Thursday, 2 August 2018

Hubert Parry : Invocation to Music

At the Three Choirs Festival today,  Hubert Parry Invocation to Music (1895). Sir Andrew Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra and Three Choirs Festival chorus and soloists Katherine Broderick,  Mark Le Brocq and David Stout.  The concert begins with Parry's Blest Pair of Sirens , so well known that it hardly needs an introduction: with the Three Choirs Festival chorus, it's sure to be very good indeed, especially in this context. Also on the programme,  Parry's Symphony no 5, the Symphonic Fantasia,  which featured in Prom 17 - please read more HERE and HERE. So a few words about the Invocation to Music a grand "Ode in Honour of Henry Purcell" to use its official subtitle, written to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Purcell in 1895.

A splendid orchestral introduction to Parry's Invocation to Music, long string lines rising to crescendo, seguing into joyful processional.  "Myriad voiced Queen ! Enchantress !  of the air!" sing the choir ; magnificent rich textures, voice types clearly defined and separate. "Chained in unborn oblivion drear, thy many-hearted grace restore unto our Isle, our own to be ! And make again our Graces three"...... "Return, return to merry England, return, enchantress, myriad voiced Queen!" The text, by Robert Bridges is somewhat turgid - Parry wasn't terribly keen - but perhaps we can intuit what this Purcell revival meant to the late Victorian age, with its confidence and sense of imperial grandeur.  Thus the intertwining of choral parts and orchestra may be designed to form a garland in music.

Parry valued Purcell highly and ensured that his students did, too. But apart from the introduction, Parry's Invocation isn't so much "about" Purcell as about the ethical and moral mores of Parry's time.  Delicate woodwinds announce a more contemplative mood for the second section, "Thee, fair poetry" for tenor solo, decorated by murmuring orchestra.  Images of the countryside abound, but this landscape is strangely haunted, living in nostalgic memory rather than the present. "Only awhile the distant sun from hidden villages around, threading the glades and woody heights is borne of bells that dong the Sabbath morn"   This song is also a memorial to Parry's schoolfriend George Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, whio died young while the Invocation was being completed.  George was also  the brother of Parry's wife Maude, but that's another story.  Thus the very private tenderness: not at all a grand public statement, despite being embedded in an elaborate whole. One of the reasons why I'm so fond of Parry.  Though he wrote music for official occasions, there's often something humble and human if you listen more carefully.
Almost immediately, Parry switches back to "public mode" with the chorus "The monstrous sea" . Churning , monumental lines, trumpets calling forward, describing the "the orphaning waters wild and wide", sunken ships, a castle studded coastline  and the moon, which controls the tides.  "in the twinkling smile of  his boundless slumber, to the rhythmm of oars....when the waters have glowed with blood, and hearts have laughed in then fight"....O Muse of our Isle, to thee, to thee !".  Whether Bridges was connecting 17th century England to Victorain naval power, I don't know : the main thing is that, for Parry, a highly experienced sailor, this music heaves and surges like the sea and whatever that might represent.  From this maritime imagery, the soprano and tenor duet "Love to love calleth" might seem to echo Tristan und Isolde.  Hardly any composer anywhere in Europe was immune to Wagner, even those contra, so Parry can hardly be blamed for being aware of what was happening around him. All 19th century composers referenced German and Austrian musical tradition and built upon it : it would have been hard for any good composer to be isolationist.  Parry's approach was individual : more understated than florid, gentler and more humane.  Thus the Dirge for bass solo, "To me, to me, fair Goddess, come!" mourning again, possibly a hidden reference to George Herbert, though the section is dramatic and valedictory "Lament ! Lament, for when thy Seer died no song was sung".  A final strophe with valedictory orchestral depth as the bass intones "We ne'er arise to see... our tears as dew".
The seventh section "Man born of desire" is the longest and perhaps the most elegaic.  The chorus begins with hushed mystery but arises, accompanied by trumpets, in contemplation of the possible meaning of life.  "(Man) striveth to know, to unravel the mind, that veileth in horror to vanquish his fate.... no ill shall be...whence he came to pass away...umade, lost for aye, with things that are not".   As the Invocation draws to its cyclic conclusion, a more upbeat mood returns. Soprano, tenor and bass join the chorus for the ninth section "O enter with me the gates of delight"". Awakening from the "terror of night" the protagonists have reached "everlasting day".  "Night hath unlocked the starry heaven for thee, the sea, the trust of his streams.......and death has no sting for beauty undying".  As in the introduction, the different voices interwine gracefully.   Music, thus invoked, brings new life.  Infused with confidence, chorus andorchestra  triumphantly celebrate "O Queen of sinless grace" (meaning Music, not a temporal Queen) which shall "with a myriad voiced song go forth.... with the joy of Man in the beauty of Love's desire". 
Please see my other posts on Parry, especially the reviews of his English Lyrics CDs from SOMM

No comments: