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Parry's star seems at last to be in the ascendant. And not before time. Although respectably prolific, his style began to appear rather old-fashioned upon the appearance of Elgar early in the century, and this assessment has persisted until comparatively recently. Consequently a shamefully small proportion of his music has so far been recorded. But things are changing and Parry is being seen as more than just the composer of Jerusalem and I was glad. Last month saw our issue of the first recording of his oratorio Job. This month we present a CD's-worth of Parry's songs (30 of them), largely drawn from his 12 sets of English Lyrics written between about 1885 and 1920. The vast majority of them have never been recorded before.
Stephen Varcoe's ardent championship of them here should do much to encourage other singers to add them to their repertoire.
The advantage of the song branch of art is that the expressive resources of music are applied for purposes which the words make plain. Where the words are thoroughly musical, and the composer particularly sensitive and skilful, the music fits the lyric at every instant, and makes the words glow with intensified meaning. (The Art of Music, 1893)
Throughout his highly productive life, Hubert Parry constantly returned to the genre of the art song as a creative ‘haven’, or as Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie once remarked, ‘as if to seek relief after each strenuous effort’. Mackenzie’s comment may have been true, especially since during Parry’s mature years as a composer he undertook the vicissitudes of producing annually at least one large-scale choral work for Britain’s increasing array of provincial music festivals. The physical as well as mental strain must have been considerable, and additionally there were always the administrative pressures of the Royal College of Music, numerous national committees, public lecturing and, for eight years, the Professorship of Oxford University. Yet, although song as a miniature form had certain advantages in terms of its length and economy of forces, there was never any possibility in Parry’s eyes of considering the genre as an object of light amusement or diversion. To use Charles Larcom Graves’s words, song composition was to him ‘a res severa as well as a verum gaudium’. We know this from the considerable quantity of sketches, drafts, transpositions and various fair copies that have survived in manuscript. Parry often agonized over the perfecting of a song (as Geoffrey Bush has vividly described in his introduction to his edition of selected Parry songs in Musica Britannica xlix). Dissatisfied, he would leave a work unfinished, shelve it and return to it years later when the perspective of time might have changed his view of a harmonic progression, a passage of declamation or a telling postlude. Sometimes he would feel moved to recompose the entire song on account of a few bars that grated, and would assiduously revise even after proofs of the song had come back from the printer. In short, Parry exercised an uncompromising self-criticism in his creative process, so that a song would often pass through several versions before reaching a stage which satisfied him.
Close acquaintance with Parry’s songs soon reveals the intellectual imperative of organicism and, ipso facto, the avoidance of literal repetition. These compositional values were essentially derived from his belief in the superiority of the German aesthetic. To a large extent the thinking process behind so many of Parry’s songs finds its roots in the Lieder of Brahms – he was after all a devoted disciple of Brahms’s music, and a great admirer of his songs. (An instance of this admiration can be gauged by the occasion when Parry first moved into what was to be his permanent London home at 17 Kensington Square in 1886, christening his music room with a Brahms song sung by his friend Hugh de Fellenberg Montgomery.) The organic ideology espoused by Brahms clearly informs a sizeable proportion of Parry’s song output, not so much in the lyrical content of the vocal material or in the harmonic vocabulary used (though this is sometimes potently evident), but principally in the disciplined manner of thematic growth, motivic coherence and key structure. An understanding of these components in the creation of song is as vital a part of Parry’s method as any other, though the fluency and care with which they are executed has invariably led them to be overlooked. So often the impact of Parry’s songs depends on a subtle phraseological extension, a motivic reworking, an intervallic modification, an elaborated melisma, a registral change or an incisive tonal alteration. On the surface these may be closely allied to and motivated by textual meaning, even the illustration of a single, crucial word, but on a deeper level such moments of legerdemain find their justification within the musical argument of the work. In some of Parry’s songs one even detects that he was prepared to go beyond the Brahmsian conception into a sphere of integration that has more in common with Hugo Wolf’s methods. This can be felt in those essays where voice and piano integrate into a fabric that is thematically indivisible. In developing this technique Parry had clearly learned lessons from Wagner but at the same time had been able to harness the technique to serve the much smaller canvas of the song. Remarkable essays such as Take, O take those lips away, Through the ivory gate and Lay a garland on my hearse are conspicuous illustrations of Parry’s attempt to fuse the roles of singer and accompaniment, and curiously seem to foreshadow those practices of Wolf who so successfully compressed the elements of Wagnerian music drama into a miniature form for voice and keyboard.
It is important to emphasize the purely musical dimension of Parry’s songs because commentators have tended, almost exclusively, to concentrate on the composer’s ability to set words. Plunket Greene is one example:
For Parry the words were everything. I never heard him profess any creed or reveal the foundations of his belief, but his passionate devotion to words cries out in every song he wrote. He knew that a song is a message, that from time immemorial we have given our messages by speech or its symbols, that the more human you make it the better the singer can deliver it, and that music is the torch to read it by. Of all the great song-writers that I know no one has made it easier for the singer; and that is the highest testimony a singer can give.
