At a concert in 1887, London’s Bach Choir amassed in St. James’ Hall to perform Berlioz’s immense Te Deum. But sharing the bill was a much shorter work. It was the choir’s first commission: a setting of John Milton’s poem At A Solemn Musick, by Hubert Parry.
‘Solemn’ did not have the downbeat implication in Milton’s day it does now, and his poem was fit for a grand occasion. It celebrates singing, and its power to elevate us towards God. Although it dates from the poet’s youth in the early 1630s, Milton used the same language of divine music-making, both lofty and loud, that he later developed in Paradise Lost.
Perhaps wisely, Parry replaced the poem’s rather pedestrian title for the verbal trumpet-blast of its opening line: Blest Pair Of Sirens. The ‘blest pair’ here are words and music, and this new work showed the ability of one to ignite the other, even across the centuries.
Sadly, Parry’s instrumental works – including five symphonies – are now mostly overlooked. But Blest Pair Of Sirens has remained popular, and his flair for setting poetry of an exalted spirit would later culminate in his widely-loved hymn Jerusalem.
Blest Pair is also sometimes cited as a landmark work in the ‘English Musical Renaissance’ – a period of renewed creativity from the latter decades of the nineteenth century and through the first half of the twentieth, in which Parry was influential as both composer and teacher.
It’s easy to identify a Renaissance in hindsight, of course. But whether consciously or not, Parry was setting a text that represented a former golden age of both English literature and music – a time in the country when, as Diane Kelsey McColley puts it, ‘music was most consciously linked to words’.
After all, Milton was born into the England of Shakespeare, William Byrd, and Orlando Gibbons. Music was in the intellectual water; not only was Milton musically educated, his father was a composer. And so in Blest Pair we hear theoretical concepts such as ‘diapason’ (the octave), ‘phantasy’ (an instrumental genre), and ‘concent’ (to be in tune and in harmony).
But music’s brasher side not overlooked. ‘Saintly shout’, ‘angel-trumpets blow’, and ‘thousand quires’ provided Parry with the perfect excuse to raise the roof for the music of heaven. Crucially, Milton contrasts this ‘melodious noise’ with fallen mankind, whose ‘disproportioned sin’:
Jarred against nature’s chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair musick that all creatures made
However, the poem’s hopeful conclusion is that we may ‘soon again renew that song / and keep in tune with Heav’n’. By Parry’s time, England’s musical reputation had lagged behind its literary one, so the narrative of music charting a rise from a fallen state might also have resonated for artistic reasons.
Straight away in Blest Pair’s orchestral introduction, we hear a dual sense of joy and yearning. Compare it to Handel’s Zadok The Priest, which patiently builds its way to a magnificent choral entry: in contrast, Parry seems to have so much to get off his chest he doesn’t know where to start. There are fanfare ascents and sighing plunges while chromatic harmonies tug us along, as if this energy has to run itself out before the choir can join in with something more settled. It’s the very sound of pent-up creativity needing to be satisfied. Or, perhaps, needing a guide.
And so we come to Milton’s opening lines, which could inspire any composer. The first verbs are the imperatives ‘wed’ and ‘employ’ in the third line. The poem is not just about the music as Milton knew it, but a motivational document for creating music anew:
Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav’n’s joy,
Sphere-born harmonious Sisters, Voice and Verse,
Wed your divine sounds, and mixed pow’r employ,
Dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce
Parry’s sensitivity to these words drives the music forward. At ‘pierce’ he makes a striking modulation onto a loud D major chord. This leads to the fugal entries of ‘phantasy present’ – imitating that polyphonic instrumental form. At ‘saintly shout’ the choir thunders together like an opera chorus, while ‘singing everlastingly’ is stretched into an extensive eight-part contrapuntal climax, much as Bach or Byrd might have set it.
