Parry Centenary Sermon 7th October 2018

Hubert Parry c1893
Hubert Parry c1893

Parry Centenary Sermon 7th October 2018

Exactly fifty years ago, on 7 October 1968, the 50th anniversary of Parry’s death, the composer Herbert Howells delivered a lecture – called the Crees Lecture - at the Royal College of Music in Kensington.

In that lecture he said this of Parry:

‘He died on 7 October, 50 years ago. How many of us ever wished that death could have come to him a mere two months later than it did? Since by then the slaughter and the agony (both well-nigh universal) would have been at an end. But even so his far-seeing intelligence would - to use one of his favourite words - have ‘prefigured’ the likely horrors of what, in the miserable commerce of human relationships, is called peace. To a mind like his, acutely concerned by the antics as well as by the nobility of mankind, the terms ‘war’ and ‘peace’ were apt to come perilously close to a distinction without a difference.'

 Nothing changes perhaps, fifty years later, and now a hundred years since the death of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. He was the youngest of six children born in Bournemouth to a life of Victorian splendour in 1848. His father and grandfather were wealthy entrepreneurs and Parry’s father acquired Highnam Court, a 17th-century country seat near Gloucester. He was an Italian art enthusiast, an artist-designer himself, and an avid supporter of music, particularly the Hereford, Gloucester and Worcester Three Choirs Festival, which he helped to rescue financially in the mid-1870s.

Young Parry began composing at the age of eight and obtained an Oxford music degree ten years later, and then joined the staff of the Royal College of Music at 35, after having worked as a Lloyds underwriter between 1870-77. The Director of the RCM at the time was George Grove (1820-1900), creator of the seminal Grove Dictionary of Music. At forty-six Parry succeeded him as Director, having become Professor in 1883, the year this church was built - and in 1898 he was knighted. In 1900 he succeeded John Stainer as Professor of Music at Oxford. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst were pupils of his and Elgar claimed to have learned a great deal from Parry’s writings. Parry became a baronet in 1902, and CVO in 1905. He died on this day in 1918 in Rustington, near Worthing, a village which has given its name to another of his fine tunes, but which we dare not sing this evening as it is sadly neglected. It is in our hymnbook though, as are ETON and INTERCESSOR; also fine tunes. But this evening we have stuck to the most familiar, which therefore gives us a rare opportunity to sing JERUSALEM with good reason, in keeping with everything else that is going on!

Parry died only weeks before the Armistice, which he would have hugely welcomed. It is usually said that he died from Spanish ‘flu, as did so many soldiers. In reality he had been giving his meat and bacon rations to his servants, neglecting his own health, and after a cycle ride in September a protuberance developed, which led to blood poisoning which made him very susceptible to the ‘flu. His death was met with national mourning and a large funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral on 16th October 1918.

And there he lies still, in the crypt where members of the Order of the British Empire can have their family weddings or christenings. Like many others I have actually stood within feet of Parry’s grave and sung JERUSALEM and REPTON, both being popular wedding and baptism hymns, of course. Next to Parry’s grave is that of Sir Arthur Sullivan, another Victorian musician who is not remembered well-enough. On the other side of the chapel lie Turner, Millais and Holman Hunt. Parry is in good company.

However, one can only wonder, singing ‘Dear Lord and Father’ in the Chapel of St Faith at St Paul’s, whether Parry, or Whittier, who wrote the words, and who is buried 5000 miles away in the Union Cemetery, Amesbury, Massachusetts are simultaneously turning in their graves at this wonderful, posthumous pairing of words and music.

For in the Venn diagram of hymnody and poetry, ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ occupies a strange, if not unique position, which is that both author and composer were dead by the time the hymn was created, and it is likely neither would have approved.

For even though Parry served on the musical committee of the ill-fated A&M revision of 1904, for which he provided twelve hymn tunes, nine of which were composed specially, he had no idea his tune would be used in this way. For the tune REPTON was lifted by George Gilbert Stocks, Director of Music at Repton School from an aria in Parry’s Oratorio Judith, entitled ‘Long since in Egypt’s pleasant land’. In May 1924 – six years after Parry’s death - Stocks asked Parry’s son-in-law for permission. He wrote:

“We have found a tune in Parry’s Judith which exactly fits a hymn by Whittier, beginning ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’. The copyright of this belongs to Novello & Co. When I first asked leave to use this they refused point-blank, on the grounds that Parry never authorised it.”.

Yet permission was eventually granted and history was made as ‘Dear Lord and Father’ first appeared in Repton School Hymns, the preface to which was written by Geoffrey Fisher, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury (1945-61). The English Hymnal edition of 1933 included it and so from this strange and imperfect marriage of words and tune, both cut from larger works, came a classic, transatlantic much-loved hymn.

The stories of the other two major hymns of Parry’s are not exactly straightforward either. LAUDATE DOMINUM, with which we began our evensong is a setting of Sir Henry Williams Baker’s adaptation of Psalm 150, ‘O praise ye the Lord! Praise him in the height’ and was eventually published as a hymn in 1915 (including the last verse’s elaborate accompaniment) but it actually began life as the final chorus of the anthem ‘Hear my words, ye people’ written for the festival of the Salisbury Diocesan Choral Association on 10 May 1894.

Meanwhile, JERUSALEM was first published as a choral song using stanzas from William Blake’s preface to his poem ‘Milton’. It is not to be confused with Blake’s poem, entitled Jerusalem, which is something quite different. In 1916 Parry’s friend Robert Bridges (who wrote “All my hope on God is founded”) asked him to write something for the propaganda movement ‘Fight for Right’ to sing at their meetings. ‘Fight for Right’ was founded in August 1915 to increase support for the First World War and to boost morale in the armed forces. Parry supported this cause, although like many others, as the war soldiered on ever more appallingly, he backed away. But in 1916 it was seen as a good cause and JERUSALEM was first sung at the Queen’s Hall, London on 28 March 1916 by a choir of volunteers from the principal choirs and choral societies of London under the direction of Sir Henry Walford Davies. Parry’s original version involved a soloist singing the first verse so that the impact of the second verse with full choir would be especially forceful and impressive. It was an immediate success, and Parry – and his wife Maude who was a keen supporter of the suffragettes - were particularly pleased when the song was taken up by the Women’s Movement in 1917. So on 17 March 1917 Parry himself conducted it for the ladies of the Albert Hall Choir at a Women’s Demonstration meeting which undoubtedly encouraged its inclusion in the Women’s Suffrage Demonstration concert at the Albert Hall a year later on 13 March 1918. Afterwards the famous suffragette Millicent Fawcett suggested to Parry that JERUSALEM become the Women Voter’s hymn. From there it was but a short hop to becoming the anthem of the Women’s Institute, although it also gained universal popularity in schools, public meetings, patriotic events and, the ‘Last Night of the Proms’. It was in Coronation year 1953 that Sir Malcolm Sargent invited the gathered prommers to join in, and the rest is, as they say, history. You might also remember it being used so effectively at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Nowadays it is an alternative English national anthem and many would have it made officially so. Nevertheless, what we hear so often, is not Parry’s orchestration, but rather Elgar’s dramatic version, written for the Leeds Festival in 1922. And whether vicars occasionally get into trouble for denouncing it as not being a hymn (it isn’t), or for being jingoistic (it is), or for asking a question to which the answer has to be ‘no’ (how could it be otherwise?), it is a brave cleric indeed who dares to say these things out loud.

For JERUSALEM has lots to teach us, in fact. The words come from poem by William Blake, in which he draws on the legend that Joseph of Arimathea, who helped bury the body of Jesus after the crucifixion, brought Jesus to England after the resurrection. The probability of that actually having happened is so unlikely, that, wonderful as it is, ‘And did those feet’ does beg a question, to which the answer, perhaps muttered under our breath, is ‘no, they didn’t’. Jesus’ feet did not walk in England’s green and pleasant land, among mills satanic or otherwise, and the countenance divine did not shine on our clouded hills. And it might amuse you to know that George Radcliffe Woodward, who is famous mainly for writing ‘Ding dong! merrily on high’, was so annoyed at the thought of ‘Jerusalem’ being included in The English Hymnal of 1906, that he stormed out and resigned from the Editorial Board, leaving the likes of Ralph Vaughan Williams to plough on without him. But that is why no-one remembers poor GR Woodward, and, Vaughan Williams is rather more famous, commemorating the 60th anniversary of his death this year as we do. And Parry’s centenary, of course.

So let’s not make the mistake of dismissing ‘Jerusalem’. For there is a profound purpose to these ponderings, a pregnant spiritual possibility which pops out of its poetry. And while we may blithely smile and say, ‘of course Jesus didn’t visit Cornwall, or Glastonbury, or, even our fine church’, there is a real sense in which of course, he absolutely did. And still does. Jesus is with us here and now in this very act of worship. He is the unseen guest at every table, the extra tongue singing with us, the one whose Spirit it with us here and now. He has visited our green and pleasant land – indeed he lives here, as he lives everywhere and among all who call upon his name and trust in him. And he is not just here in a sort of spiritual hazy way, in spirit only: he is also present among us, in us, as us.

We might ask – ‘And did those feet in ancient time?’, but we might also ask, ‘And are those feet in present time, walking on England’s pastures green?’ And pavements grey, and in hospital wards, and care homes and amid the poverty in our nation which in some quarters seems barely better than the social injustice that William Blake originally saw and complained about in 1810. Christ surely is, not leastly in the hearts and minds of all those who seek to bring about social justice, relief and healing to a world fractured by sin, greed, violence and, yes, still, war.

And here today, Christ is with us – he is in our song, and he is our song. So today we worship him in spirit and in truth, giving praise to God and remembering with gratitude Parry, and numerous others who have assisted our song. As the hymn put it:

‘Praise him who hath brought you his grace from above,
Praise him who hath taught you to song of his love’.

The Revd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield 7/10/18