It was not until 1880 that Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) achieved national recognition when his Piano Concerto was performed at the Crystal Palace in London and the choral cantata Prometheus Unbound at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester. With the further success of Blest Pair of Sirens seven years later (a work described by Sir Edward Elgar as ‘amongst the noblest works of man’) his reputation was secured.
Apart from a handful of pieces, Parry’s music is now largely forgotten, but his legacy lives on. Through their tireless efforts as composers, performers, and educators, he and Stanford were mainly responsible for the raising of musical standards in this country during the latter part of the nineteenth century, thereby laying the foundations for the renaissance of English music which reached its full flowering with Elgar and then a whole new generation of English composers. Without Parry and Stanford’s inspiration and leadership, Elgar might well have been a lone voice in the musical wilderness.
The Songs of Farewell are a persuasive reminder of Parry’s significant contribution to the English choral tradition. They were composed during the First World War. For Parry, as for everyone, the appalling events unfolding across the channel were a desperately agonising time. As Jeremy Dibble says in his definitive biography, Parry experienced ‘an incredulity, combined with a profound sense of betrayal, that a nation of artistic heroes who had taught him everything…..could be capable of such carnage’.
By the time Parry was composing the Songs of Farewell he knew that he had not long to live. Though they are Parry’s own valediction—he died two years after their completion—they can also be seen as his farewell to the rapidly vanishing world of his youth. Common to all the texts are the contrasting themes of the transitory nature of life and the redeeming power of faith. The motets are, to a large extent, expressions of personal belief rather than orthodox liturgical works; only the final setting has a recognised sacred text.
The six individual motets are arranged in a carefully organised scheme of developing length and complexity. The first two, for just four vocal parts, are quite short and rhythmically and harmonically relatively straightforward. Here and elsewhere, Parry’s liberal use of rests to punctuate phrases and emphasise aspects of the text is both effective and original. Never weather-beaten sail and There is an old belief are in five and six parts respectively, and introduce a degree of counterpoint into the texture.
Throughout the suite, the harmony now becomes much more chromatic, the rhythmic figuration more intricate, and the counterpoint more audacious. This treatment of the set as a single, organic entity gives it an intensity and power considerably greater than the sum of its individual parts. Not surprisingly, Parry’s Songs of Farewell are widely acknowledged as masterpieces of unaccompanied choral writing.
© 2012 John Bawden
MMusic, University of Surrey, UK
[*NB: The final pair of motets, At the round earth’s imagined corners and Lord, let me know mine end are not included in the AMC concert program.]
John Bawden, MMus, LTCL, was appointed Musical Director of the Guildford Cathedral Singers in 2009. He has had a wealth of experience directing a wide variety of choirs, ranging from large choral societies to chamber choirs. A former member of Guildford Cathedral Choir, John then worked as a freelance deputy singer with a number of professional choirs, including those of Winchester Cathedral and Westminster Abbey email@example.com