IAN PARROTT by Paul Conway
Ian Parrott believes that, to achieve a perfect balance, music should be a combination of the Expected and the Unexpected. His compositions constantly demonstrate the wisdom of this belief: their array of pleasing melodies is usually wedded to an array of remarkably intricate rhythms.
He was born in London on 5th March 1916. He was educated at Harrow School (1929-1931) and from there he went to the Royal College of Music. At New College, Oxford (from 1934 to 1937) he won the Margaret Bridges Scholarship and was awarded his Doctorate in 1940. At this time he wrote the haunting little piano piece "Westerham", a rhapsody whose birdcalls disrupted by ominous rumblings reflect a wartime honeymoon (he married his first wife, Elizabeth on 1st of June 1940). Also in 1940 he wrote the charming song "I heard a Linnet Courting" for soprano and piano. Dedicated to his wife, the song sets a poem by Robert Bridges. During the War, Ian Parrott served in the Royal Signals Corps in Egypt, an experience that inspired several subsequent works, including his First Symphony and the Symphonic Impression "Luxor". From 1950 until 1983 Ian Parrott was Gregynog Professor of Music at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth and his adopted country has inspired many of his compositions since 1950 including "Seithenin" and "Arfordir Ceredigion". As well as a prolific composer he has written many books including "A Guide to Musical Thought" (1955), Elgar (Master Musicians Series, 1971), Cyril Scott and his Piano Music (1992) and The Crying Curlew: Peter Warlock (1994). Ian Parrott still gives talks and composes, having produced some occasional orchestral works, a Fifth String Quartet and chamber works in the 1990s.
Professor Parrott has written four operas: The Sergeant Major's Daughter, a burlesque opera (1943); The Black Ram, first performed in Aberystwyth (1953); Once Upon a Time, a one-act comic opera (1959) and The Lady of the Flowers, a chamber opera first performed in Colchester (1981).
In the field of orchestral music, his five symphonies (1946, 1961, 1966, 1978 and 1979) have suffered serious neglect, two of them never having received a performance and none of them available on commercial recordings. This is undoubtedly more of a comment on the sorry state of the CD industry (which churns out endlessly inferior versions of staples of the mainstream orchestral repertoire every month) rather than a reflection of the value of Ian Parrott's symphonies. Other orchestral works include concertos for violin and small orchestra (1945), piano (1949), cor anglais (1956), cello (1961), trombone and wind band (1967) and a concertino for two guitars and small orchestra. (1973). His cello concerto was first performed by William Pleeth with the Halle¢ Orchestra under Sir John Barbirolli in Newtown on the 2nd of May 1963. Ian Parrott has also written a Solemn Overture: Romeo and Juliet (1953) which won the Bournemouth Orchestra prize in 1957, ballet music and composed works for brass band. His interest in spiritualism has led to his co-orchestrating a Symphony in F minor composed by Rosemary Brown as "inspired" by Beethoven.
The quality of his chamber works is most apparent in his fourth string quartet which received a fine LP recording (long deleted) on the Lyrita label. Ian Parrott's five string quartets were composed in 1946, 1955, 1957, 1963 and 1994. He has also written a trio for flute, violin and piano (1937) an oboe quartet (1946), two wind quintets, the second of which is now published by Phylloscopus (1948, 1970), a Fantasy Trio (for violin, cello and piano, 1951) and a septet (1962). Amongst his instrumental works, there are many fine solo pieces for piano, harp and organ: the Toccata (1962 and Fantasia (1974) for organ and Ceredigion (1957) and Arfon (1978) for harp deserve special mention.
Ian Parrott has written much choral music, most of it as the direct result of a commission. Pieces in this genre include a setting of Psalm 91 for bass, chorus and orchestra (1947), a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (in Welsh) for boys' voices and organ (1961) and a song cycle entitled "Eastern Wisdom" for voice and chamber orchestra (1987).
There are clearly too many works to discuss in detail. Thus, this article seeks only to underline some highlights of the composer's output: the symphonies as they are sadly neglected, the fourth string quartet and a handful of instrumental and solo piano pieces to give a flavour of the range and quality of pieces written by this industrious and prolific composer.
Ian Parrott's Symphony no 1 in E minor which was started in 1942 and finished in May 1946 is a substantial work (lasting around 31 and a half minutes) written under the pseudonym Karnak. It is cast in five movements, a brief but powerful Preface (Adagio) followed by a substantial Scherzo (Allegro). The emotional core of the Symphony is the central Andante-Allegro non troppo movement: headed "Conflict", it became a separate piece, a Symphonic Prelude with the title "El Alamein" (1945). In this form it received many performances and a broadcast by the BBC in 1948. There follows another brief section marked "Transition" (Moderato Risoluto) and the Finale is a lengthy Andante which brings the work to a triumphant conclusion. The work is scored for a large orchestra (2 flutes, second player doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (1st player: piatti, gran cassa, tamb tenore; 2nd player: tamb picc, xylophone), harp and strings. It deserves a first performance: it would fill an important gap in our knowledge of the early orchestral works of Ian Parrott and provide us with another example of a war-inspired Symphony (it was finished in the same year as another large-scale Symphony of catharsis, George Lloyd's Fourth).
Theme and Six Variants for piano of 1945 is a work of substance (lasting some 20 minutes in performance) which, like the Enigma Variations, describes old friends of the composer, including the army, an Australian nurse and a Cairo patroness of the Arts. The initial theme is Romantic and nostalgic and the six variants which follow each create their own special character. The most affecting is the second variant, a delicate feather-light opening section leading to a sturdier Allegretto non troppo middle section before the Satie-like delicacy of the opening music returns. Variant five is a gossamer-like scherzo whilst the final variant is the most wilful, ending with a Grandioso coda. It received its first performance in the Wigmore Hall by Eric Parkin in May 1948.
Also in 1945, Ian Parrott wrote a beautiful song for high voice and piano entitled "In Phaeacia" with a text by James Elroy Flecker. This piece was first broadcast by the BBC in March 1950 with Sophie Wyss as the soloist. It features on a recent CD of Ian Parrott's music where the responsive soprano is Alison Wells. As with the composer's most characteristic writing, the melodies themselves are simple and guileless but the rhythms are less straightforward. For example in the piano introduction there are held notes, a sextuplet and every conceivable combination of division of three-four time. Yet the effect is never awkward: the composer is not trying to be clever and supplying difficult rhythms for their own sake but rather exemplifying his own wise maxim about music containing the right mix of the "expected and the unexpected". The score reflects the words perfectly (of particular note is the subtle left-hand cross rhythms accompanying verse 3: "Through the great pinewood") and one feels that in these jewelled small-scale works the essence of the composer is most completely captured.
The "Symphonic Impression: Luxor" of 1949 was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society's First Prize in the following year. It describes the remarkable Egyptian temple at Luxor with its three corners displaying a Roman temple, a Mohammedan mosque and a Christian altar (each of these civilisations is reflected in parts of the piece). Luxor is an evocative tone poem of about 15 minutes' duration whose Rondo structure ensures that the big, Egyptian-like theme which returns again and again dominates the piece like the Egyptian temple dominating the other shrines within it. It has received at least three different performances from 1950 up to a recent reading by Philomusica Aberystwyth and while each of these performances has something fresh to bring to the work, I would have sacrificed one of them to make room for a reading of the Symphony no 1.
The Concert Overture "Seithenin" was commissioned by the BBC and given a broadcast by the BBC Welsh Orchestra in 1959. It is based on the Welsh legend of Seithenin, a drunken nightwatchman, who failed to lock the floodgates of the sea wall and so caused Cardigan Bay. A memorable and colourful tone poem, it deserves a revival and recording: its tuneful nature and masterful handling of a large orchestra are typical of the composer. It received a notable performance with the LPO under Sir Adrian Boult.
Ian Parrott had been an external examiner for Trinity College, London since 1949 and the Symphony no 2 of 1960, nicknamed "Round the World" was inspired by his travels to countries such as America, New Zealand and Fiji in his capacity as an examiner. The work was broadcast in 1969 with the BBC Welsh Orchestra under John Carewe. It is 29 minutes in duration and cast in three movements (9 and a half, 6 and 13 and a half minutes respectively). In 1986, the composer arranged part of the first movement (Allegro con brio) as a piano duet simply entitled "Theme from a Symphony" and in this form it is currently available from publisher Barry Brunton's Oecumuse company. Demonstrating a firm grasp of orchestration (he wrote a splendid book on the subject in 1957 entitled "Method in Orchestration"), the Second Symphony has been unfairly neglected, though bearing in mind the composer's recent preference for short and concise forms of expression he might be tempted to abbreviate the work before another performance.
The Second Symphony begins and ends with a rasping trombone and screeching string glissando conveying the jet taking off at the start and landing at the conclusion of the work, a naïve but effective touch which neatly bookends a series of evocative impressions of far-flung lands. There is a folk-like quality to the main theme of the first movement which suggests Copland in "hoe down" mode with exciting cross-rhythms. A beautiful circular ostinato-like secondary theme is initiated on flute over a changing sea of harmonies and is later taken up by horn and violins. The brief nocturne-like slow central movement has an impassioned string melody for its main subject which is continued by the oboe and is made the basis of a series of evermore-colourful variations. A tutti climax is reached after which shimmering strings and oboe repeat the opening theme briefly before the music fades away. The Allegro Finale begins with chattering lower strings joined by trumpet interjections. Gradually the lower strings climb higher and higher and flutes join in. A slowed down version of the scuttling main theme of the Finale is interspersed with memories of the opening material of the symphony as the movement loses momentum to reflect on its theme in an extended inward-looking central section characterised by expressive string writing. The opening material and "hoe down" music from the first movement returns whilst the downward-sliding trombone and strings at the end indicates that the jet plane has landed and we are back on home ground. A final emphatic chord brings the work and the journey to its end.
Like Dvorak's New World Symphony, whose Czech rhythms suggest the composer was as much homesick as he was inspired by the music of the country he was staying in, one senses the Second Symphony of Ian Parrott is written by a composer who is also missing his homeland. Despite the obvious American and Australasian influences in the work there is much Celtic music too, particularly in the intensely dark theme of the central movement. The symphony's bold colours and engaging themes make for an enjoyable work which does not deserve to languish in obscurity when less well-crafted works have appeared on CD in recent times.
The String Quartet plays almost as important a part in Ian Parrott's compositional life as the Symphony and in 1963, he completed what many consider to be one of the finest achievements of his career: the String Quartet no 4. It was premiered by the Allegri Quartet in the Wigmore Hall in 1966 and received a 1971 LP recording on Lyrita, the University Ensemble of Cardiff providing the quartet. The work is conceived in an arch form (not unlike the First Symphony which also has a Preface for its first movement). The impressive centrepiece is the lengthy fast movement flanked by two slow movements which share the same spare but memorable material. The brief preface introduces the four main themes. These themes are then developed and worked out in a cogent and richly satisfying way throughout the rest of the piece. The Epilogue arises from a second violin cadenza and begins with a remarkable solo for first violin. This brief Epilogue reviews the principal four themes, swiftly and neatly drawing them together. The quartet is a considerable achievement and shows the composer in his most serious vein. Occupying an important position in the output of Ian Parrott, the work's taste, restraint and economy of expression are beyond reproach and one hopes it will appear on CD soon either as a Lyrita reissue or, in a new recording. The Fourth String Quartet is published by Griffiths Edition, Bridgend.
Symphony no 3 (1966) is scored for an obbligato string quartet and orchestra of 2 flutes (second doubling as piccolo), oboe, 2 clarinets, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (xylophone, glockenspiel, vibraphone, triangle, tam-tam, side drum and cymbals), celesta, harp and strings. A mysterious short Prelude (Largo-Andante con moto- Largo) consists of a slow theme for string quartet alternating with a jazzy percussion theme for xylophone and celesta. This is followed by a substantial Andante con moto entitled "Fantasia on a chord in Tchaikovsky". The chord in question is the opening one from Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. Ian Parrott was fascinated by the chordal progression from this chord which is not a straightforward tonic chord such as would have opened a piece by Mozart, for example. Later the composer discovered that the chord he used in his Second Symphony was made up of the notes from a guitar's open strings. The "Tchaikovsky" chord exerted such a hold over the composer that Ian Parrott used it again in an organ piece of 1983 entitled "Hands Across the Years", a set of variations in memoriam Gerald Finzi. The Rondo Finale provides welcome contrast with a perky woodwind theme punctuated by timpani, its genial mood of high spirits typical of its composer. The opening material for xylophone and string quartet returns at the end of the symphony. A lively Presto coda brings the symphony to a bright conclusion but it is the meditative central Andante con moto which lingers in the mind.
The combination of exotic percussion and string quartet creates an eerie, slightly oriental sound with touches of Holstian mysticism in the scoring (possibly inspired by the composer's abiding interest in spiritualism). The Third Symphony received an authoritative performance from the BBC Welsh Orchestra under the direction of the composer (broadcast on BBC Radio Wales on the 22nd of October 1972).
Arabesque and Dance (1972) is a brief but well-crafted miniature for flute (or treble recorder) and piano. The elegant and stately Arabesque (Allegretto) is followed by a driving Allegro which contains grace notes and is more difficult for both players than the preceding section. It is under two and half minutes in length but constitutes a fine example of the care the composer lavishes on such small pieces. One feels that no matter how prolific his output, this composer seems incapable of writing anything which is ill-considered or lacking in due attention to detail.
Amongst his fine contributions to the repertoire for high voice and piano, the Two Thoughful Songs of 1977 deserve special mention. At around two minutes each, these exquisite miniatures consist of a setting of William Blake's "The Fly" and "Thee, God, I Come From" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The piano writing in the first piece is suitably onomatopoeic and rhythmically complex whilst the Hopkins setting is sincere and moving, the poem's direct and devotional Christian sentiments eliciting a direct and artless response from the composer. They were first performed in Aberystwyth on 16th of May 1983.
The Fourth Symphony is entitled "Sinfonietta" and was completed in October 1978. It is a lighter work than Ian Parrott's previous examples in the genre, lasting around a quarter of an hour in performance and scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes (cor anglais), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and percussion ad lib, celesta and strings. Cast in two movements, the work is characterised by restlessly fluctuating tempi and an exotic percussion section (xylophone, side drum, glockenspiel and tambourine. Unperformed, a copy of the work lies mouldering in the British Music Information Centre along with many other fine British scores. The composer took some of the material from this work (or "cannibalised" it, as he rather colourfully put it to me) and used it in a five-minute piece for bassoon and piano called "Fun Fugato and Awkward Waltz" (1987).
Of all the five symphonies of Ian Parrott, his Fifth and latest (so far!) is arguably his most instantly approachable: it is certainly his most likeable and contains some of his most memorable invention. If only the piece were taken up by some enterprising professional conductor (of the stature of Vernon Handley for example) then I feel sure the work would win many friends in the concert halls and especially on CD where its many felicities could be appreciated to the full in repeated hearing. The Fifth Symphony was begun in March 1979 and finished on 18th June of that year. It received its first performance in Coventry Cathedral on the 23rd of May 1981 with the Birmingham Philharmonic Society conducted by Kenneth Page. The work was soon repeated by the same forces at Leominster Priory on the 13th of June 1981. It received its most recent performance on the 4th of May 1996 at the Northguild, Southampton with the Southampton Youth Orchestra under Keith Smith. It remains the composer's most performed symphony. A fact explained by its abundant melodic charm and rhythmic interest.
The Fifth is just under a half and hour in duration and is divided into three movements: "Confrontation" (Largo - Andante - Allegretto); "Alternation" (Allegretto - Andante con moto - Andante - Con moto) and "Integration" (Largo - Andante - Allegretto). The three movements last for ten and a half minutes, nine and a half minutes and seven and a half minutes, respectively. After the modest orchestration of the previous symphony, the composer has scored his Fifth for a large orchestra: flute, piccolo, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 B flat clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 2 trumpets in C, 2 trombones and tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, harp and strings. The two players required for the percussion section are required to play the following instruments: triangle, tambourine, bass drum, side drum, maracas, glockenspiel and xylophone.
The opening movement entitled "Confrontation" starts with a crash on the cymbals from which emerges the motto CDC played by the trumpet. The inspiration behind this initial idea dates back more than forty years to a demonstration in the Physics Department at Birmingham University. There the composer heard how one could not tell the difference between a flute and a trumpet if the initial articulation of just a single note was masked out. In the introductory bars of the symphony the trumpets' CDC is echoed by the clarinets' version and indeed it is difficult to tell the instruments apart in the aftermath of the cymbal crash. After this motto theme has held sway, the "confrontation" of the title stems from the opposition of the graceful and suave first subject and a swaggering march-like second subject. The movement is in a classic sonata form and the development section involves a clash between the motto theme and the first and second subjects.
The "Alternation in the second movement is between a slow movement centred around F sharp minor and a Scherzo, mainly in C major. The slow part of the movement is characterised by a dreamy solo for first violin with swirling harp accompaniment. The Scherzo element has eleven quavers in the bar (3+3+2+3) and an insistent tarantella-like rhythm which carries all before it like a Pied Piper. The opening slow section reappears but it is not long before the scherzo returns to bring the movement to a resounding close.
