A Forgotten English Romantic

I went to see Jez Butterworth’s sometimes brilliant, loose baggy monster of a play, Jerusalem, which is now in its last few weeks of an extended run on Broadway. It’s a kind of tragi-comic ode to England, centred on the character of Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a fearless ex-daredevil who lives in a mobile home in the English woods from where he dispenses drink, drugs and stories to his youthful acolytes. You probably wouldn’t want to live next door to Rooster Byron but, as played by the brilliant Mark Rylance, we accept him as a powerful force of nature. Is he a nutter or a guru?

The play takes its title from England’s most famous hymn, Jerusalem, which was composed in 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry setting William Blake’s words to music. Anyone who grew up in England is deeply familiar with the hymn, which begins with a vision of Jesus Christ taking a walk in the English countryside. “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountain’s green?” I recall singing it during morning chapel during my sixth form years at St Peter’s School in York. (The rugby team was especially fond of belting it out.) I think that was the sound of Englishness being forged.

So until I watched the play, I hadn’t given much thought to this mainstay of English culture. So when an American theatergoer wondered aloud if the piece had been written especially for the play, I found myself trying to explain just what this hymn means in England. It’s virtually a second national anthem. Of course it gets an outing every year on the Last Night of the Proms, when everyone sings along.

I realized I didn’t know much about this composer Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918). He’s best known for Jerusalem, but he’s really a forgotten English Romantic who helped inspire a new generation of English composers in the twentieth century, including Ralph Vaughan William, Gustav Holst and Herbert Howells. One of his peers said he was the most important English composer since Purcell, who’d lived and died in the 17th Century.

Parry may be seen as a quintessentially English composer, but late 19th century German composers, Brahms and Wagner, heavily influenced him. In fact he sought lessons with Brahms who was too bury to oblige. Instead he studied with a famous German pianist Edward Danreuther in London in 1873, who helped him develop his own personal style.   At the time, England was what the Germans called “the land without music.” Okay, it’s true they did have some heavyweight guys churning out some rather grandiose pieces.

After 1875, Parry started to produce significant works, composing in virtually every major large form: five symphonies, a piano concerto, a symphonic suite, an opera, an oratorio, and more than 30 works for chorus and orchestra. One of his most sublime pieces is the Symphonic Variations, composed in 1897. Unfortunately Parry’s piece got overshadowed by Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which appeared a year or two later. Unlucky. Here’s a recording of Parry’s variations. The full orchestra doesn’t kick in until we’re over seven minutes into the piece. It’s a fantastic moment.

Parry was part of an academic movement that revived real interest in the English classics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the English folk song tradition. He helped nurture this, especially after 1883, when he became professor of composition at the Royal College of Music. His pupils included Vaughan Williams (his greatest champion), who became a collector of English folk songs that were fast become extinct in the early twentieth century. Williams travelled the countryside transcribing and preserving many himself. For a brilliant, fictional take on this movement read Wesley Stace’s excellent novel, Charles Jessold Considered As a Murderer.

Here’s one of Parry’s pieces for voice and piano, “No Longer Mourn for Me,” from Shakepeare’s Sonnet 71. This recording is from The English Songbook, with tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake.

Parry wrote Jerusalem late in his career in 1916, and it was soon adopted as an anthem of the suffrage movement, and later used for many other causes. It’s been used by groups across the political spectrum from the Labour Party to the British National Party, to supporters of the English cricket team, and also playwrights.

The composer died in 1918 at the age of 70 (from the Spanish flu epidemic) and is buried at St Paul’s Cathedral. Only recently has his orchestra music started to be revived. Just last year, two of his greatest works received their first ever Proms performances: his 5th Symphony “1912” and the Elegy for Brahms – which Parry wrote on the occasion of Brahms’ death. Maybe the twenty-first century will be a good century for the humane music of this overlooked British composer. Oh, and you can always tune in to the Last Night of the Proms on September 10 for a blast of Jerusalem.

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1 Comment

  1. Very interesting stuff- the precursor to ‘Jerusalem’ was Parry’s wonderful setting of ‘I Was Glad’ which, of course, was sung in the Abbey on William and Kate’s wedding- as it had been on the occasion of his father’s marriage to Diana and at the coronation of his grandmother. William and Kate’s version thankfully omitted the Queen’s scholars of Westminster School hollering (no other suitable word for it) their “Vivat Reginas” .
    The middle section of this wonderful anthem asks us to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem”- a sublime bit of choral writing which I use to love singing as a choirboy many moons ago.

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