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Invoking the Purcellian Parry


Hubert Parry smiling upon the empire

The Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus’s veddy British “A Parry Premiere: Invocation to Music, and a Variety of Tidbits,” on Friday at 8:00 at Sanders Theater, will include the U.S. premiere of C. Hubert H. Parry’s Invocation to Music: In Honour of Henry Purcell, a cantata of melodic grandeur. Blest Pair of Sirens, a favorite of the British Royal Family and also on the agenda, is sure to be played at the upcoming wedding, along with the Parry/Blake “Jerusalem,” Britain’s unofficial national anthem. The greatest English choral composer of his day, he influenced Elgar and Vaughan Williams, among others.

Edward Elwyn Jones, who will conduct chorus, orchestra, soprano Deborah Selig, tenor Gregory Zavracky,  and baritone Sumner Thompson, tells us more his essay.

Purcell possessed an instinct for the true relation between the accents of musical melody and declamatory recitative, which has never been surpassed by any composer of the same nationality.

Thus wrote Sir Hubert Parry in his 1893 text The Art of Music. Purcell’s reputation had been undergoing a renaissance since the mid-19th century, and Parry (along with Stanford) was instrumental in this re-evaluation. Parry’s major contribution to Purcell’s bicentennial celebrations was an ode based on the earlier composer’s Cecilian models which was premiered at the Leeds Triennial Festival in 1895. Written in “Honour of Henry Purcell,” the text was provided by Parry’s friend from Eton and Oxford, Robert Bridges (later to be Britain’s Poet Laureate), and the work forms the centerpiece of the concert coming this Friday.

Parry’s own renaissance continues to be slow in coming. Though born into privilege (Gloucestershire’s Highnam Court—one of England’s most beautiful country houses—was his family’s estate), he fell from fashion after his death, and even in the year of his centennial (he died on October 7, 1918), the BBC Proms will include but a few works beyond Jerusalem

Influenced by the organist and composer S. S. Wesley (who instilled a lifelong love of the music of Bach—which led to a 1909 biography) and the pianist Edward Dannreuther (who advocated for Wagner), Parry composed his first major works in the 1880s; one of his greatest triumphs, a setting of Milton, Blest Pair of Sirens, was premiered by the Bach Choir (under Stanford) in 1887. While a certain amount of Parry’s choral output remains in the repertory (the beautiful hymns Repton and Jerusalem, and the coronation anthem I Was Glad), virtually all of his remaining—significant—output has faded from the concert stage, including the wonderful later symphonies, and the larger-scale choral-orchestral works.

Parry’s strong sense of the public and moral duty of the musician within society owes much to Sir George Grove, for whose Dictionary of Music and Musicians he contributed 123 articles. Grove recruited Parry as the founding Professor of Composition at the new Royal College of Music in London; Parry took over its directorship on Grove’s retirement in 1895. Parry concurrently served as Heather Professor of Music at Oxford University from 1900-1909, when ill health forced his resignation. As an educator, Parry taught Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bridge, Ireland, and Howells (whose life he saved in 1916 by paying for the impecunious 24-year old to be the first person in Britain to undergo radium treatment for cancer) and would be hugely influential on Elgar, his junior by only nine years.

Parry’s Invocation to Music (1895) has as its heart, a 20-minute elegy on the unexpected death of the composer’s brother-in-law, Lord Pembroke. This heartfelt tribute for soprano, baritone, and chorus contains some of Parry’s most exquisite writing, and displays a remarkable sensitivity to Bridge’s beguiling poetry. Its yearning melodies, Brahmsian-hued sonorities, and Wagnerian harmonies would set a model that Vaughan Williams (Dona nobis pacem and A Sea Symphony), Elgar (The Dream of Gerontius), and Holst (Choral Fantasia) would emulate.

Interestingly, Parry visited the USA during World War I and spent time at the Harvard Observatory. It is a great pleasure to present what we believe to be the US premiere of this remarkable ode in Harvard’s historic Sanders Theater Friday.

Edward Elwyn Jones is the University Organist and Choirmaster of Harvard University.


The Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus
“A Parry Premiere: Invocation to Music, and a Variety of Tidbits,
Friday May 11th at 8:00 at Sanders Theater
[Tickets HERE]

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