Te Deum (1911) England’ (1918) The Birds of Aristophanes Suite from the incidental music for the Cambridge Greek Play (1883) ‘Jerusalem’ (1916) The Glories of Our Blood and State: Funeral Ode by James Shirley (1883) Magnificat (1897) Amanda Roocroft (soprano) BBC National Chorus of Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Neeme Järvi
When I showed this CD to a friend they responded by suggesting that it would be right up my street. Unfortunately, this comment was barbed. ‘My street’ in this case meant ‘over-blown’ ceremonial music of the kind that uncritically lauded Empire, glorified war and insisted that the ‘rich man [was] in his castle, The poor man at his gate’. Now before the reader runs off with the idea that I am politically slightly to the right of Sir Oswald Mosley, I wish to make three comments. Firstly, Parry (and Elgar) was a man of his time so their choice of poems to set and ideas to compose about were different to someone living in the post-Colonial, ‘liberal’ and cosmopolitan society of the early part of the 21st century. Secondly, not all ‘ceremonial’ music is bad – for example, I have never been a fan of Elgar’s The Crown of India however, I do love Walton’s Coronation Marches. By definition, this style of music tends to celebrate the life and times of the Royal Family or matters of ‘state.’ However, it need not be ‘tub thumping’ or ‘jingoistic’ in its mood or ethos. Often it can be reflective and contain profound thoughts on mankind’s adventure. One need only consider the ‘Cortege’ by Cecil Coles – ideal for Remembrance Sunday yet full of the ‘horror of war’.
Thirdly, there is a tendency to present Parry as being something of a caricature of a ‘Tory’ squire who was into all the trappings of the feudal society. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not the place to analyse the composer’s political or moral views, however it is fair to say that he was liberal – possibly even a ‘radical.’ His religious views were typically agnostic in spite of the fact of Delius’ suggestion that if he lived long enough he would have set the entire Bible! H.R.H. Charles, Prince of Wales has noted in his introduction to the CD liner notes that Parry, in spite of his ‘hugely energetic personality’ revealed a ‘nervous, melancholy, even depressive temperament which infuses the inspiring and noble sentiment of much of his music with a darker, complex hue.’
The listener to this CD will be surprised. In spite of the cover photograph of a grand royal procession, much of this music is introverted and deeply moving. Some of it may have been written to celebrate national or royal events – but all of it has a thoughtful disposition. There is nothing here for the ‘jingoist’ expects possibly the Prom favourite ‘Jerusalem.’ However, this hymn setting has been accepted by people of all political persuasions and none as a great national treasure.
A good place to start this CD is the setting of John O’ Gaunt’s verse ‘England.’ This song has occasionally been mentioned in the same breath as the well-known ‘Jerusalem’ yet to my mind they could not be more different in their musical nature.
The story goes that after the success of the Blake setting, Gilbert Murray, the classicist and Ernest Walker, the composer, asked Parry to make a setting of John O’ Gaunt’s famous monologue from Act II of Shakespeare’s play Richard II. (This royal throne of Kings, this sceptred island) However, there is nothing bombastic about this beautiful unison song – if anything it is undemonstrative and reflective, with a greater emphasis being on the sentiment of the final words ‘Grant, Lord, that England …May be renown’d through all recorded ages/ For Christian service and true Chivalry’. Jeremy Dibble has noted that ‘England’ is about more than just flying the flag – ‘its rousing tune expresses a sense of vision, self-sacrifice and hope, typical of Parry’s own outlook.’
‘Jerusalem’ is given a largely thoughtful performance here. This song, beloved by the vast majority of the nation, is usually heard in the ‘opulent’ Elgar orchestration. However, the original Parry song has slightly less grand aspirations. The composer suggested that the first verse ought to be sung by a soprano solo with the second sung by ‘all available voices.’ Formerly composed as a ‘choral song’ with only a piano accompaniment, Parry orchestrated it right at the end of his life for a Suffrage Demonstration Concert on 13 March 1918 at the Queen’s Hall. My only complaint is the excessive length of the final word (Land) sung by the choir. This is at variance with my score of the work.
The nation collectively heard the ‘Wedding March’ from Parry’s incidental music to the Greek comedy, The Birds by Aristophanes at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; it was played just before the arrival of Her Majesty the Queen. For Parry enthusiasts this extract had been available on a Lyrita recording featuring Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic Orchestra [SRCD220]. However, there has been no recording (to my knowledge) of the entire score. The present performing edition has been prepared for performance by Philip Brookes.
The Birds was produced by the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club in November 1893. Jeremy Dibble has suggested that this music is full of ‘humour and light-heartedness’ and notes that the score is ‘rich in artifice and invention.’ I enjoyed this music. I guess that knowledge of the Aristophanes play may be of some help to the listeners, however all these numbers stand well on their own account. I was especially attracted to the gentle ‘Entr’acte’, the ‘cheeky’ waltz, and the beautiful ‘Intermezzo’. All these display Parry’s skill at musical design and orchestration at their best.