But when this heavenly singing passes, jubilation becomes reflection. There is a repeat of the orchestral introduction in a new key, only now the choir join in – at first in unison, then simple harmony – as Milton considers mankind, flawed but ever-hopeful:
That we on Earth with undiscording voice
May rightly answer that melodious noise
Parry’s tentative expansiveness at these crucial lines, so soon after the dazzling music of heaven, is exquisitely poignant. It sinks to a quiet nadir at ‘disproportioned sin’, but lovely too is how he plots our way back to the triumphant ending. After an orchestral interlude, a soprano line sings:
O may we soon again renew that Song,
And keep in tune with Heav’n, till God ere long
To his celestial consort us unite
This sounds like a charming melody in its own right. But as it climbs to an expressive high G at ‘God’, it’s joined by the tenors in canonic imitation. Parry has lulled us back to divine counterpoint, and before we know it there are four choral parts gathering momentum. The tempo ramps up a notch for Milton’s final line, with new overlapping fugal entries in eight parts: ‘To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light.’
What follows is a gloriously spun-out conclusion, with a broad and magnificent climax. In the final bars, the opening of the orchestral introduction returns once more, now disrobed of its chromatic harmonies. In the purity of an endless morn of light, the choir unites with it for a blazing diatonic close.
In Parry’s words, Blest Pair Of Sirens was received ‘quite uproariously’ at that first performance. It won him new commissions, and helped to establish his name as a composer. His love of Brahms, Wagner, and knotty Baroque counterpoint are all here, but it is Milton’s electrifying words that fuse these influences into something with a confident English voice. That alchemical moment, when diverse sources of learning suddenly combine to illuminate a path ahead, shows what we could call a ‘Renaissance’ spirit.
But artistic renewal does not just arrive with big events on stage. It takes place in the dull committee meetings of institutions, many of which were being established at this time. Parry was a contributor to the early Grove Dictionary, first published in 1879. He later taught at the Royal College of Music, which was founded in 1882. The Bach Choir was first formed in 1876.
And if it’s easy to identify a Renaissance in retrospect, it’s also easy to make backwards miscalculations about Parry. Blest Pair received a worldwide audience at the UK’s royal wedding of 2011. Parry’s closeness to such pageantry – including the fixture of Jerusalem at every last night of the Proms – can give a misleading impression that he represents adherence to tradition above all else. In Milton’s case a royal wedding is especially ironic, as he supported the overthrow of the monarchy in the English Revolution, but for Parry we can simply defer to his daughter Dorothea, who described him as ‘the most naturally unconventional man I have known. He was a Radical, with a very strong bias against Conservatism’.
We should also not forget the sheer strangeness of Blake’s stirring words that we hear in Jerusalem, which come from the preface of an epic poem about none other than Milton himself, who was one of his literary heroes. Here Blake combines his own esoteric Biblical mythology and colourful illustrations in a typically idiosyncratic way.
Such free-thinking idiosyncrasy can also be seen in Parry’s unique series of ‘ethical cantatas’, which draw on secular poetry instead of religious texts. Likewise, he withdrew his support from the wartime ‘Fight For Right’ campaign that Jerusalem had originally been composed for, and was happy when the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies took it up as their own anthem.
So while Parry’s musical language was not in itself ground-breaking, in Blest Pair and Jerusalem we can see him as part of a network of English free-thinkers who defy simplistic readings, and who were willing to construct their own visions of a better world.
One of Parry’s pupils at the Royal College was a young Vaughan Williams, who would play a leading role in the English Musical Renaissance, adding to its ‘mixed power’ the fruits of the folksong revival. He fondly remembered his teacher’s ‘broad-minded sympathy’, and later quoted his advice to compose choral music, ‘as befits an Englishman and a democrat’.
Even after the Second World War, a much older Vaughan Williams was still able to say: ‘I fully believe – and keeping the achievements of Byrd, Purcell and Elgar firmly before my eyes – Blest Pair Of Sirens is the finest musical work that has come out of these islands’. Perhaps more than anyone, he was able to understand what the legacy of his former teacher really meant.
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