Sir Hubert Parry: Symphony no. 3 ‘The English’

performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Mathias Bamert

Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, 1st Baronet was born in Bournemouth, the youngest of six children, on February 27, 1848. Three of his siblings died in infancy, and his mother died only 12 days after his birth, being buried in the churchyard of St. Peter’s, Bournemouth, where her newborn child was baptized two days later.

Wikipedia has a wealth of information on the Parry family, and I shan’t reproduce it all here, but suffice it to say his upbringing and family history and happenings seem terribly, almost stereotypically, English. His father was orphaned at the age of five and brought up by his maternal family, taking their name “Gambier” as part of his surname. He inherited a fortune from his paternal grandfather, he went on to “but a country seat at Highnam Court, a seventeenth-century house near the River Severn,” and became a successful collector of early Italian art before it was cool (Wiki says “well before it was fashionable or widely known”), and was himself a respected and gifted painter. He remarried and had six more kids, but the young Hubert Parry’s new stepmother seems not to have paid him much attention.

While Gambier Parry was also musical, having studied French horn and piano himself, and Hubert’s older brother Clinton showed musical talent, it was considered a hobby, not a respectable profession, so it wasn’t until Hubert Parry reached Twyford Preparatory school that he was encouraged, by the headmaster there, as well as by two organists at Highnam church, to pursue music. From one of those two organists, Parry “gained an enduring love of Bach’s music. The other, Edward Brind, took him to the Three Choies Festival in 1861, an event which the composer’s own father strongly supported financially, where the young Hubert heard such works as Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Mozart’s Requiem. It had been decided.

Parry arrived at Eton College in 1861, and despite serious familial stresses the first year, including his brother Clinton’s “being sent down for womanising, drinking and indulging in opium” at Oxford, and the death of his sister Lucy of consumption, Parry was able to focus on his studies there. It wasn’t really known as a music school, but he got much exposure to music there, and later went on to study at Exeter College, Oxford, where he studied law and modern history in an effort to get what his father would have thought was a real job. He tried this, but it didn’t last.

The overall trajectory of this education was that he became progressively less conservative, having originally had an adoration for Bach and Mendelssohn, but later being exposed to works like Schumann’s second symphony and the sixth and eighth of Beethoven. After some lack of success in his “conventional career”, he studied music while continuing in insurance, studying in London with William Sterndale Bennett, who he found “insufficiently demanding.” He tried to acquire lessons under Johannesburg Brahms, who was “unavailable” and ended up studying with Edward Dannreuther, who was a student of Ignaz Moscheles and had also founded the London Wagner Society. There is much else to his career, such as his working as a musical scholar with George Grove and his being commissioned to write cantatas he didn’t care for, but that will be enough for now. He ultimately came to be a well established and very respected English composer, and the third symphony became “the most frequently performed symphony by any English composer for the next twenty years,” says Bonnie Fleming at AllMusic. She also says:

His aim for “the English” was to create a viable English equivalent to the Mendelssohn “Italian” Symphony and Schumann’s “Rhenish” symphony. The result is a work that combines the influences of these works with qualities evocative of the characteristics of the English as a people.

That’s a good jumping-off point, really, for this work. Think of the sense of beauty and energy and sweeping, refreshing musicality of Mendelssohn’s Italian (and the Scottish!) and Schumann’s Rhenish. We have here a similar feeling with Parry’s English symphony, while by no means being derivative. Also, how could we have an English symphony series and not include a symphony subtitled The English? Also, it’s a wonderful work.

The piece opens brilliantly, not with an ominous quiet entry that reveals a melody through some fog, nor with a commanding, explosive punch. It’s more like seeing an old friend come over a hill on a horse. It’s instantly approachable, finely written, bucolic, pristinely symphonic. Maybe it sounds cliché to say, but you can hear the countryside, can’t you? Rolling hills, sunshine (slightly rarer), and a welcoming beauty. But satisfyingly, it’s not just all pretty tunes. There are a few things that make this such an engaging first movement.

First, there’s real color and intensity. While the work opens without any big crash or drama, the work reaches very satisfying moments of tension, big symphonic climaxes with brass growls, and everything; there’s plenty of contrast and color, swells of energy and quieter moments, real perfection.

Secondly, it’s outstandingly musical. The music is taut, well-presented, Brahmsian in its symphonic presentation. The music has purpose in what it presents, always knows where it’s going and why, so there’s never any question that the composer is in control, that he is presenting a well-crafted story, an image of his homeland, and we’re irresistibly drawn in by this first movement alone. Exquisite.

Fleming describes the second movement as “the heart of the Symphony, portraying a melancholy introspection through a poignant, yearning melody scored for divided strings in rich, Brahmsian harmony and orchestration.” Indeed, while we’ve relaxed a bit from that exciting, refreshing forward momentum in the first movement, there’s still a very strong sense of cohesion and togetherness in the second movement. It’s introspective; if we’re to compare it to the natural, pastoral open spaces and inviting sunshine of the first movement, it’s cooler weather, perhaps drizzling outside, sitting near a window next to a warm fire. There’s not much in the way of mourning or pain here, just a quiet, almost spiritual sensitivity, that “poignant, yearning” never bleeding over into gushy sorrow.

The third movement, the shortest of the work, is our scherzo, not a Brucknerian, maniacal driving one, but a return to the irresistible charms of the opening movement. It’s crisp and light, but not without punch here and there. The trio isn’t necessarily quiet, but gives me the impression (at least from this recording) of some distance, as if it’s taking place over a hill, in the next field over, and we are privileged enough to hear its charms. It finishes with a bold gesture.

The finale, the longest movement of the symphony, begins peacefully and warmly. I hate to keep referencing Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann, but if anything, I’d say Parry’s third symphony here is on par with (almost) any symphony those great men wrote. The music that’s presented here, how it’s presented, is stunningly enjoyable.

While I can’t (at this moment) discuss things like its underlying structure, modulations, key relations, etc., the feeling I have is that the content is deeply felt, that it’s easy to follow, or rather to be swept along on Parry’s symphonic vision of England. There are no multiple listenings necessary, no head-scratching “what is this doing here?” or “what’s happening?” moments. There’s never any slack in the symphonic line, even in the finale, and while each figure, every phrase, is warm and beautiful, it’s never saccharine or cheesy. It, like Mendelssohn’s Italian or Scottish, manages to walk that tightrope and find a balance between the immediately pleasing and enjoyable, and the deeply satisfying and moving, something that can standup to repeated listenings and always offer something new.

And in fact, Bonnie Fleming, linked above, emphasizes the powerful impression this symphony made on Parry’s junior composers, saying:

Both Ralph Vaughn [sic] Williams and Edward Elgar later attested to the lasting influence this Symphony wielded over their own musical imagination. “The English” gave the harmonic and formal language and the impetus for the development of the subsequent English orchestral tradition.

Yeah, I’d say so. We’ll get around to something else from Elgar later on, but I was equally blown away by his first symphony, which we discussed back in January. It was only after writing that article that I’d decided to do this series (I think?) but it doesn’t matter. There’s already way too much in this series to discuss, and tons we won’t get around to. In fact, in chatting with a friend the other day about starting this series, he said “Lots of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, huh?” And well…. some but not a lot. In fact, most of the composers in this series, most folks may have never listened to before (depending on their interest in classical music). But that aside, most people have listened to, and highly esteem, both Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and if you’re one of them, you must give this symphony a listen. It’s absolutely superb.

But do stay tuned. We are, of course, going to touch on Ralph Vaughan Williams, and quite soon. I’m a little ashamed to say it’ll be his first appearance on the blog… but better late than never. Cheers.

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