Hubert Parry was one of the key figures in the British musical renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as composer, educator and writer. Born into the landed gentry (his family’s country seat was Highnam Court, near Gloucester), he studied at Eton and Oxford, and under family pressure went into the City, before the growing success of his compositions allowed him, in 1877, to devote himself full-time to music.
He was a major contributor to the first Grove’s Dictionary of Music, which began publication in 1879, and later wrote several books on musical history and aesthetics. He joined the staff of the Royal College of Music when it was founded in 1883, and was director from 1895 until his death; he was also Professor of Music at Oxford from 1900 to 1908. Generations of students came under the spell of his warm, generous personality and his insistence on the artist’s moral responsibility to society. Elgar was articulating a widely held view when, in a 1905 lecture, he called Parry ‘the head of our art in this country’.
Parry’s musical style was influenced primarily by the great German tradition, from Buxtehude to Brahms and even Wagner, at a time when most English musicians considered the latter beyond the pale. Much of his output consists of choral music: oratorios, sacred and secular cantatas, motets, anthems, service music, part-songs and hymns. But he also composed four symphonies, a Symphonic Fantasia, a set of Symphonic Variations and other orchestral works; music for piano, organ and various chamber ensembles; and 12 sets of English Lyrics, an important component of the English song repertory.
After his death at the age of 70, Parry was largely forgotten for many years – thanks mainly to a series of misconceptions. He was viewed as an all-too-conventional Victorian gentleman, when he could more accurately be ranked with Ruskin and Darwin as a Victorian radical: he was agnostic and politically liberal, and had a deeply introspective side to his character. He was also regularly coupled with his more conservative (and more irascible) contemporary Stanford as the joint precursor of a British revival that was considered to have begun in earnest only with Elgar and Vaughan Williams.
In recent years, however, a growing number of recordings and Jeremy Dibble’s pioneering biography have begun to restore Parry’s reputation. And, even if his music is hardly a staple of the concert repertory, his 1887 ode Blest Pair of Sirens, his 1902 Coronation anthem I was glad and his late unaccompanied Songs of Farewell (1916) remain popular with choirs and choral societies, while Jerusalem holds a proud place as one of the finest and best-known of national melodies.
Profile © Anthony Burton