Hubert Parry - A Life in Photographs
by Michael Trott
88 pages, including 139 colour and black & white illustrations
ISBN: 978 1 85858 575 8
First published 2018
In the year that we mark the centenary of the death of Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918), the arrival of this new book about him is particularly welcome.
There have been several biographical studies of Parry, among which Jeremy Dibble’s C. Hubert H. Parry, His Life and Music (2002) is indispensable for anyone wishing to obtain a comprehensive picture of this key figure in Victorian and early twentieth century English musical life. However, Prof Dibble’s magisterial book is very detailed, including significant passages of analysis of many of Parry’s works. As such, it may not ideally suit the general reader or someone wishing to obtain an introduction to Parry. Michael Trott’s book seems to me to fill that gap.
The book makes no pretence to be a detailed biography: it is described on the dust cover as “an outline illustrated biography”. It’s clearly the work of someone who is an admirer of Parry – though by no means uncritically so. In a relatively brief text Michael Trott gives us a valuable outline of Parry’s life, including his family background and early life; his time at Eton and at Oxford; his own family life; and, of course, his work as a highly respected composer, educator and educational administrator. There are also brief general comments about some of Parry’s most important compositions. In addition, various specific aspects of Parry’s life are discussed, including his twin passions for sailing and motor cars, his views on politics and religion, and his various family homes.
Trott provides his own narrative of Parry’s life but into this he weaves many discerningly chosen quotations. Quite a number of these come from the first biography of Parry, Hubert Parry, His Life and Works (1926) by Charles L Graves. Others are observations about Parry by people who knew him and which Graves included in his biography. In addition, though, Mr Trott has had access to some family recollections about Parry, such as an unpublished notebook which the composer’s daughter Dorothea Ponsonby wrote in order to help Graves with his biography. Parry’s descendants have been generous in providing Trott with material, both written and pictorial, which makes his book especially valuable.
Indeed, much of the value in this volume lies in the copious illustrations that accompany the text. A good number of the portraits of Parry are already familiar – several, for example, were included in Jeremy Dibble’s book and have also been reproduced elsewhere. However, there is much here that was new to me. Among the illustrations that I’d not previously seen but which now caught my eye was a charming photograph, posed yet very natural, of Parry with two of his grandchildren, probably taken in 1912. There’s also an amusing picture, taken towards the end of his life in which we see Parry and his German-born servant, George Schlichenmayer, puzzling over what to do about an evidently broken-down motor car. From much earlier in his life, a picture of a pensive, youthful Parry, taken at Eton in 1865 is a world away from the pictures of a Victorian gentleman with which we are familiar.
It may be objected that Michael Trott’s biography is on the brief side but I think that this is beneficial. Precisely because the book is not over-detailed the key traits of Parry’s character stand out in sharp relief. I referred to the photograph of Parry taken during his schooldays at Eton. I think I’m right in saying that in this picture he is dressed for the sports field. The familiar portraits of Parry in adulthood may give the impression of a solid establishment figure but Michael Trott very rightly points out that Parry could be something of a daredevil. At Eton he pursued his musical interests, to be sure, but he was also a prominent figure in the school’s sporting life. He became captain of the football team and also achieved prominence in the famous Eton wall game. We learn that during his Eton career he “had numerous ‘smashes’ on the field, injuring himself repeatedly.” This willingness to take risks and disregard for his personal safety was a continuous thread through Parry’s life. As is well known, he became an avid sailor on his yacht, The Wanderer. What I learned from this book is that Parry was undeterred from sailing, no matter what the weather. After one particularly stormy voyage the skipper who led Parry’s crew apparently remarked to him ‘you ain’t been drowned yet, but you’ve done your very best.’ Later in life, with the advent of the motor car, Parry was able to indulge his love of speed behind the wheel of a succession of cars. It seems that Sir Hubert was one of the first people in the UK to be fined for speeding! As Michael Trott observes, “Speed and danger…seemed to be paradoxically a safety valve for Parry’s otherwise tightly controlled demeanour and his pronounced sense of moderation that his daughter Gwen had experienced in childhood.”
The portraits of Parry that appear to show a prime specimen of a Victorian establishment figure are misleading in another important way, as Michael Trott shows. Parry was in many ways a radical – and Radical – thinker. Like his wife, Lady Maud, he supported female suffrage, for instance. And though he wrote several oratorios on Biblical themes, he moved away from organised religion in early adulthood – though he continued to acknowledge the existence of God – and became an agnostic theist. Typically, though, as squire of Highnam, he continued to attend church when in residence at his Gloucestershire country home; that was his duty.
And in his highly developed sense of duty, Parry was every inch the Victorian. He took on task after task, regardless of the workload, and never shirked his responsibilities once he had assumed a role. In particular, he was enormously conscientious in his work as Director of the Royal College of Music, a post he held from 1894 until his death. Trott includes a telling quote from an obituary of Parry that Robin H Legge contributed to The Musical Times in November 1918 in which Legge said this: “being placed at the head of the musical profession, principal of the Royal College of Music, chairman of anything and everything connected with music and musicians….his art was clearly stifled in no small measure by the absurd demands of his administrative position.” Legge went on to state that, because he took on so many duties other than composing “Parry, in spite of all that he achieved, died a Might-Have-Been.” I’m not sure I agree fully with that last sentiment but I know what Legge was getting at. Arguably, Parry wore himself out in the service of music and musicians.
This summer I attended several concerts at the Three Choirs Festival which featured music by Parry (review ~ review ~ review). I remarked at the time that hearing the music in live performances, and also the preparatory reading and CD listening, had increased my admiration for Parry as a composer and as a man. Reading this book by Michael Trott has continued that process. He has given us a succinct, sympathetic portrait of Sir Hubert Parry and makes many insightful judgements about him. More than that, through the illustrations of Parry and his family, many of them unfamiliar, he has brought his subject vividly to life.
This book strikes me as an ideal introduction to one of the most generous figures in British musical history. However, the reader who is already well versed in Parry’s life and music will also find much of great interest here.