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Parry’s Creative Process

by Michael Allis

Music in 19th-Century Britain Series


ISBN 978-1-84014-681-3 - £54:00

Experience Classicsonline


The basic premise of this scholarly, but readable, book is that Charles Hubert Hastings Parry has been done a major disservice by popular received opinion, or technically speaking, his reception history.

Since the composer’s death relatively few books or monographs have appeared that explore both the man and his music. Perhaps the most important recent volume is the fine biography by Jeremy Dibble – C. Hubert H. Parry- His Life and Music (1992). This is the main reference point for anyone wishing to explore his achievement.  More than ten years ago, Ashgate published Bernard Benoliel’s study Parry before Jerusalem (1997). This is part monograph and part a collection of writings by the composer.  There is an interesting study of the Parry family in Anthony Boden’s The Parry’s of Golden Vale: Background to Genius (1998)

A previous generation produced two important texts- J Fuller Maitland’s short  The Music of Parry and Stanford: An Essay in Comparative Criticism (1934) and finally Charles L. Graves’ somewhat hagiographical Hubert Parry (1926) in two volumes. Apart from a number of articles in the musical press, a large collection of reviews and the odd hard to obtain thesis or dissertation that is about it.

All of the above studies start off from the premise that Parry’s music is creditable and is well worth hearing. All are agreed that the teaching and administrative side of the composer’s life are both important and exemplary. However, in spite of this positive criticism, the old lies and misconceptions about his music seem to stick. For one thing, how many ‘music-lovers’ know any work beyond Jerusalem - in Elgar’s sumptuous arrangement? If they are, or have been churchgoers, they will be acquainted with the hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, derived from the great oratorio Job. Perhaps the anthem My Soul there is a County and the ode Blest Pair of Sirens will be known to English music enthusiasts, as well the noble Coronation anthem I was Glad! But that is probably the sum total of works known to the vast majority of listeners. Parry enthusiasts have a much wider understanding, based by and large on a considerable number of CD releases over the past 20 years.

The book opens with a study of Parry’s ‘press’. It was George Bernard Shaw who is credited with starting the negative view of the composer as a ‘conservative, out-of-touch, pedant.’ Michael Allis explores some of these Shavian references which have perhaps been given too much importance by subsequent authors. The story of Balfour Gardiner declining a luncheon invitation from Parry after being influenced by these negative views is apposite. Apparently he later came to regret this piece of musical snobbery.  However, it is probably fair to say that these critiques from the past have never really been examined properly. How much of Shaw’s reviews were simply hyperbole or tongue in cheek?

Interestingly, Allis notes the tendency to show photographs of the composer as an elderly man – ‘a kindly grandfather figure’ – in which ‘labels such as conservative, pedantic, and possibly retrogressive, are reinforced’.

The author then considers the predominant association in many people’s minds with choral music.  I remember a musician friend of mine being quite surprised when I told her that Parry had written symphonies, piano concertos, chamber works and instrumental music. She had only ever heard Blest Pair and assumed that he was basically a Victorian cantata-writer of the T. Mee Pattison variety … There were a number of cantatas and oratorios - and some of them are very good too!

Perhaps the greatest criticism levelled against the composer implied that he was an “upper class amateur”.  There is an extract from a nasty little letter by Fred. Delius to Bantock which is pertinent here: “How can a man rolling in wealth, the lord of many acres & living off the fat of the land write anything about Job beats me entirely, unless it is a cantata expressing H(ubert) P(arry)’s satire & derision at Mr. Job’s way of life - I am really curious!” Arnold Bax also made a withering sideswipe at Parry: “…I can see him with his spiritual progenitor, Handel, or hunting with enormous view-halloos in the company of Trollope”. It was an image of a clubbable country squire who was more at home a’huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’. Yet in spite of the fact that it could not be further from the biographical and historical truth, it has stuck in the minds of three or four generations of listeners and even musicologists..

But perhaps the greatest lie of all that Allis challenges, and what this book is really about, is the belief that somehow Parry had a great facility in banging out musical compositions at a terrific rate, and in this profusion was largely uncritical of what he wrote.