J A Fuller Maitland considered that Parry was unrivalled among his countrymen owing to his exceptional ‘skill in accentuation, or as it is sometimes called declamation’, a view echoed by R O Morris, H C Colles and Ernest Walker. As a result only one major factor of Parry’s armoury – that of verbal stress – has received any notable attention. ‘I have often wondered’, Greene wrote, ‘what Parry secretly thought of the solecisms of Brahms’s Die Mainacht, in which all the principal accents fall upon prepositions and conjunctions and the like, such as ‘Wann’, ‘Durch’, ‘Und’ – sometimes ‘rubbed in’ for three sostenuto beats in slow tempo; or of the ineffable banalities of such poems as Wie bist Du, meine Königin, or Wir wandelten or Sapphische Ode which are the nominal inspiration of three of his most lovely melodies.’ Thus an assessment of Parry’s songs was made exclusively on the grounds of his sensitivity to verbal rhythm and appropriate time-values. Of course it is true that Parry’s understanding of verbal accentuation is, for the most part, impeccable. After he had memorized the words of a poem, musical phrases, apposite rhythms and appropriate melodic contours would emerge. (Not unlike Beethoven, he would work from an embryonic sketch to something much more elaborate.) His care in this regard would allow individual syllables, words and whole sentences to flow with the rhythm of the spoken language (a technique on which Finzi was to build), making them wholly sympathetic both to singer and pianist in terms of syntax and meaning. Nevertheless, these surface details, excellent though they may be, do not really account for the broader stylistic consistency of Parry’s songs. As Greene pointed out, the words may have been paramount in Parry’s mind, but it was more than localized verbal stress that gave his songs that air of real distinction. Much more intrinsic to Parry’s innate skill as a songwriter is his understanding of the inherent intonation, scansion and cadence of English, a language so dependent on word order for the conveyance of meaning and emphasis. Indeed it is the very colour of the English language that gives Parry’s songs their characteristic phraseology and spirit which is in turn paralleled in the diversity of musical structures devised to suit each individual poem.
It was surely this appreciation of the nuance of his native tongue, and his capacity to translate it into musical gesture, that motivated Parry in his quest to create the indigenous English Lyric, a title exclusive to his song compositions. At the heart of the English Lyrics lay the richness of English poetry across the centuries and a conscious awareness of Britain’s national literary heritage through Shakespeare, the Jacobeans, the Metaphysical poets, the Augustans and the Romantics. (One suspects, incidentally, that Parry was well acquainted with Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury (of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language), first published in 1861, for many of the lyrics he chose to set appear there.) But there was also room in Parry’s experience for his minor contemporaries, particularly those who could express the immediacy of his age. One of these was Julian Sturgis, an old Etonian friend, whose words were the source of some of Parry’s greatest creations, but there were others such as Mary Coleridge, Edmund Jones, Alfred Perceval Graves and the American, Langdon Elwyn Mitchell, who also spurred him on to produce songs of great individuality. Much of this poetry is undistinguished, rather giving the lie to the notion that Parry was at his finest only when setting words by the immortals. Parry could, like Brahms, be attracted to banal verse, largely because he detected a kernel of meaning which chimed with his own perception, or somehow articulated the melancholy of his own personal inner loneliness, isolation and insecurity.
Parry was exposed to solo song from an early age. His father, Thomas Gambier Parry, art collector, philanthropist and wealthy Gloucestershire landowner, enjoyed music as an amateur pursuit (even though he was actively to discourage his son from taking up the musical profession) and, having been a pupil of Sir John Goss at St Paul’s Cathedral, even composed the occasional song himself. At Eton College (1861-1866) the young Hubert’s love of literature and poetry began to develop conspicuously; indeed, on leaving school his list of ‘leaving books’ clearly reveals that, among other interests in history, philosophy and current affairs, his greatest passion (save music) was for poetry with a broad spectrum. At Eton Parry had the opportunity to entertain himself and his friends by singing songs privately and, more importantly, for the College Musical Society. This almost certainly brought him into contact with the Lieder of Mendelssohn, the songs of his great friend and contemporary, Sterndale Bennett (notably the Sechs Gesänge, Op 23, and the Six Songs, Op 35), and those of other English contemporaries such as John Liptrot Hatton (whose To Anthea was hugely popular), George Macfarren and Edward Loder. After three years at Eton, and after he had begun to study with Sir George Elvey at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, Parry began to produce songs of his own. His earliest song, Fair is my love (Spenser), dates from 1864 and was followed by at least eight other compositions. Among these were a setting of Thomas Moore’s Why does azure deck the sky (published in 1866) – one of the composer’s first published compositions – and several other published items including Thomas Hood’s Autumn (1867) and Lord Francis Hervey’s Angel hosts, sweet love, befriend thee (1867).
