Sunday, 3 June 2012

An English Symphony

British music composed during the reign of the last queen who celebrated a diamond jubilee, Queen Victoria, has never had a good press. The standard view is that nothing of any great value was written until Edward Elgar blazed onto the scene with his Enigma Variations just two years before Victoria's death. In the popular mind, the Victorian Age means Gilbert and Sullivan. People who sing in choirs kept up a few old Anglican anthems. Stainer's oratorio The Crucifixion has just about hung on to its former fame. Books on music history tend to dismiss Britain at the time as being if not 'a land without music' then 'a land of sentimental parlour ballads and composers who try but fail to live up to the standards of Mendelssohn.'

Thankfully things are being to change and a fairer picture of pre-Elgar Victorian British music is emerging, led by a revival of interest in the music of two composers who used to be dismissed as worthy but dull harbingers of the British Renaissance, Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford. Today I want to look at the first of those two worthies.

Hubert Parry (1848-1918), favourite of Prince Charles, has always kept a foothold on the popular memory through the much-loved (radical) patriotic choral song Jerusalem, the popular hymn Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind and the glorious anthem I Was Glad, used at coronations and royal weddings. Parry helped carry British music away from Mendelssohn's influence, bringing in Brahms and Wagner's instead. Building on those German influences, he added his own English stamp - strong tunes, sturdy structures, that vein of nobilimente that Elgar was to become the supreme master of. 

You can hear the early Wagner/Liszt influence in the not wholly convincing Concertstück in G major of 1877 and the Brahms influence in the superior Symphony No.1 in G major of 1881 (composed after hearing Brahms's First Symphony). This symphony promises rather more than it delivers but is worth getting to know. The opening paragraph is one of my favourite things in all music. It has a sweep that is quite masterful. I love hearing it! Its impetus is sadly not maintained and only its return lifts the first movement back into the heights again. Much the same can be said for the Andante second movement, which opens to a truly beautiful and lyrical melody. The scherzo features some charming horn writing and a lovely pastoral interlude. The finale is quite enjoyable too. 

A performance of Wagner's late opera Parsifal followed and some of its originality flowed into the Symphony No.2 in F major ("Cambridge") of 1883, though the Brahmsian impulses of its predecessor aren't lost. This has a slow introduction of some beauty and the warm first movement, for the most part, carries on its melodic flow attractively. The perky, appealingly-coloured opening of the scherzo always make me smile, though its initial geniality is soon clouded by somewhat more dramatic material. The start of the trio makes me think of nature opening its eyes to sunlight after a storm has passed. The Andante is beautifully-written and full of romantic feeling, if occasionally a little prone to extend its use of sequence too far. This movement is at its best when, as at the very start, it is being lyrical. The Finale is largely festive in character, though it also has attractive lyrical passages.

It's with the Symphony No.3 in C major ("English") of 1888-89, though, that Parry first fully stamped his Englishness on the symphony and transcended his influences. This, however, was itself a highly influential work, with Elgar himself claiming that it had a telling effect on his own music. The first movement is more open in texture and perhaps more Schumann-like than the equivalent movements in the earlier symphonies - and that's not just because its second subject reminds me of Schumann's Im wunderschönen Monat Mai. It sets the tone for what is Parry's most Spring-like symphony. The highpoint of this influential symphony, however, is its beautiful slow movement, a real treat. Its tone is more melancholy but I doubt listening to it will make you anything other than happy! It's the warmth of Parry's art, plus his gift for creating a gratifying melodic flow, which makes listening to him such a pleasant experience. It's back into the English countryside for the good-natured scherzo and even though the finale is rather more earnest it generally keeps to the fresh, open-air spirit of its companions.

The Symphony No.4 in E major, composed at much the same time, strives for a more heroic character and opening with a dramatic theme of considerable character. It marks the start of an impressive first movement where symphonic sonata form results in expansive music which holds the interest throughout. The Adagio of this symphony comes closest to the world of Elgar and is the most beautiful of all Parry's symphonic slow movements, profoundly lyrical, tender and full of restrained pathos. With the delightful scherzo we leap into light spirits. This is an irresistibly charming movement, wonderfully scored and full of imaginative rhythms and fresh English air. The finale returns to the heroic spirit of the opening movement, albeit a cheerful species of heroism. There's a new tune introduced midway which is pure Parry is its expansive melodiousness and which will, I hope, prove as pleasing to you as it is to me. 

Leaving the Victorian era and jumping over the Edwardian era lands us near the start of George V's reign and Parry's symphonic coda, the Symphony No.5 in B major ("Symphonic Fantasia"). This is a single-movement symphony of much beauty. There are four sections which bears the titles 'Stress', 'Love', 'Play' and 'Now' - which are rather good titles that tie up well with the conventions of the standard four-movement symphony of 'First movement', 'Slow movement', 'Scherzo' and 'Finale'. (If I may intrude a doubtless wrong hunch here, I wonder if Liszt's final symphonic poem, From the Cradle to the Grave, was in the composer's mind here?) The rocking figure of the opening bars acts as a unifying feature for the whole symphony. 'Stress' is full of drama, as you would expect, but it has pages that glow with lyricism, while 'Love' brings Parry's lyrical warmth fully centre stage again - though it, conversely, doesn't lack for drama either. A dramatic recitative takes us to the scherzo and to the countryside while 'Now' carries us from playfulness to a powerfully optimistic conclusion. 

So, as you will hopefully have discovered, Hubert Parry is a fine symphonist from the two decades before Elgar blazed forth like a comet. 

Here are some other pieces of Parry's that you might care to explore:

Piano Trio No.1 in E minor (1878)
Piano Concerto in F sharp major (1880)
Piano Trio No.2 in B minor (1884)
Blest Pair Of Sirens (1887)
Elegy for Brahms for orchestra in A major (1897)
Songs of Farewell (1916-18)

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