What exactly is English about English music?

One of my plans for 2012 is to immerse myself in more English music and particularly that of Sir Hubert Parry.  Parry’s best known works are the Jerusalem, the hymn tune ‘Repton’ which is sung to the words “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” and the Coronation Anthem, “I was Glad”.  Along with Parry’s setting of Milton’s Blest Pair of Siren, which remains a staple item in amateur choral repertoire in England, these are quite probably the works most people associate with Parry.

Charles Hubert Parry

Charles Hubert Parry

He held the post of director of the Royal College of Music from 1895 until his death and was also professor of music at the University of Oxford from 1900 to 1908, having studied at Oxford some years previously. He also wrote several books about music and music history and contributed to Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Some contemporaries rated him as the finest English composer since Henry Purcell, but his academic duties prevented him from devoting all his energies to composition.

There is, however, a wealth of other music by Parry including 5 symphonies, a whole host of other choral works including the Songs of Farewell and a range of piano music.  It’s this other music which I intend to find out more about over the next few months.  It’s interesting that Parry’s music has never really won favour in the concert hall and I believe, until recently, the symphonies had never been performed at the Proms.

Interestingly, despite the Englishness which is seemingly branded into his music, all the influences upon it were German, most notably Brahms, Beethoven and, above all, Wagner. His ceremonial effects and sweeping melodies – the same espoused by Elgar in the Pomp and Circumstance marches – came straight from Wagner, and especially from the overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Yet that overture’s grandeur is tongue-in-cheek: in this opera, Wagner pokes fun at the way hidebound traditions hinder the progress of new ideas. The opera’s hero, Hans Sachs, extols the superiority of German art. Parry seems to have agreed. On the outbreak of the First World War, he was heartbroken by the conflict between his country and that of the culture he loved.

The spirit of old-fashioned German art permeates Parry’s music – just as German roots underpin the British monarchy that is celebrating him now. But here are three cheers for the real Parry: the liberal humanist, the supporter of feminism, and the champion of music for all.