-loved hymn Jerusalem – one of the greatest hymns ever – and his 1902 coronation anthem I was glad.
You will also hear his March from the Birds, as arranged by Rutter, towards the end of King Charles's Coronation.
When was Hubert Parry born?
It is perhaps a miracle that Charles Hubert Hastings Parry survived at all. After his birth on 27 February 1848, his mother, Isabella Gambier Parry died 11 days later from tuberculosis. Yet, of his six siblings, he was the only one of his family to live into old age.
His brother Clinton, also brilliant, died in penury in Australia in 1883; Lucy, his only sister, died at 19 of tuberculosis, and his other three brothers died in infancy. The Church of the Holy Innocents, built in the grounds of Highnam Court near Gloucester by his father, Thomas Gambier Parry, commemorates the deaths of the infant brothers and the memory of Isabella.
Where did Hubert Parry grow up?
Parry grew up at Highnam with the world of the Three Choirs Festival in his blood: his father was a guarantor for the Gloucester Festival. Yet, after a gentleman’s education at Twyford, Eton and Oxford, there was resistance to his becoming a musician. Parry Snr was unwilling to countenance such an unsuitable career for his son, as was the family of his fiancée, Maude Herbert of the Pembroke family of Wilton House, Salisbury. It was a liaison both families objected to.
Nevertheless, Parry was a determined man. After a year of meeting clandestinely, he married Maude in 1872, but, at first, he had to prove himself in the world of insurance at Lloyd’s Register of Shipping. This he did reluctantly for seven years (1870-77) while patiently biding his time as a sub-editor of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Lessons with Brahms (using the violinist Joseph Joachim as a go-between) came to nothing, but he was fortunate in 1873 to find a mentor in Edward Dannreuther, arguably the most radical musician in London at the time.
It was through Dannreuther that Parry developed a passion for Wagner, whom he met in Bayreuth in 1876 during the second cycle of The Ring; moreover, during the Wagner Festival in London in 1877, when the German composer was a guest of the Dannreuthers at their home in Orme Square, Bayswater, they met on several occasions, including during Wagner’s private reading of the poem of Parsifal. We owe much to Dannreuther for Parry’s development as a composer. The former’s semi-private professional chamber concerts at Orme Square provided Parry with the ideal platform for a fine corpus of chamber works which began with the Piano Trio No. 1 in E minor (1877) and concluded with the Piano Trio No. 3 (1893).
Which are Hubert Parry's most famous works?
During this time, Parry came of age and established himself as his country’s unofficial composer laureate. Much of his early and rebellious reputation has been associated with his choral setting of words from Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, first given at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival in 1880.
The work somewhat baldly bears the influences of Wagner and Brahms, but much more assured was his fine interpretation of James Shirley’s The Glories of Our Blood and State, also written for Gloucester, in 1883. Here the influence of Brahms’s Requiem and Das Schicksalslied are detectable, yet already Parry’s distinctive, noble language is discernible together with his feeling for robust formal architecture.
A full assimilation of Brahms, Wagner and SS Wesley (whom he had known at the cathedrals of Winchester and Gloucester) found voice in Blest Pair of Sirens (1887) and his first oratorio, Judith (1888), where his inimitable feeling for grand choral texture is also affirmed by his admiration for Bachian counterpoint. Parry’s debt to Bach and the 18th century is perceptible in choral works such as the cantata L’Allegro ed Il Pensieroso (1890), De Profundis (1891) and the Ode on the Nativity (1912).
But there is much to admire in other imaginative designs and concepts Parry brought to his choral works. In the final two movements of Job (1892), a pioneering short oratorio, he bravely juxtaposed Job’s ‘Lamentations’, a monologue for bass-baritone (which owes much to Wagner’s opera characters Wotan and Hans Sachs), with the voice of God, conveyed by one of Parry’s most impressive and extended choruses. It is no wonder that Elgar admired this work, Blest Pair and Judith so much, having become acquainted with them ‘at the coal face’ as an orchestral violinist in Worcester and Birmingham.