Three Songs Op 12
In the summer of 1867, shortly after entering Oxford, Parry studied abroad in Stuttgart with Henry Hugo Pierson, the somewhat idiosyncratic voluntary exile, who had left England permanently in the 1840s. The effect of Pierson’s teaching, besides schooling Parry in techniques of instrumentation, was to disabuse him of Mendelssohn and Handel and instead to introduce him to the merits of Bach and Schumann. Like so many of his native contemporaries, Parry had naturally developed a deference for Handel and Mendelssohn, especially during his studies under Elvey for the Oxford BMus (which he taken before leaving Eton in 1866). The aesthetic of Mendelssohn’s romantic classicism in particular was firmly ingrained in his stylistic output, as is clear from the competent but unadventurous songs of his Eton days and from the colourless exercise, O Lord, Thou hast cast us out, written for his Oxford degree. It was a stylistic mindset that was hard to shake off, but Pierson’s initiation marked the beginning of a new outlook that would eventually reject Mendelssohn in favour of Schumann. This process is clearly underway in the Three Songs, Op 12 (composed in May 1872), where Mendelssohn is still in evidence, but one can also observe a greater harmonic and technical resource (most obviously in the third song) that can only have been gleaned from acquaintance with Schumann’s piano music and songs. A Poet’s Song, taken from Tennyson’s English Idylls and other Poems (1842), is one such example of a simple, strophic lyric that rises above the banality of the ‘royalty ballad’ (a commercial instrument used so successfully by publishers to advertise their songs through the support of a famous singer). This is largely owing to the effective use of the internal, Chopinesque pedal point (evocative perhaps of the ‘fallen rain’), the touching shift to the flat mediant to capture the rapt moment of the nightingale’s song (‘that made the wild swan pause on her cloud’) and the modified second verse with its sighing coda. More fond than Cushat Dove, by Thomas Barham, captures the delight of lovers meeting in secret after dark. Tender and melodious, its language harks back more to Mendelssohn in its harmonic simplicity, feminine cadences and accompanimental figurations, sure evidence that Parry had not yet freed himself from the influences of his youth. However, with Shelley’s highly popular lyric Music (from Posthumous Poems, 1824), Parry was moved to compose his most sophisticated song to date. The second line of the poem (‘Vibrates in the memory’) evidently played a major part in his interpretation since a sizeable portion of the song is preoccupied with imitation of the vocal line by the piano (at varying distances and in different registers). This intercourse between voice and piano gives rise to a much more fluid phraseology which is itself enhanced by the absence of obvious cadential points. In addition, the whole fabric of the song is motivically tauter in conception. This is not only evident in the development of the first vocal figure, but also in the use of the preludial idea in the left hand of the piano, which, besides heading each verse and closing off the song, appears subtly in augmentation in the voice just before the coda (‘shall slumber on’).
Parry sent his Three Songs to Joseph Barnby in the hope that he might recommend them to Novello. But he was to be disillusioned. Barnby could not recommend them. ‘The publication of such music could only benefit you,’ Barnby exclaimed, ‘and at the expense of publishing them at your own cost and giving away the copies in every direction. Forgive me speaking so plainly. Even Sir Sterndale Bennett’s classical works are in a business point of view almost worthless when compared with Brinley Richards and Blumenthal.’ Fortunately Parry was not deterred. The songs were published in 1873 by Lamborn Cock who also took on A Garland of Shakespearean and Other Old-Fashioned Songs, Op 21, in 1874.
In 1873 Parry began to study with Edward Dannreuther, perhaps one of the most radical musicians in London at the time. With his catholic taste for the old and new, Dannreuther exerted an immense influence on his pupil. At the series of semi-private chamber concerts at 12 Orme Square, Bayswater, Dannreuther’s London home, Parry was exposed both to the wealth of classical and romantic chamber music and to the best of the continental Lieder tradition. It was here, in the hothouse of Dannreuther’s studio, that he came into contact with the song repertoire of Berlioz, Raff, Franz, Goetz, Wagner (his Fünf Gedichte), Liszt, Brahms and Dannreuther’s own Pre-Raphaelite effusions A Golden Guendolen and Love-Lily. Out of this heady maelstrom emerged Parry’s first serious song compositions, inspired primarily by his enthusiasm for Schumann and Brahms. His Four Sonnets by William Shakespeare (with texts in both English and German) were begun in 1873, but continued to be revised until the early 1880s. Written under the supervision of Sir George Macfarren, these songs demonstrate a new-found confidence in the handling of a modern harmonic apparatus. By the time Set I of the English Lyrics was published in 1885 (comprising songs composed between 1881 and 1885), Parry had fully assimilated the organic propensity of Brahms and the harmonic piquancy of Schumann, and he was able to ally these to his own brand of lyrical diatonicism.
Jeremy Dibble © 1998