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Hubert Parry: Towards and beyond ‘Jerusalem’

05 October 2018

The British composer died a century ago. David Vernon explores his life and legacy


Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918), English composer, 1893, by W. & D. Downey

Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918), English composer, 1893, by W. & D. Downey

IN MARCH 1916, when what was even then known as the “Great War” rumbled on in savagery and senselessness, an Edwardian composer nearing the end of his life set the words of a poem that romanticised and mythologised the forgotten glories of a “green and pleasant land”, unsullied by war or the devastations of the industrial revolution.

Written as a stirring patriotic display at a time of crisis, it would go on to become an unofficial national anthem — far more popular than “God save the Queen” — as well as a chorale for the Women’s Institute and the Labour Party. Sung by beery fans at the start of England cricket matches, and — whether ironically, in jingoistic fervour, or because of its inherent musical-sentimental value — by patrons of the Last Night of the Proms, “Jerusalem” remains one of the most beloved and well-known of English hymns, even if (and perhaps because) it is one that, especially in the Brexit era, can be both a celebration of national pride and a source of parochial embarrassment. But who was the figure behind it?


NOT only the hugely significant centenaries of the end of the First World War, and the Representation of the People Act, occur this year, but also the 100th anniversary of the death of Sir Hubert Hastings Parry: a composer and musicologist of vital consequence to British music, but today heralded for perhaps just two pieces — “Jerusalem” and the coronation anthem “I was glad” — both of which continue to play a central part in the identity and disposition of a nation, and in its public life and private hearts (both positive and negative).

At this time, when Britain is divided about its relationship not only with the world but with itself, Parry might well be an instructive individual to consider.

MICHAEL WHITEFOOTSir Andrew Davis conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra and festival chorus at Hereford Cathedral during a Parry tribute at the Three Choirs Festival, this year

The man whose most famous tune would be taken up by leading socialist and left-leaning organisations, as well as both small and large “c” conservatism, was born in Bournemouth to a life of Victorian splendour in 1848. He was the youngest of six children.

His father, Thomas Gambier Parry, had inherited vast wealth from a grandfather who had been a director of the East India Company director. Parry senior established himself at Highnam Court, a 17th-century country seat near Gloucester. An enthusiastic early advocate for Italian art, and an artist-designer of some merit, he was an avid supporter of music, most notably the Three Choirs Festival, which he helped to save from financial ruin in the mid-1870s.


YOUNG Hubert’s own interest in music was kindled and then encouraged by organists at Winchester Cathedral and Highnam church (at the former, S. S. Wesley would inspire a lifelong love of Bach’s music, culminating decades later with Parry’s substantial and important study of 1909: Johann Sebastian Bach: The story and development of a great composer).

Piano and harmony lessons ensued, as well as trips to Hereford and the festival which his father would later rescue, where he experienced the immense choral works by Handel (such as Saul and Messiah) and Mendelssohn (Elijah), along with several symphonic works by Beethoven.

Education at Eton, and Exeter College, Oxford, followed. In Oxford, Parry became the youngest person ever to sit the university’s Bachelor of Music examination. This, along with summer excursions to Germany, provided him with a continuing development of interest in, and appetite for, the standard Germanic repertory — most particularly, the inheritors of Beethoven: Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Brahms, whose influences are clear across Parry’s output.

This musical productivity would not come just yet, however. Parry’s father, and a prospective father-in-law, determined that a more secure source of employment was necessary; thus, although it was alien to both his faculty and preference, the future composer of “Jerusalem” became an underwriter for Lloyd’s of London (incidentally, the career that the American modernist Charles Ives would assume for most of his working life). None the less, this enabled Parry to marry and raise two daughters, while continuing his musical studies to some extent, at one point seeking lessons from Johannes Brahms, who was “regrettably unavailable”.


Brahms’s mighty 19th-century antithesis Richard Wagner (a dichotomy somewhat exaggerated both at the time and ever since) was, perhaps, the key influence on Parry’s early music, which began to evolve in the mid- to late-1870s as he left not just insurance but also the more classical conventions of the music of Felix Mendelssohn that had been so vibrant an early interest (and to which he would return).


PA  Ref: 10619021The Duchess of Sussex walked down the aisle to “I was glad” on her wedding daySEEKING a life more fully in music, Parry began to write for George Grove and his Dictionary of Music: writings which would directly inspire one Edward Elgar. (The son of a piano tuner, and unable to afford a university or conservatoire education, Elgar said that he deepened his musical knowledge and awareness through reading Parry’s 120-plus articles). Grove would also develop Parry’s pedagogic and academic career, appointing him professor of composition and music history at the Royal College of Music in 1883.

By the mid- to late-19th century, the continental view was that Britain was, as a contemporary German critic’s book put it, Das Land Ohne Musik ( “The land without music”). However unfair that assessment — not least to the composers and professors of the Royal College — this period did herald the beginning of a revitalisation in music of these islands to a quality and variety not seen since the days of Tallis, Byrd, and Purcell.

If the whole idea of “Renaissances” is now out of date (requiring as they do the substantial, and usually misleading, death of earlier periods to suit their own narrative of rebirth), we can see the music of Parry and others as forming a crucial element in a time of significant development in English/British compositional practice and achievement.

Parry’s Prometheus Unbound (1880) and Symphony No. 1 in G major (1882) were cited at the time of their premières as evidence of a reawakening in the ability and voice of British music: the former is a huge work of massive ambition (if not, perhaps, the “English attempt at a [Wagnerian] Ring”, as some contemporaries thought); the latter is a symphony of great determination, scope, and dexterity, and full of a sumptuous orchestral texture that Elgar would later make nearly his own in English music.


