Hubert Parry - Royal appointment for a radical voice

Hubert Parry composed Jerusalem to support suffragettes not rouse patriots. Jessica Duchen uncovers a misunderstood man

When Kate Middleton sailed up the aisle at Westminster Abbey to marry Prince William, there was no mistaking the sonic grandeur accompanying her progress. The anthem "I Was Glad" by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918) was tailor-made for right royal occasions – it was written for the coronation of King Edward VII. Now its sudden popularity – along with the fact that Parry wrote "Jerusalem", one of the best-known melodies in the land – is helping to restore the composer's reputation as a British musical hero. He is apparently a favourite listen for HRH Prince Charles: in a new documentary for BBC4, entitled The Prince and the Composer, the Prince of Wales himself explores Parry's life and times along with the director John Bridcut.

Parry's ceremonial, dyed-in-the-wool fustiness crystallises all that we love – or loathe – about "English" music. Often it seems to have "conservative establishment privilege" written all over it. That, though, can be seriously misleading. The Royal Wedding may have been an appropriate setting for "I Was Glad", but often Parry's music has been virtually hijacked for purposes that little resembled his original intent, both during his lifetime and since his death.

A biography of Parry by Jeremy Dibble is now on sale on a website devoted to Royal Wedding memorabilia. But here's the quote from the composer on its first page: "The mission of democracy is to convert the false estimate of art as an appanage of luxury." Far from wanting to be an establishment mouthpiece, Parry knew that music was for everyone, regardless of wealth or "class".

How many people singing "Jerusalem" have the first idea of why he composed it? It was actually created for a meeting in 1916 of Fight for the Right, the movement that was trying to win enfranchisement for women and which he and his wife both supported. Later, in the final stages of the suffragettes' campaign, Parry conducted "Jerusalem" himself in their celebratory concert. It's often regarded as the unofficial "national anthem of England" – but if it is anyone's emblematic theme, it is that of feminism. If he knew that BNP supporters would espouse his hymn as a favourite nationalist tub-thumper, Parry would turn in his grave in St Paul's Cathedral.

Since the royal wedding, Parry's name has been bandied about together with the word "genius". Unfortunately, he wasn't one. His music is an endearing mix of mild inspiration, massive aspiration and decent craftsmanship, topped up with hot air. As a composer, he was the ultimate English amateur, though that wasn't entirely his fault. His father, a director of the East India Company, attempted to steer his studies away from music and his aristocratic in-laws tried to prevent him following a career in it. If he had not given in to these very British upper-crust prejudices, but followed his dreams from the beginning, perhaps he could have fulfilled his potential.

Instead, he sacrificed his artistic ambitions for love. Determined to marry the girl on whom he had set his heart, Lady Maude Herbert, he bowed to her mother – who objected on the grounds of Parry's finances – and meekly took a job with Lloyd's as an underwriter. He stayed there throughout his twenties, pursuing music on the side. The opportunity to work on The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians propelled him back in the right direction, along with the mentorship of the pianist Edward Dannreuther, a passionate admirer of Wagner. For Dannreuther, Parry wrote his first well-received piece: the Piano Concerto, full of verve and colour.

In 1887, Parry was hijacked again, this time by his own success: his ode "Blest Pair of Sirens" brought him numerous commissions for a genre of music he didn't much like. His views were humanist and Darwinian rather than churchy. Still, he complied and wrote some oratorios. These had their moments, especially Judith, from which the hymn tune "Repton" is drawn. But George Bernard Shaw dismissed his Job as "the most utter failure ever achieved by a thoroughly respectworthy musician".

Besides these, Parry penned countless church anthems, five symphonies, incidental music for the theatre, chamber music, piano music and some excellent songs. Yet his works have never won a real place in concert life beyond the church – and have little hope of recognition abroad, in countries that pride themselves on more sophisticated musical achievements.

Ultimately, he became best known for his teaching. He was director of the Royal College of Music and in 1900 was appointed professor of music at Oxford University. His crucial influence extended over Elgar, Holst, Howells and Vaughan Williams – the latter also espoused Parry's liberal, humanist attitudes. He was kind, perceptive and popular, as the musicologist Donald Francis Tovey remarked while studying with him at Oxford, writing: "Dr Parry embellishes a pupil's piece of platitudinous ponderosity by extracting the juices of the pupil's brain, and concentrating them into an essence while he mysterious increases the quality!"

There's one more twist in Parry's tale: despite the true-blue Britishness seemingly branded into his music, all the influences upon it were German, notably Brahms, Beethoven and, above all, Wagner. His ceremonial effects and sweeping melodies – the same espoused by Elgar in the Pomp and Circumstance marches – came straight from Wagner, and especially from the overture to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Yet that overture's grandeur is tongue-in-cheek: in this opera (now about to open at Glyndebourne), Wagner pokes fun at the way hidebound traditions hinder the progress of new ideas. The opera's hero, Hans Sachs, extols the superiority of German art. Parry seems to have agreed. On the outbreak of the First World War, he was heartbroken by the conflict between his country and that of the culture he loved. He died in 1918 in the epidemic of Spanish flu.

The spirit of old-fashioned German art permeates Parry's music – just as German roots underpin the British monarchy that is celebrating him now. But here are three cheers for the real Parry: the liberal humanist, the supporter of feminism, and the champion of music for all.

'The Prince and the Composer' is on 27 May at 7.30pm on BBC4

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album