I guess the piece that gave my friend the greatest cause for concern about the political correctness of this CD was the short ode entitled The Glories of Blood and State. I believe that they imagined Parry indulging in some idealist ‘Brooke-ian’ ‘pro patria mori’ sentiment. However, I believe that nothing could be further from the truth about the intentions of this piece. This is an early work dating from 1883, some three years after the composer’s broke the mould of dissipation in English music with his Wagnerian cantata Prometheus Unbound [I add, that this ground-breaking work probably does not represent the ‘renaissance’ of British music, but just the realisation that it was equal to the German hegemony] The present work is a setting of a poem by the English author James Shirley (1596-1666). Charles Lamb summed up this writer’s career with the damning fact the he ‘claims a place among the worthies of this period, not so much for any transcendent genius in himself, as that he was the last of a great race, all of whom spoke nearly the same language and had a set of moral feelings and notions in common.’ The funeral dirge from his play ‘The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses’ was regarded as a meditation on the fact that death is a leveller- kings and peasants are subject to the same laws of nature – ‘There is no armour against fate’. The exposition of the music is excellent. There is a Brahmsian feel to this music that reflects Parry’s love the the Deutsches Requiem: Wagner’s ghost has [almost] been laid to rest. Perhaps anyone still worried about Parry and his ‘tub-thumping’ should mediate on the last line of the poem – ‘Only the actions of the just/Smell sweet, and blossom in their dust’.
Sir Henry Wood wrote in in his fascinating My Life of Music (1938) that ‘one work we produced I thought was going to live – Parry’s Magnificat – but it has now dropped out of the concert repertoire. I have never been able to understand why’. It is a sentiment with which I strongly agree: I believe that the Magnificat is a masterpiece. This work was composed for the 1897 Three Choirs Festival and was duly performed there on 15 September. The piece has one primary exemplar: Bach’s Magnificat of 1732-35; however, the listener will feel that much of the strength of this music is similar to the massive contrapuntal constructions of Blest Pair of Sirens which was completed ten years earlier. They may also consider that there are hints of Brahms in these pages. The work is conceived in five sections: the first and last being composed for soprano, chorus and orchestra, the second and fourth are for the soloists alone with the middle section being composed for chorus.
I believe that the listener will find this setting extremely satisfying for Parry has managed to balance his forces in a near-perfect manner. The ‘aggressive’ parts of the the text are balanced with exquisite introspective moments. Lyrical music is counterpoised with ‘contrapuntal fertility and rich choral textures.’ Some of the soprano soloist’s music is reminiscent of Brahms German Requiem and certain passages have more of an operatic, rather than liturgical, mood to them.
It is interesting that Parry drew the text from the Vulgate Latin Bible rather than use an English translation such as the Book of Common Prayer: it would be instructive to know why. After the first performance, Parry dedicated the work to Queen Victoria.
In 1911, Hubert Parry was commissioned to compose a liturgical Te Deum for the Coronation of King George V. This was in addition to the well-known anthem ‘I was Glad’. This work does display the ‘pageantry, ceremony and grandeur’ of this important national occasion. This mood was reinforced by the use of the same six trumpets that were required for the anthem. Yet throughout this work, there is a more serious note: tenderness and solemnity are never far away. Parry seems to be well-aware of the more profound and numinous qualities of the Coronation Service. He weaves the well-known tunes ‘St Anne’ and ‘Old 100th’ into the texture of the work. This work is now a ‘concert’ piece: I do not believe that it could be used in the context of a religious ceremony – no matter how ‘high.’ It is a worthy piece that I find both exhilarating and moving.
The CD is an ideal production. From the highly imaginative and packed programme, through the superb performances by the BBC National Chorus of Wales and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales the soprano Amanda Roocroft and conductor Neeme Järvi. The sound quality of this disc is excellent. The liner notes are a model of their kind, however that is only to be expected from the champion of Parry ‘n Stanford, Professor Jeremy Dibble of Durham University.
When I look at the catalogue of Parry’s music and see works like the great Fourth Symphony, the delightful evocation of childhood in the Shulbrede Tunes and the celebration of the composer’s yacht in the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasia and Fugue for organ, I see a composer, who, far from relishing in any kind of false ‘my country right or wrong’ attitude was a thoughtful man: The Prince of Wales notes that he took ‘a wide interest in politics, the Arts, science and the most current philosophical discussion of his time…’ Parry was a complex character: this complexity is revealed in this CD.
Finally, my friend was wrong. This is not a CD of ‘jingoistic’ music: there is no sense of ‘tub-thumping’ or what current-day political correctness would find abhorrent. It is a moving tribute to one of Britain great composers. It is good that we are now beginning to (re) appreciate that fact.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.