BOOK REVIEW / Lonely strains in a green and pleasant land: C Hubert H Parry: His Life and Works - Jeremy Dibble: OUP, pounds 45

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The Independent Online
TO THINK of Sir Hubert Parry is, of course, to think of Jerusalem. Yet when that noble melody to Blake's visionary summons reverberates around the Royal Albert Hall at the end of this year's Proms, it will be heard not in its original, sober orchestration, but in Elgar's glamorised arrangement - as if to reinforce Parry's standing as a mere precursor of the great 20th-century British musical renaissance.

True, our choral societies have thrilled to his grand setting of Milton's Blest Pair of Sirens ever since it established his national reputation in 1887. Anglicans who still cleave to Songs of Praise justly cherish his hymn tune to 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind'. And those who recall the last Coronation will never forget the majestic impact of his anthem I Was Glad as the young Queen entered the Abbey.

Yet until recently this was about all the Parry that most music lovers got a chance to hear. As for the man himself: he resided in the collective memory, if at all, as a gentlemanly butt of George Bernard Shaw's music criticism, who divided his time between teaching Holst and Vaughan Williams, yachting and running his country estate.

These days, thanks largely to the sponsorship of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust, it is possible to gain a fairer grasp of Parry's scope from recordings of his many other choral works besides Blest Pair, of his wealth of early chamber music and, not least, of his five vigorously argued symphonies. And now, at last, we have a sensitive and thoroughly researched study of the life and works. Jeremy Dibble interpolates his musical analyses into the biography itself, rather than settling for the easier option of separate chapters. But he keeps his technical discussions concise enough not to disrupt the narrative unduly.

In any case, it proves peculiarly difficult to disentangle Parry's musical idealism from his circumstances. Born into the landed gentry in 1848, educated at Eton and married into the aristocracy, he soon came to loathe the privilege and conservatism of his inheritance - in ironic contrast with the self-made Elgar, nine years his junior, who could hardly wait to climb into the Establishment. Inspired by the radical precepts of Ruskin, Matthew Arnold and Herbert Spencer, Parry was to pursue a fiercely progressive intellectual life that took in Ibsen, Zola and Nietzsche in his middle years and, in old age, the challenge of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. His politics seem to have been left of liberalism.

It was, rather, in the great enterprise that he shared with such colleagues as Grove and Stanford - to raise British musical standards out of the mid-Victorian morass - that his inherited sense of noblesse oblige betrayed him. So inspiring, by all accounts, was his public persona, that he found himself precipitated (almost against his will) into the simultaneous Directorship of the Royal College, the Chair of Music at Oxford and a baronetcy. Yet a lifetime of diary-keeping told of a restlessly intelligent and lonely man, haunted by family problems and a heart condition, and utterly clear-eyed about his limitations as a composer.

One of the fascinations of this book is following how Parry gradually focused a style for himself out of the Baroque and Classical past, the cyclical procedures of Liszt and the harmonic enrichments of his German contemporaries. His mature work is often described as Brahmsian, though that influence is far less obvious than in Stanford's music. If anything, the impressive sweep of his Third and Fourth symphonies takes after the more ebullient orchestral flights of Schumann, though cleaner in texture. But ultimately, the broad contrapuntal paragraphing, as directly inherited by Vaughan Williams, proves quite personal; not to say the potent vein of diatonic melody - the big tune in Holst's Jupiter owes far more to Parry than to folksong.

No doubt he was unfortunate to be eclipsed by the genius of Elgar, especially as the ceremonial style we think of as Elgarian was largely Parry's creation. Yet Dr Dibble reveals an unquestionably great man, who rose to greatness in his music more often than is commonly thought.