The Finale returns to the opening CDC motto theme and then gradually integrates all the ideas from the previous two movements in a new dance-like context, with a rhythm of three short notes followed by three long ones. The spreading outwards from an initial C at the beginning of the Symphony either upwards to E flat or downwards to A is again developed. Indeed, the music moves into the tonality of E flat and also into A at two moments. Brief fragments of the slow movement are paraded in the festivities and there is also a jazz variation involving clarinet writing which evokes Copland. This entertaining work ends emphatically on a full CDC for all instruments.
Fun to play and listen to, the Fifth Symphony demonstrates the craftsmanship of Ian Parrott and is a fine example of his late work. It is unashamedly written to be enjoyed by performers and audience alike and succeeds well in its aim. An appearance of the symphony in major concert halls and on CD might go some way to convincing today's music lovers that late 20th Century music can be pleasing on the ear without being insulting to the intelligence.
The Fanfare Overture for a Somerset Festival was commissioned by the 1993 Parrett Music Festival for performance by the Southampton Youth Orchestra at Montacute House. It is a splendid miniature showpiece of around ten minutes' duration. At the start of the Allegretto introduction, the "fanfare" of the title is immediately apparent in the trumpets and the rhythmically interesting descending figures in the strings which follow the fanfare assume importance in the main body of the work, as does a motif introduced by the horns. This figure becomes the opening subject of the main Allegro con brio section of the Overture. The symphonic argument involves the working out of the three main motifs laid out in the introduction. There is a bravura coda where the trumpets assert their supremacy and remind us unequivocally of the work's title and its jubilant character.
Recent works by Ian Parrott include the delightful concert opener "Arfordir Ceredigion" translated as "The Coast of Ceredigion". A witty and good-humoured five-minute Overture, this ebullient seascape is an affectionate homage to the Aberystwyth coastline that the composer has come to know so well. The use of the well known hymn tune Ton-y-Botel, which legend has it was washed up on the Cardiganshire coast in a bottle, is a warm tribute by Ian Parrott to Wales. The stirring tutti version of the Welsh hymn tune packs a powerful emotional punch before the skittish opening motifs return to round off the piece with quirky style and a typically generous helping of orchestral colour.
The 1990s have also seen the composition of a fifth string quartet, completed in July 1994. This work is a complete contrast to its predecessor. Whereas the Fourth represents its composer at his most serious-minded, the Fifth is a divertimento: an enjoyable, light-hearted piece with a tango-like lilt to its main theme! "Happiness", a five-minute piece for reciter and recorder is a warm tribute to David Cox (Ian Parrott's friend and colleague who sadly died in 1997). It was written for David Cox's 80th birthday. "Awel Dyfi" is a witty scherzino for solo recorder composed in 1995. "Songs of Renewal", written for soprano, recorder and piano in 1995, is dedicated to his second wife Jeanne, an accomplished painter, whom he married on June 8th 1996. The year of his second marriage also saw the composition of "The Wrexham Pipers meet the Machynlleth Marchers" for recorder and guitar or piano, based on two tunes in "Alawon fy Ngwlad" by Nicholas Bennett published in 1896. The composer eventually combines the two themes somewhat in the manner of Charles Ives. This piece, in its original form, was performed as part of this year's North Wales Festival in St Asaph on 20th September 1999 by John Turner and Craig Ogden. November 1999 sees the premiere of a new work by Ian Parrott entitled "Portraits". Like the composer's "Theme and Six Variants" for piano, this is an affectionate series of musical descriptions of personal friends or influences. The friends portrayed in the piece are Jack Moeran, Gerald Finzi, Bill James, David Cox and William Mathias. The piece concludes with a postlude. The premiere takes place in the University Powis Hall, Bangor on the 4th November.
It is a pleasure to be able to leave this article unfinished as the work of this most industrious composer is far from done. In a very recent letter to me he asked, "Yes, why not a Sixth?" - a reference to his symphonic output. In the case of Ian Parrott, you feel that there may yet be surprises in store to add to an accomplished body of work that deserves to be better known and more widely disseminated. He needs and merits a sympathetic champion to bring his scores before the public at large. I hope it will not be long before such a champion emerges.
© Paul Conway 1999
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