IN THE late 1880s and early 1890s, at the height of his creative powers and fame, Parry would write Blest Pair of Sirens, an orchestral and choral setting of a Milton ode, and two biblical oratorios — Judith and Job — that warrant being better known, and were a key influence in the next decade on Elgar’s now justly celebrated The Dream of Gerontius.

Frederick Delius might later have derided the ability of a man “rolling in wealth, lord of many acres, and living off the fat of the land” to write anything worthwhile on the subject of the scriptural Job, but there is merit to deeper inquiry (not least since a crucial element to the Job story is, of course, his prosperity at the start of the tale).

PUBLIC DOMAINThe examination of Job, Satan pours on the plagues of Job, by William Blake

A commission from the Three Choirs Festival, Job was part of a long-held tradition of oratorical practice in England: something — as we have seen — with which Parry was thoroughly and personally familiar. Despite the great success of Judith, Parry had initial doubts about his own abilities and his subject-matter (hovering around an English version of Wagner’s Parsifal, as well as ideas that could be “independent from ecclesiastical or so-called religious conventions”).

Parry sought out a new libretto that could investigate and advance more anthropocentric emotions and ideas, rather than those that he perceived as too tied to predictable religious dogma — even if he felt acutely, like Wagner before him, that certain elements of Christianity still had much to say when not over-burdened by church paraphernalia and intransigence.

Eventually, he solved his dilemma by taking up an Old Testament story that could satisfy both the oratorio’s commissioners and the heterodoxy in his own spiritual outlook (one that embraced a Utilitarian Rationalism and Darwin’s ideas on life’s origins), and also be a profound, compassionate study of human weakness and growth. The Old Testament’s Book of Job, with its complex, disaster-strewn central figure, was that story.

Elaborately permeated with metaphysical symbolism and human-orientated import, this most hard-nosed of biblical narratives is probably the most challenging (intellectually and morally) text in the Hebrew Bible, notwithstanding the difficulties of Genesis’s equivocal strangeness. From 42 chapters of the book of Job, the composer fashioned a libretto of just four scenes and four male characters (Job, Satan, Narrator, and Shepherd Boy), accentuating vivid contrasts and conflicts, so that the human communication and ethical substance of the tale could be emphasised within a musico-dramatic setting.


FOR Parry, the figure of Job was an overwhelming representation of humanity’s vulnerability, doubt, and discontent. Job hauled the composer in, and allowed him to create music of great violence, grandeur, tenderness, and profundity. A broad and majestic C-major opening is unambiguously the affecting, rousing Parry of “Jerusalem” and “I was glad”, and recurs throughout the work.

PUBLIC DOMAINThe preface to Milton, hand printed and painted by William Blake

A dark A-minor tonality is given to Satan in passages of uncertainty and confrontation; pastoral scenes invoke the possibilities and fragility of innocence (and are of a deceptive simplicity that would characterise the work of Parry’s own RCM pupils, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst); muted strings accompany Job’s moments of dignity, much as Bach gave Jesus a “halo” of strings in his St Matthew Passion.

Parry’s Job is an oratorio that brings together many of his musical stimuli — from Bach and Mendelssohn to Weber and Wagner — and rewards close attention; but it is a thrilling and intensely poignant work, on those rare occasions on which it is now performed or recorded.

When Grove retired, Parry succeeded him as director of the Royal College of Music, in 1895, where he also continued as professor to encourage not only the musical gifts and capacity of the next generation, but also firmly to establish Britain as a country in which music mattered and was a serious undertaking for serious people.

The outbreak of war, in 1914, affected Parry deeply, not least because of his fondness and respect for Germany and German music; during the cataclysm, he despaired for the loss — to both sides — of musical and creative talent that could never be recovered. He contracted Spanish flu early in the autumn of 1918, and died just a few weeks before the Armistice, on 7 October.

Parry’s last years had brought forth probably his greatest and most important symphony — the Fifth in B minor, a work of musico-philosophical progression, representing the journey of a human soul — as well as “Jerusalem” and “I was glad”: works so well integrated and deep-rooted in this country’s public life (from coronations and royal weddings to the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games in London) as to barely need any comment.

The word most attached to them both is “stirring”, and it is an appropriate (if slightly restrictive) word for much of Parry’s work. He is a composer who inspires and touches; but, more than this, his music is interesting and complex, amalgamating its historic and fashionable influences to construct a distinctive and advanced voice that itself would create an innovative environment that allowed Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Frank Bridge, Granville Bantock, Arnold Bax, Havergal Brian, Robert Simpson, Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, and a host of other British composers, to flourish and succeed in the 20th and 21st centuries, creating works that stand proudly beside — and, in many cases, surpass — their overseas contemporaries.

In this centenary year of his death, Parry surely deserves to be better known and more treasured by both serious-minded music aficionados and the general public alike. His Fifth Symphony was given a rare but rapturous airing at this summer’s BBC Proms, so that his music was heard beyond the somewhat eccentric duplications of the (in)famous Last Night. Let us hope that this may be the beginning of the rebirth of a composer who renewed both this country’s music and its place in the international musical community.

Dr David Vernon is an academic and writer.

Further reading and listening:

C. Hubert H. Parry: His life and music by Jeremy Dibble

Hubert Parry: A life in photographs by Michael Trott

String Quartet No. 3 in G major (1880)

Symphony No. 1 in G major (1882)


Symphonic Variations (1897)

Symphony No. 5 in B minor (1912)

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