Ian Parrott: Modernist composer who drew on Welsh folk traditions


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The Independent Online

One of the most prolific and widely performed British composers of his day, Ian Parrott wrote opera and ballet, symphonies, concertos, string quartets and song cycles, as well as many choral and vocal works and even theme music for documentary films. He combined his huge output with his responsibilities as Gregynog Professor of Music at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he held the chair from 1950 to 1983.

His prizes included the first prize of the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1949 for his Symphonic Impression: Luxor; the Shakespeare Prize for his Solemn Overture: Romeo and Juliet (1953); the Jasper Rooper Prize for his String Quartet No 2 (1983); and the British Music Society Prize for his opera Once Upon a Time (1985). None gave him more pleasure than the Harriet Cohen International Musicology Medal in 1966.

He also wrote a dozen books and hundreds of articles. Some of the books, such as Pathways to Modern Music (1947) and A Guide to Musical Thought (1949), were written for young people in the accessible style that brought him acclaim as a teacher, while others were more substantial studies of Elgar (1971), Cyril Scott (1992) and Peter Warlock (1994). He also contributed regularly to The Musical Times and Music Review.

As an Englishman long resident in Wales, Parrott took a keen and practical interest in the musical life of his adopted country and, as Gregynog Professor of Music at Aberystwyth it was natural that he should write The Spiritual Pilgrims (1964), a readable but somewhat unsatisfactory account of music-making at Gregynog Hall, the home of Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, the granddaughters of industrialist David Davies of Llandinam, whose wealth had made possible a Festival of Music and Poetry during the inter-war years. After the war Parrott conducted a series of 10 Festivals for Margaret Davies to which he attracted such eminent composers as Arthur Bliss and Edmund Rubbra.

Ian Parrott was born in Streatham, London, in 1916, and brought up in Harrow. Encouraged by his mother, who had studied the piano, the hyper-intelligent lad began composing sonatas while still in short trousers. A day boy at Harrow School, he went from there to the Royal College of Music; at New College, Oxford, he graduated in 1937 and was awarded his doctorate in 1940. Between 1937 and 1939 he taught Music at Malvern College.

During the war he served with the Royal Signals Corps in Egypt, latterly as Captain. His burlesque opera The Sergeant Major’s Daughter had its premiere in Cairo in 1943 and his Symphonic Prelude: El Alamein was written the following year. His symphony Luxor was inspired by the temple on the Nile, which he visited on leave. After demobilisation he became a lecturer in Music at Birmingham University but stayed only three years before being appointed to the chair of Music at Aberystwyth.

He came to public notice in Wales with his second opera The Black Ram, the story of Siôn Philip, a poor tenant falsely accused of sheep-stealing and hanged in the mid-18th century. Parrott returned to Welsh legend with the concert overture Seithenyn (1959), commissioned and broadcast by the BBC Welsh Orchestra in 1959. This tone poem was inspired by the tale of the drunkard Seithenyn, best known to English readers from Thomas Love Peacock’s novel The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829), whose negligence as keeper of the floodgates leads to the drowning of the kingdom of Gwyddno Garanhir under Cardigan Bay.

The local success of these two works prompted The Lady of Flowers (1981), a chamber opera in two acts based on the tale of Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogion, the woman who commits adultery and is turned by a wizard into an owl (a bird known in Welsh as “flower-face”). These were, perhaps, not his most important works but they represent a brave attempt to write serious music on authentically Welsh themes and drawing on Welsh folk melodies, and were much admired for that reason.

A more cultivated musical taste might prefer such works as the seascape Arfordir Ceredigion (1957) for solo harp, Fantasy Sonata (1979) for clarinet and piano, or Autumn Landscape (1983) for oboe and piano, all pieces of chamber music, a form at which he consistently excelled. Also attractive are his song “I heard a linnet courting” (1940), the cantata Jubilate Deo (1963) and the anthem Surely the Lord is in this Place (1974), though from such a vast and varied oeuvre, in which pleasing melody is blended with the intricate rhythms of modernist music, it is difficult to choose.

As professor at Aberystwyth, Parrott played a prominent part in Welsh musical life, notably as a founder member and later Chairman of the Guild for the Promotion of Welsh Music. Under his direction, the Music Department, which had fewer than 20 students when he arrived in 1950, had nearly a hundred by 1980.

Parrott’s reputation might have been greater among musicologists if he had not dabbled in the paranormal. In 1967 he met Rosemary Brown at Attingham Park, an adult education college in Shropshire. She believed that as a child she had received communications from Liszt, Rachmaninov and Beethoven, who informed her that when she grew up they would dictate new pieces. By the time her book Unfinished Symphonies was published in 1971 Brown had some 400 pieces.

In 1976, encouraged by a Dutch TV crew making a programme about Brown, he orchestrated a movement from an F Minor symphony which she claimed to have received from Beethoven. Despite his assertion that he was a devout Christian, Parrott, who had joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1951, was fascinated by ESP and the possibility of communication with the dead, believing with James Elroy Flecker, that “our garden goes on for ever, out of the world”.

Horace Ian Parrott, composer: born London 5 March 1916; married 1940 Elizabeth Cox (died 1994; two sons), 1996 Jeanne Peckham (died 2010); died Aberystwyth 4 September 2012.