Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry
Blest Pair of Sirens

Born: 27 February 1848, in Bournemouth
Died: 7 October 1918, in Rustington, Sussex

{Biography} {Blest Pair of Sirens}

The death of Henry Purcell on 21 November 1695 brought an end to a 150-year succession of important English composers.  Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, John Dowland, Purcell himself, and numerous others had created a rich musical life under the Tudors and Stuarts.  England’s musical life continued unabated after Purcell’s demise, but for the next 185 years it was largely foreign composers who powered the creative engine.  The lackluster status of most native English music began to change only in the later nineteenth century, and one of the most important figures in bringing English composition back up to par was Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry.


On the surface, Parry’s background might seem unpromising for the major musical career he had.  After study at Eton, he read law and modern history at Oxford, and was then employed as an underwriter in the famous insurance company Lloyd’s of London (Charles Ives was later to make his career in insurance).  But music was where Parry’s heart lay, a sentiment with which we can easily identify.  And music was a continuing thread through his earlier life.  As a child, he had heard services at Winchester Cathedral under the famous Samuel Sebastian Wesley, whom he knew; he learned to play the organ early on; he studied music while at Eton; he spent one summer during college studying composition in Germany; and he continued musical studies during his time at Lloyd’s, working with Sir William Sterndale Bennett and the lesser-known Edward Dannreuther. By 1877 he was devoting his life to music.

Parry’s Eton/Oxford background helped as he made his way professionally, and his tripartite realm of activity—as scholar, teacher, and composer—eventually propelled him to the top of the field.  He was one of the editors of the original Grove’s Dictionary, for which he penned 123 articles, and he wrote much else as well.  From 1883 on he was on the faculty of the new Royal College of Music, hired by director George Grove as Professor of Musical History, and he directed the RCM from 1895 until his death.  From 1900 to 1908 he was Heather Professor of Music at Oxford.  He was knighted in 1898 and made a baronet in 1902 on the accession of Edward VII.  He taught or influenced major English composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, Arthur Bliss, and Gerald Finzi.

Parry is sometimes considered the one who inaugurated the so-called “English Musical Renaissance,” a term used by contemporary writers to acknowledge the renewed quality of musical composition by those such as Parry and Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.  The broadest conception of the English Musical Renaissance places it in the century between 1840 and 1940; the more restricted view pinpoints the beginning as the premiere of Parry’s cantata Prometheus Unbound on 1 September 1880 at the Three Choirs Festival.  Choral/orchestral works such as Parry’s cantata rapidly became a major genre in the English Musical Renaissance, owing in no small part to the dominant position that choral festivals held in English musical life.  These festivals had a distinguished and long-lasting pedigree; major ones included the Three Choirs Festival (from 1724), Birmingham (1768), Norfolk and Norwich (1824), Leeds (1858), and the Handel Festival of London (1859).  Emphasis was on Handel and Mendelssohn and works in their style, but compositions by Parry and others eventually broadened the repertoire.  Festivals provided a major venue for performance of both sacred and secular music (including oratorios) by amateurs and by mixed choirs, in contrast to English cathedral music with its emphasis on professionalism, boy trebles, and, obviously, sacred music alone.

Blest Pair of Sirens

Despite a substantial number of instrumental compositions, Parry is best known as a choral composer; this frets those who consider choral music somehow lesser than instrumental music.  His most famous work is easily the hymn “Jerusalem,” set to a poem by William Blake (“And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times”).  Called by some the “unofficial second national anthem of the U.K.,” the rousing hymn was ultimately taken up by the Women’s Suffrage Movement (hooray!) with Parry’s approval; on 17 March 1917 Parry conducted it at a massive suffrage rally at the Royal Albert Hall.  Film buffs will know that the hymn appears in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, which takes its title from Blake’s poem.  Parry’s other best-known works include the anthems Hear My Words Ye People (1894, conceived for one large chorus of 2000 and one “small” chorus of 400), I Was Glad (1902, for the coronation of Edward VII, and sung at every coronation since), and Blest Pair of Sirens.  The well-known hymn tune Repton was a posthumous adaptation from Parry’s oratorio Judith; the adaptation was made for the hymnal of Repton School (hence the name, obviously). 