And while we have come to admire the coronation anthem I Was Glad for its magnificent ceremonial sweep, its strong diatonic harmony and its stirring range of emotions, we perhaps forget that the commission for Edward VII’s coronation (requested by the king himself) was for an experimental piece to unite several previously distinct elements of the service, such as the entry into Westminster Abbey, the procession up the nave, the appearance of the monarchs in the ‘theatre’, the traditional ‘Vivats’ of the Westminster School boys, the fanfares, prayer and final procession to the thrones. It is expected I was glad will also have a place in the coronation of Prince Charles (Charles III)
Parry’s Te Deum, written for the coronation of George V in 1911, has also become better known after a century of neglect. Based on two very traditional English tunes, ‘St Anne’ and ‘The Old Hundredth’, he produced a choral fantasy in which the tenets of the Christian faith (to which, incidentally, as an unbeliever, he did not adhere) are subject to the most visionary interpretations. And his verse anthem, Hear my words, ye people, which received its BBC Proms premiere in 2018, was conceived for a chorus of 2,000 voices, a semi-chorus of 400, two soloists and organ, supported by the military band of the Royal Marines, all of which filled the space of Salisbury Cathedral for its Diocesan Festival in 1894. The sound must have been overwhelming. Aware of these extraordinary resources, and the challenge of handling them, Parry deftly wrote simpler music for the larger chorus and more demanding music for the semi-chorus. Less well known than Blest Pair, the anthem strikes a familiar note with its final hymn tune ‘Laudate Dominum’ (‘O Praise ye the Lord’) which Parry published as a separate piece in 1915.
Parry’s orchestral masterpiece, the Fifth Symphony, was composed in 1912 as a commission for the Philharmonic Society’s centenary season. This is a fine example of his most compressed and advanced structural thinking and of his ability to transform his ideas through a continual process of variation and metamorphosis. Parry has, perhaps understandably, been aligned with the classical symphonic tradition of Brahms from whose work he clearly gleaned much; but the Fifth Symphony, the splendidly inventive Symphonic Variations and some of the fertile scores he wrote for the London stage and the Greek plays at Cambridge and Oxford (such as The Birds and Hypatia) illuminate a composer who was prepared to embrace a degree of Dionysiac abandon to temper his intellectual attraction to Apollonian austerity. This is also apparent from his other four symphonies, composed in the 1880s, which arguably initiate the tradition of Romantic British symphonies long before Elgar’s First of 1908.
When did Hubert Parry compose the tune for the much-loved hymn 'Jerusalem'?
In 1916, composer Hubert Parry set the poem to music to raise Britain’s morale as life was bleak with World War One raging and casualties mounting
The private man versus the public one
As director of the Royal College of Music from 1895 until death, and Heather Professor of Music at Oxford from 1900-08, Parry was in many ways the public face of music in Britain for a generation, and with this image we tend to associate his generous physical stature with confidence, muscularity and, as Holst once remarked, a ‘healthy beefsteak optimism’. As someone with institutional authority, this may have been the impression Parry wished to project outwardly, but below the surface he was a nervous, introspective man, whose music, with its melancholy inclinations, looked to express a yearning for a new, moral idealism in which democracy would help to raise the standard of a self-improving society. As the epode of Blest Pair articulates, ‘O may we soon again renew that song and keep in tune with heaven.’
Such introspection forms the core of many of his solo songs, the pioneering English Lyrics, which communicate, in a deeply personal fashion, notions of lost love and inner loneliness, sentiments true of his own life as he wandered back each evening from the RCM to his solitary study at 17 Kensington Square. It is also true of the self-examining Songs of Farewell, some of the finest a cappella music of the late Romantic era, in which the ageing Parry sought to come to terms with his mortality.
When and how did Hubert Parry die?
One of the most telling, and touching, tributes to Parry was Stanford’s masterly a cappella setting of the Latin Magnificat. As young and very different men by temperament, they had been great friends, mutually supportive in their efforts to raise musical standards in Britain. But latterly they had fallen out badly, and had it not been for the efforts of Stanford’s wife, the rift may have been irrevocable. Stanford himself undoubtedly sensed something of this fracture and had hoped to present his Magnificat to Parry as a means of repairing the friendship. But death intervened on 7 October 1918, as Parry, already stricken with blood-poisoning, succumbed to the Spanish flu. For Stanford it was the source of profound sadness, a sentiment evident from the solemn dedication: ‘This work, which death has prevented me from giving to Charles Hubert Hastings Parry in life, I dedicate to his name in grief.’
At Stanford’s bidding, he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Parry venerated the music of Bach. He also happily assimilated as much as he wanted of Schumann, Brahms and Wagner's music while at the same time acknowledging the English cathedral influences of Stainer and SS Wesley.
Melody and harmony
Parry's sweeping melodies are supported by a robust diatonic harmony from which he also derived a higher, dissonant language of suspensions and poignant appoggiaturas.
Taking the examples of Bach, Handel and Mendelssohn, Parry developed a unique sense of grand choral architecture which proved ideal for his muscular handling of harmony and counterpoint and his assured understanding of choral forms.
An 'English' yearning
Although Parry's ceremonial music embodies a sense of strength and confidence, on a deeper level his musical language imparts something much more aspirational - a longing for a better world in which music will help to raise humanity to new heights.
Illustration: Matt Herring