Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s Fifth Symphony was composed for the centenary of the Royal Philharmonic Society and was duly heard at the Queen’s Hall on 5 December 1912 with the composer conducting.
The original title of the work was ‘Symphony in four linked movements in B minor, 1912’. However, at the second performance of the piece it was called the ‘Fifth Symphony’ and finally, the printed score is entitled ‘Symphonic Fantasia in B minor “1912”’ with ‘Symphony’ as a subtitle.
Parry was late in beginning to write the Symphony due to commitments at the Hereford Festival and an operation for the removal of a cyst. He did not start serous work until early September and finally completed the score by the middle of November. After its premiere the work was played a number of times both in London and at Bournemouth with Balfour Gardiner and Dan Godfrey conducting.
The reviewer of The Observer newspaper (Dec 8 1912) opened his remarks by suggesting that Parry had ‘definitely forsworn his allegiance to the absolutists and gone over to the enemy in the design and intent...’ of his new Symphony. There is definitely a programme here. Each of the movements is given short monosyllabic titles- ‘Stress’, ‘Love’, ‘Play’ and ‘Now’. The reviewer considers that these labels ‘are more or less helpful to the imagination’. However, in the programme notes written by Parry for the premiere these labels were considerably enlarged upon. For example, the composer proposed that, ‘The Sphere of Music is the expression of feelings, moods, impulses and emotions; so mere words will not cover what it means. Verbal labels of subjects and explanations of procedures cannot be exhaustive. Nevertheless some kind of suggestions are necessary to help hearers to follow the intention of any work dealing with external ideas; and a concise statement of what the subjects stand for, and their sequence, may be of service, with the proviso that they are only offered as approximations’. Whether this is helpful is a matter of opinion however, The Observer critic felt that they were ‘not particularly elucidative or happy’.
The Athenaeum (Dec 14 1912) reviewer too noted that this symphony was a departure from the composer’s usual orchestral principles that typically exhibited ‘classical lines’. The reviewer indicated that Parry had already given some notice of this change in his book ‘Style in Musical Art’ where he declared that ‘one of the drawbacks of sonata forms is that they are too limited’ and that ‘they tend to emphasize the formal at the expense of the spiritual’. This is very much the view that Franz Liszt, who developed the symphonic poem would have espoused. The present symphony is a symphonic poem without, again to quote Parry, ‘a superficial suggestion of externals such as we find in Liszt and Berlioz...’
The Musical Standard (Dec 14 1912) insisted that the first performance of this work was a huge success with the number of times the composer was called to rostrum lost count of. More pertinently it provided ‘a lesson to those who believe that prolixity of utterance is an impressive feature in the writing of a symphony’. It is interesting that this reviewer feels that the work is ‘not dry’ in the least, a description often made, and still made about Parry’s and Stanford’s orchestral music. The influence of the ‘emotional’ Tchaikovsky and not the ‘noisy’ one is noted, as is the music of Richard Strauss.
The contention of contemporary critical comment appears to be that Parry has composed a ‘modern’ work that uses a personal, emotional inspiration and that he has used a reasonably modern formal scheme. He has written a work that is compressed insofar as the four movements of the symphony are linked together with the principle themes being manipulated and transformed. The cyclic form of Franz Liszt is an inspiration for this work. However, ‘the harmonies, the phraseology, the orchestration, and the conciseness of the various sections are at variance with the method of many modern composers’.
One relatively recent comment in The Gramophone (Nov 1979) complains about ‘Parry [giving] each [movement] a title; but I suggest that, like some other composers before him, he would better have had second thoughts and dropped them, leaving the listener to enjoy the music simply as four movements of a symphony’. It is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry's Symphony No.5 in B minor can be heard on YouTube