Blest Pair of Sirens was written in 1887 and dedicated to Stanford and the Bach Choir, the well-known amateur choral group that gave the premiere in London on 17 May of the same year.  It was, in fact the choir’s very first commission, written for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.  The choral/orchestral composition sets an ode by John Milton, which leads us off on a brief side trip to the seventeenth century.

Considered by some to be the greatest English-language poet after Shakespeare, Milton (1608–1674) had a life somewhat livelier than usual.  His father was a scribe and composer; Milton was intended for a church career but rebelled.  When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, Milton was on Cromwell’s side, not that of the monarchy.  After the execution of King Charles I, Milton became Cromwell’s “Secretary for Foreign Tongues.”  Already losing his eyesight, the poet became completely blind by 1652.

Cromwell died in 1658 and the Interregnum ended in 1660 with the return to England of King Charles II.  Milton had obviously backed the wrong team and written in favor of regicide to boot, details not overlooked with the Restoration.  He was arrested and imprisoned for seven months and his works were burned.  Fined heavily, money (or rather, the lack thereof) became an issue.  It was during this final, less outwardly successful period of his life that he completed his most important work, the massive epic poem Paradise Lost, and his other two major poems, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes.

Better known to musicians are shorter works of Milton: L’Allegro and Il Penseroso (both texts set by Parry and, rather more famously, by Handel) and the beautiful On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, from which Vaughan Williams plucked selected tidbits for his Hodie (e.g. “It was the winter wild,” “No war, or battle’s sound,” “But peaceful was the night,” “Ring out, ye crystal spheres”).  And of course Blest pair of Sirens, published in Milton’s 1645 Poems under the title “At a Solemn Music.”

Read through the text of Blest Pair of Sirens below and notice that the opening sentence is actually long, long, long, not ending until a mere four lines before the conclusion of the poem.  The sentiment of a lost celestial music is an old one (Hildegard writes eloquently of this), and of course we musicians like anything that overtly acknowledges music’s power.  The long-breathed poetic lines are a rather good fit for Parry’s Wagnerian-influenced style, which (if not going nearly as far as Wagner in terms of chromatic harmony) still evades cadences with some regularity and touches on various tonal realms hither and yon (the orchestral introduction, by the way, makes a nod to Die Meistersinger).  Outwardly the key signatures take us from Eb to G (not an especially closely-related key) at “Where the bright Seraphim” and then back to Eb at “O may we soon,” the final sentence of the poem.  Parry does a nice job of exploring his text—note for example the second inversion diminished seventh chord and the switch to triple meter to highlight the word “jarr’d” at m. 134 (jarr’d indeed).  And his proportions reflect textual sensitivity as well.  The last four lines receive almost 100 measures of this 256-measure composition.  They are, of course, the whole point of the poem, the desire to return to heaven and heaven’s music, and our cascading imitative lines and overlapping eight-part counterpoint make this an especially exuberant closing (and likely model for the conclusion of Toward the Unknown Region).  My favorite part might be at m. 229 where Alto 1 and Tenor 1 are moving rhythmically against everyone else as we all go higher and higher and higher over that rock-solid dominant pedal-point on Bb that starts as far back as m. 218.  And then, instead of cadencing on Eb, as expected, we get instead a totally unexpected dominant seventh on G (and Alto 1 gets the dissonant seventh—yum!).

This is a lot of fun to sing, and Parry hit a home run with it.  It was his first major choral work and it was the composition that really put him in the public eye, through its enthusiastic reception by both audience and performers.  It has never left the repertoire. 

Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heaven’s joy,
Sphere-born harmonious sisters, Voice and Verse,
Wed your divine sounds, and mix’d power employ
Dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce;
And to our high-raised fantasy present
That undisturbèd song of pure concent,
Aye sung before the sapphire-coloured throne
To Him that sits thereon,
With saintly shout and solemn jubilee;
Where the bright Seraphim in burning row,
Their loud uplifted angel trumpets blow;
And the Cherubic host in thousand quires,
Touch their immortal harps of golden wires,
With those just Spirits that wear victorious palms,
Hymns devout and holy psalms
Singing everlastingly:
That we on earth, with undiscording voice,
May rightly answer that melodious noise;
As once we did, till disproportion’d sin
Jarr’d against nature’s chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair musick that all creatures made
To their great Lord, whose love their motion sway’d
In perfect diapason, whilst they stood
In first obedience and their state of good.
O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with heaven, till God ere long
To his celestial concert us unite,
To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light!

December 2015