Monday 9 August 2010

Hubert Parry out of the ghetto Proms

Sir Charles Hubert H Parry, scion of the aristocracy, Eton toff and Oxford don. Who could be more Establishment? The irony is that the posher people come, often the less bothered they are by what others think. Parry's been in the ghetto for decades because he's identified with a world that disappeared in 1914. Unfortunately some of his champions would like him ring fenced for themselves, stuffed like a specimen in an antique shop.

So it's wonderful to hear so much Hubert Parry this year at the Proms, played by living musicians. A good chance to evaluate him, and hear how well his music works for modern times. Because he's good. Maybe we'll appreciate him all the more after last year's Proms darling, the venal Charles Villiers Stanford (search on this site for more on Stanford, on whom I've spent an inordinate amount of time).

Parry couldn't stand Stanford, though they maintained a working relationship for 40 years. Stanford was vain, self-promoting, financially dodgy, far more interested in furthering his status over everything else. Parry devoted himself to helping others, was a genuinely loved teacher and always learning. Stanford went into fits when Elgar got attention. Parry supported Elgar early on. Elgar even asked Parry's help setting words with "proper" intonation, since Elgar spoke with a rustic regional burr and Parry spoke fancy.

And Parry was European, interested in what was going on in the world.  Listen to Parry's Elegy for Brahms  Prom 31 rebroadcast. Parry liked Brahms's "dignified artistic reserve.....the cultivated comprehensive taste, the imagination fostered and fed by dwelling on noble subjects and keeping far from triviality and conventions." Pointedly not Wagner, though he may be taking a dig at Stanford, too. (Parry's dislike for "neurasthenic" music is similar to Wagner's  dislike of Mendelssohn. Parry describes Stanford as "mendelssohnian....but not Mendelssohn".)

It's interesting that Schoenberg shared Parry's passion for Brahms, whom he regarded as a progressive. What fun it would be to hear Schoenberg's lively Orchestration of Brahms's Piano Quartet no 1 together with Parry and Brahms himself, putting paid to several stereotypes at once.

Parry's Elegy for Brahms, despite its obvious references, is individual, not-quite-Wagner, but pure Parry. Read Jeremy Dibble's indispensable book on Parry for a full description. Andrew Davis conducted the uplifting finale with such conviction that it seemed like the breaking of a new dawn, rather than a farewell.

Parry's Symphonic Fantasia in B Minor "1912" was heard at Prom 9 (Siniasky BBC Phil).  Parry was fascinated by Schumann's Fourth Symphony, subtitled "symphonic fantasie". Read Jeremy Dibble for a detailed analysis. Dibble notes that the sophisticated cyclic techniques Parry uses to develop his themes herald Schoenberg. "It is remarkable", he adds "that the Symphonic Fantasia should take such a forward-looking attitude to modern structural procedures..... it merits a firmer place in the canon of cyclic works and perhaps more important still, deserves to be widely recognized as one of the finest and assured utterances in British symphonic literature".

Symphonic Fantasia evolves in four stages, "Stress", "Love", "Play" and a particularly striking "Now!" its meaning elusive but hinted at in its vibrant expressiveness. Parry marks the various sub themes and developments not with conventional German or Italian terms, but with words like "brooding" and "revolt" which allow interpretive freedom.  Its open-ended, free-spirited nature welcomes new performers, inviting them in, rather than imposing on them.

A bit, I suspect, like Parry the man who embraced life to the full.  His eccentric wife was a suffragette and he had strong doubts about militarism. He died in 1918, aged 70 (old in those days) after an all-day cycling adventure, soon after having undergone surgery. Up and down the Sussex Downs riding a monstrously heavy 2 gear bicycle and solid tweed plus fours, he developed a cyst which poisoned his system.  What a character he must have been!

Tomorrow, 10th August, Parry will be commemorated by the 3 Choirs Festival in a special concert at Highnam Church, near Parry's estate, which he loved dearly .He visited it a last time, shortly before he died. The extensive gardens had gone to ruin, the gardeners drafted to fight in the First World War. Ashley Grote will be conducting the St Cecilia Singers in Parry's Songs of Farewell, (1916-18) It's long sold out, but hopefully may be heard later on BBC Radio 3. Later in The Proms, there'll be yet more Parry, Symphonic Variations (Prom 68) and of course, Jerusalem. Read about Jerusalem HERE . Good video clip and singing. The piece colours up differently when you think what it might have meant to men like Blake, Parry and Elgar.

Respect what Parry told his students: "A man may utter artistic things  with the technique of a superhuman conjuror, but if he has not temperament and character of his own he is....a spinner of superficialities and a tinkling cackler".

Please see my review of the documentary, The Prince and the Composer, HRH Prince Charles on Hubert Parry.

1 comment:

JPH said...

"His pupils included Vaughan Williams (his greatest champion), Holst, Ireland and Howells, whose life he saved in 1916 by paying for the impoverished 24-year-old to be the first man in Britain to have radium treatment for cancer. Howells lived to be 90."