Hubert Parry

1848 1918

Hubert Parry

Composer

Biography

Sir Hubert Parry was an English composer, scholar and teacher. He was among the most enchanting and brilliant English composers of the late Romantic era. Particularly moving was his openness to both the New German school and a more traditional approach. Parry is best known for his choral songJerusalem, which prompted the beginning of the English musical Renaissance.

Parry was born in Bournemouth the sixth child to painter and art collector Thomas Gambier Parry. He became acquainted with music, organ in particular, as a child at the Winchester Cathedral with S.S. Wesley and later received lessons from Sir George Elvey at St George’s Chapel. Before beginning his law and modern history studies at Exeter College, Oxford, he obtained his BMus in 1866. During these early years he was influenced primarily by Anglican church music and oratorios. His earliest compositions show traits from Bennett, Stainer and Mendelssohn.

The following summer he studied with Henry Hugo Pierson in Stuttgart. Following his family’s wishes, he worked from 1870 as an underwriter in London. While working in London, Parry’s interest in music did not dwindle. He took some lessons with William Sterndale Bennett, but did not find him critical enough and applied to study in Vienna with Brahms instead. That however did not work out, and instead he continued his training with the piano virtuoso and Wagner enthusiast Edward Dannreuther. Under Dannreuther, Parry studied the works of Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. The effect of these studies can be seen in his chamber works written for the concert series at Dannreuther’s home such asGrosses Duo for two pianos (1875-7), the Piano Trio in E minor No. 1 (1877) and the Nonet for wind instruments (1877). In the late 1870s Parry also assisted Wagner several times and attended numerous performances of his works. His overtureGuillem de Cabestanh (1878) shows Wagner’s strong influence at that time.

In 1877, Parry quit his job to pursue musical activities full-time, including writing for George Grove’sDictionary of Music and Musicians. Shortly after, in 1883, he was appointed Professor of Musical History by Grove at the Royal College of Music. He also received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Cambridge in 1883 and Oxford in 1884. Further, Oxford appointed him the conductor of a choir in 1884.

Throughout the 1880s Parry composed mostly orchestral music including four symphonies and the symphonic suiteSuite Moderne (1886). His symphonies, which he composed on a very strict schedule, all possess very different characteristics, the First Symphony (1880-2) is rhapsodic while the Third Symphony in C major (1889) was very small in nature. Parry considered it a ‘small and unimposing kind of symphony, in the plain key of C major’. He was quite disappointed that the Philharmonic Society had planned to perform this work, which he found unsuitable for them, as opposed to performing again his Second Symphony (1883). Despite his reservations about the work, the Third Symphony won the audience over and for twenty years it was the most frequently performed English symphony. The work uses many folksongs and has a distinct English flair, though that was unintentional.

Simultaneously, he composed the opera Guenever (1886), which did not prove a success. Not only was the libretto lacklustre, but the opera impresario Carl Rosa refused to have the work performed.

Parry’s first nationally successful work came with Blest Pair of Sirens (1887), dedicated to Charles Villiers Stanford and the Bach Choir. The success of this work established his reputation as a worthy composer, however it also shifted his focus from symphonic to choral music. Many successes followed including his oratorioJudith (1888), the Ode on St Cecilia’s Day (1889), L'Allegro ed Il Pensieroso (1890), The Lotos-Eaters (1892), Job (1892) and King Saul (1894).   By the 1890s, Parry was one of the most popular English composers and considered the unofficial composer laureate of England. He became the director of the Royal College of Music in 1895, succeeding Grove and was knighted in 1898 for his contributions to British music.

The late 1890s, beginning with A Song of Darkness and Light (1898), marked a new period in Parry’s compositional style. During this period he attempted to express his own heterodoxy and used many texts from the Bible and ones he had written himself. He produced a set of ethical oratorios which includeVoces clamantium (1903), The Love that Casteth out Fear (1904) and The Soul’s Ransom (1906). The greatest work of this genre isThe Vision of Life (1907), written for the Cardiff Festival with his own text. Elgar was deeply influenced by this work, as is evident inThe Music Makers (1912). The public, however, was unaffected and confused by the obscure philosophical and ethical dilemmas presented in the work. He decided to use only the text of established authors after this fiasco. Later works includeOde on the Nativity (1912), The Chivalry of the Sea (1916) and Songs of Farewell (1914-5).

Parry returned to orchestral composition in 1909, after encouragement from the Philharmonic Society. At this time he revised his Fourth Symphony (1889, pub. 1921) and composed the Fifth Symphony (renamed Symphonic Fantasia ‘1912’) for the Royal Philharmonic Society. He also composed the lone symphonic poemFrom Death to Life (1914).

Parry’s songs, including the 12 volumes of English Lyrics (1874-1918), dramatically influenced the outpouring of songs from the next generation, especially Shakespeare settings. Of these songs, the most notable areThrough the Ivory Gate, A Welsh Lullaby and From a City Window. Of all his songs, Jerusalem(1916)was a clear favourite among the English audiences.

Parry’s music has unfortunately been largely forgotten after his death, though it is certainly deserving of a revival. He is now primarily remembered for his academic achievements, including the bookThe Art of Music (1893, later renamed The Evolution of the Art of Music)and Style in Musical Art (1911), a compilation of his lectures from Oxford. He is also remembered for having taught many great composers such as Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells, Bliss and Finzi.

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