The chapter headings in this book are largely indicative of the course of the argument. The first chapter is important – and explores the ‘critical reception’ of the composer as sketched above.  The second chapter is almost a standalone essay – although obviously it is essential to the argument of the book. Allis gives a reference guide to the composer’s manuscripts, diaries and sketchbooks.  Three detailed tables are provided giving information of the contents (and chronology) of three early sketchbooks from the 1860s.  In a technical section he discusses the types of papers used in the manuscripts as well as the writing materials. This may seem pedantic to the ‘ordinary’ reader – but is actually fundamental for the dating of works and the establishment of a chronology of the ‘creative process’– the act of composition – from sketch to finished work.

The main body of the text is an exploration of this ‘creative process’ - from the original sketches though to the eve of publication. This includes initial and successive drafts, scoring, changes during rehearsals, performance and publication revisions and edits.  The difference between sketch and draft is defined – as something which presents an ‘improvisatory stage in the composition of a work and something more stable showing the final product in something like its finished form. In other words, the difference between them is primarily qualitative and not quantitative.” (John Deathridge, The Nomenclature of Wagner’s Sketches)

Perhaps the most interesting and useful chapter in this book is the 'case study' on the relatively unknown song A Birthday. This is a setting of words by Christina Rossetti. The author presents the published song and then proceeds to investigate the manuscript sources for the piece. This includes some thirteen sketches and four drafts before the final result is achieved.

If anything in this book proves that Parry was not facile or cavalier as a composer, and that he subjected many of his works to a constant process of change and review, it is this chapter.  It demonstrates that his ‘meticulous attention to detail and careful consideration of his text’ produced some fine settings of songs and choral music. 

Another fascinating chapter documents Parry’s approach to the text that he is setting. Allis suggest that this important part of the creative process is often neglected. He considers the choice of text made by the composer and notes the breadth of reading that informed his oratorios, cantatas and songs. Interestingly, a list of all poets set by Parry in his songs is given. It is impressive in both the number and the variety of authors chosen.  Many were well-known and established writers, but some were virtually unknown, such as Julia Chatterton who wrote the words to the last song he wrote before his death.

A major part of this chapter is devoted to a consideration of the composer edited and created texts for his oratorios and cantatas. This suggests that his literary skill enabled him to ‘excise significant passages from weighty textual sources, whilst retaining a sense of unity …’ The text structures of nine cantatas are explored before a lengthy discussion about the proposed and final texts of the oratorio Judith. Finally in this chapter Allis considers the collaborative projects between Parry and poets such as Arthur Benson and Robert Bridges. There is an investigation of the most difficult collaboration of all: the operatic project Guinevere with Una Taylor.

One of the charms of this book is that Michael Allis provides ample quotations from Parry’s own published writings about music – both historical, aesthetic and also his diaries. These are fascinating and helpful in gaining an understanding of the composer’s mindset as well as his music.

This is obviously a technical book. It does not major on biography or give criticism of the music as such. It provides exactly what the title implies – an examination of the creative process of his music. It is quite obvious that the book started life as a university thesis – the style of writing, the footnotes, and the documentation all point to a scholarly, as opposed to a popular, production. I agree with Jeremy Dibble’s review in 19th Century Music when he suggests that for such an expensive book, a few ‘glossy photographs or facsimiles’ would not have gone amiss. Certainly the latter would have been an integral part of understanding Parry’s writing processes. However there are a plethora of well presented musical examples which are crucial to following the author's argument.

The bibliography references a number of texts that go beyond the usual works – but just how many readers will want to read about Papermaking: the history and technique of an ancient craft or Cognition and Thought: An information Processing Approach is an interesting point.  Michael Allis provides a general index as well as an index of works, which is obviously useful.

So who will read this book? It is clearly not written for the ordinary music lover. Neither will it appeal to the average enthusiast of British music who basically wants the ‘facts' about a composer and perhaps a brief musical description of their music. And certainly one thing that is lacking is a ‘popular’ introduction to the life and works of Parry (and Charles Villiers Stanford too) that are so easily available for Elgar, Britten and RVW.  Jeremy Dibble’s biography is an impressive work– but not really for the general listener.

The importance and the utility of this present book is to writers of programme notes, reviews, articles and books who will subsequently approach his life and works. It is essential reading for them. Michael Allis’s book will give these individuals two things. Firstly, a useful appraisal of the composer's working methods, so that any discussion of his music will be more informed from a technical and chronological point of view. Secondly, that a number of the myths surrounding him are finally debunked - once and for all.

Finally, I believe that this book will serve as a useful reference tool for all musicologists, writers and enthusiasts who approach the music of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry for many years to come.

  John France



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