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
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.