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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn