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Songs of farewell

composer
1916/8

 
Hubert Parry began to conceive his six motets, now known as the Songs of farewell, in 1913, but much of their composition took place in 1914 and 1915. As an agnostic, and an individual who intensely disliked church ritual and doctrine, Parry did not initially consider the motets to be liturgical in character or function (though later he did concede that their most suitable environment was a cathedral or large sacred space), nor did he intend them to be considered as some form of Christian affirmation of faith at the end of his life. Nevertheless, Herbert Howells, who knew him well in the composer’s last years, maintained that valediction was on Parry’s mind. According to Howells, Parry declared to him that he would not live beyond seventy; nor did he, for after an illness of septicaemia in September 1918, he died from the effects of influenza on 7 October, only a month before Armistice.

The first motet, My soul, there is a country, using words by Henry Vaughan, is perhaps the best-known, partly because of its length but also because of its more accessible four-part scoring. Through-composed, like the majority of the motets, it reveals some of Parry’s most florid polyphony and gift for melody. This is perhaps most readily exhibited in the last, highly contrapuntal section in which sequences of rising-fourth intervals (‘Thy God, thy life, thy cure’) interact with the avowal of an unchanging, loving Creator (‘But One who never changes’)—a musical statement that is distilled magnificently in the final set of chordal progressions. I know my soul hath power to know all things, by the much neglected Sir John Davies, is a solemn contemplation on humility, its climax occurring at the very end when Parry suddenly breaks away to a distant tonality—a gesture which accentuates the heart of the poem: ‘I know myself a Man, / Which is a proud and yet a wretched thing.’

Parry’s setting of Thomas Campion’s Never weather-beaten sail is, by contrast, stanzaic in structure. In five parts, the motet has a richer contrapuntal texture, which is particularly perceptible in the yearning refrain: ‘O come quickly, sweetest Lord’—one that Parry skilfully transforms in the second verse. The six-part There is an old belief is a setting of a poem by John Gibson Lockhart. At the heart of the motet Parry quotes the intonation of the Christian creed (‘That creed I fain would keep’) in the hope that, with the eternal sleep to come, the soul might waken to a new, serene life ‘on some solemn shore’. At this point Parry’s use of dissonance reaches an intensity and passion thitherto unequalled in English choral music, while the hushed ending expresses a rare sublimity.

For his penultimate motet Parry turned to John Donne’s sonnet At the round earth’s imagined corners. Cast in seven parts, Parry reached the heights of his harmonic experimentation in the ethereal paragraph beginning with the higher voices—‘and you whose eyes / Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe’—a passage that seems almost atonal in its contrapuntal wanderings. This is ultimately stabilized by the magical entry of the tenors and basses (‘But let them sleep’), and the motet concludes with some of the composer’s most luxuriant polyphony, replete with the visionary benediction: ‘As if thoud’st sealed my pardon with thy blood.’

The final motet, Lord, let me know mine end, a setting of Psalm 39, was written for double choir and is both the emotional and musical summation of the motet cycle. It is also surely the most moving and personal declaration. Though the motet carries a strong Judaeo-Christian message, for Parry the text captured something of his more heterodoxical approach to religion and ethics. After the violence of the central section (‘Take thy plague away from me’), the last part of this magnificent choral canvas combines a sense of lament with one of profound penitence. But more than this, Parry’s apologia is encapsulated by the yearning cry: ‘For I am a stranger with thee and a sojourner’—an assertion that summed up his extraordinary creative life as a deep thinker as well as a composer.

The first five motets were first performed at the Royal College of Music under the baton of Hugh Allen on 22 May 1916. A performance of Lord, let me know mine end was first given in the chapel of New College, Oxford, again under Allen on 17 June 1917. But the motets were not heard together as a full set until 23 February 1919, when they were sung (under Allen’s direction) by the combined choirs of New College and Christ Church at Parry’s Memorial Concert at Exeter College, where he had been an undergraduate. It was a fitting tribute to one of Oxford’s greatest musical sons.

from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2020

Recordings

Hyperion sampler - June 2020 Vol. 2
FREE DOWNLOADHYP202006BDownload-only sampler
Parry: Sacred choral music
CDA66273Archive Service
Parry: Songs of farewell
Studio Master: SIGCD267Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Parry: Songs of farewell & works by Stanford, Gray & Wood
Studio Master: CDA68301Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
A Song of Farewell
Studio Master: SIGCD281Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
All in the April Evening
CDH55243
Anthem
Studio Master: SIGCD465Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Blessed spirit
COLCD127Download only
Evensong Live 2016
Studio Master: KGS0015Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
Lest we forget
Studio Master: SIGCD562Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
The English Anthem, Vol. 3
CDA66618Archive Service
The English Anthem, Vol. 6
CDA66826Archive Service
The English Anthem, Vol. 7
CDA67087Archive Service
The English Anthem, Vol. 8
CDA67483
The music of King's
Studio Master: KGS0034-DDownload onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Details

No 1: My soul, there is a country
author of text

Track 4 on HYP202006B [3'40] Download-only sampler
Track 4 on CDA66273 [3'44] Archive Service
Track 11 on CDA66826 [4'34] Archive Service
Track 8 on CDA68301 [3'40]
Track 8 on KGS0034-D [3'50] Download only
Track 5 on SIGCD267 [3'52] Download only
Track 7 on SIGCD465 [3'55] Download only
No 2: I know my soul hath power to know all things
author of text

Track 5 on CDA66273 [2'18] Archive Service
Track 9 on CDA68301 [2'19]
Track 6 on SIGCD267 [2'04] Download only
No 3: Never weather-beaten sail
author of text

Track 6 on CDA66273 [3'30] Archive Service
Track 7 on CDA67087 [3'56] Archive Service
Track 10 on CDA68301 [3'28]
Track 16 on CDH55243 [2'54]
Track 7 on SIGCD267 [3'22] Download only
No 4: There is an old belief
author of text

Track 7 on CDA66273 [4'02] Archive Service
Track 11 on CDA66618 [4'35] Archive Service
Track 11 on CDA68301 [4'31]
Track 11 on COLCD127 [4'25] Download only
Track 8 on SIGCD267 [4'52] Download only
Track 8 on SIGCD562 [3'53] Download only
No 5: At the round earth's imagined corners
author of text

Track 8 on CDA66273 [7'17] Archive Service
Track 12 on CDA68301 [7'34]
Track 1 on KGS0015 [7'01] Download only
Track 9 on SIGCD267 [7'27] Download only
No 6: Lord, let me know mine end
author of text
Psalm 39: 5-15

Track 9 on CDA66273 [10'29] Archive Service
Track 12 on CDA67483 [10'22]
Track 13 on CDA68301 [10'15]
Track 10 on SIGCD267 [10'58] Download only
Track 15 on SIGCD281 [11'42] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD267 track 5

My soul, there is a country
Artists
ISRC
GB-LLH-11-26705
Duration
3'52
Recording date
5 January 2011
Recording venue
St Alban's Church, Holborn, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Nicholas Parker
Recording engineer
Andrew Mellor & Mike Hatch
Hyperion usage
  1. Parry: Songs of farewell (SIGCD267)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: June 2011
    Download only
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