Parry: Scenes from Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’ / Blest Pair of Sirens

Scenes from Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’

In looking for a practical starting point for anything that may be usefully considered in relation to present day music, I think it unnecessary to go back farther than 1880. I do not say definitely that that is the best starting point, but it is sufficient for the purpose... Some of us who in that year were young and taking an active part in music – a really active part such as playing in orchestras – felt that something at last was going to be done in the way of composition in the English school.

These words appeared in Edward Elgar’s inaugural lecture as Peyton Professor of Music at the University of Birmingham, on 16 March 1905. Tantalisingly, Elgar never referred specifically to a particular composer or work in his lecture, but that he chose 1880 as the ‘starting point’ suggests that, as a twenty-three-year-old aspiring violinist, he was more than likely aware of the new choral work by Hubert Parry (1848 – 1918) which had been commissioned for the 1880 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. Elgar’s statement predated Ernest Walker’s assertion, in A History of Music in England, of 1907, that

if we seek for a definite birthday for modern English music, 7 September 1880, when Prometheus saw the light at Gloucester and met with a distinctly mixed reception, has undoubtedly the best claim.

Since then others, such as Francis Hueffer, W.H. Hadow, Thomas Dunhill, A.E.F. Dickinson, Herbert Howells, and Frank Howes, have reiterated this view.

In 1880, Parry was thirty-two and at the beginning of his career as a composer. Having graduated from Oxford, in 1870, he worked in Lloyd’s Register of Shipping as an underwriter, but his mind was always on music. When it proved impossible to study with Brahms, he sought out the virtuoso Alsatian pianist, scholar, and champion of Wagner, Edward Dannreuther, in London, and took piano lessons from him; in time the musical catholicity and insight of Dannreuther, and the forum of his brilliant semi-private concert series at his home, at 12, Orme Square, Bayswater, effectively became a milieu for examining and discussing contemporary European music. What is more, Dannreuther, who until his death, in 1905, remained Parry’s mentor, became perhaps the most incisive critic of Parry’s own compositions. In 1876 it was he who acquired free tickets for Parry to hear the second cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen, at Bayreuth. There, Parry met Wagner at Wahnfried, and a second, more extended acquaintance with him took place during the London Wagner Festival, in 1877, when Wagner was a guest of the Dannreuthers’, at Orme Square. Dannreuther’s veneration of Brahms, moreover, was central to the composition of Parry’s substantial chamber works (all of which were written for performance at Orme Square), and in 1880, Dannreuther would also appear twice (under August Manns and Hans Richter) as soloist in Parry’s bold Piano Concerto in F sharp major.

It was before the première of the Piano Concerto that Parry began to consider a text for his first major Gloucester Three Choirs commission. The year before, he had been drawn to Shelley’s four-act lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound, of 1820, based on Aeschylus’s tragedy Prometheus Bound. A major philosophical ‘psychodrama’, it embodied many attributes which had strong parallels with Wagner’s Ring, parallels which Bernard Shaw noted in The Perfect Wagnerite. Both works, Shaw perceived,

set forth the same conflict between humanity and its gods and governments, issuing in the redemption of man from their tyranny and by the growth of his will into perfect strength and self-confidence.

It was this sentiment that Parry wished to distil in his cantata, though it was, of course, imperative to select those parts of Shelley’s text that would project the ‘message’ as clearly as possible. The result was the construction of a cantata in two parts, the first consisting of one extended scene (though effectively in two sections), the second of two well-demarcated scenes. On 21 March 1880 Parry was excited to present Dannreuther with what he envisaged as the first ‘two scenes’ of Part I (which were most likely Prometheus’s opening monologue and the Chorus of Furies), but he was unable to resume work until May. By mid-July he had more or less completed the concluding chorus, though this section of the work he found particularly challenging.

After an anxious delay in the copying of the orchestral and choral parts, the long rehearsal in Gloucester on 6 September, the day before the performance, began at ten and continued until five o’clock; after a break of two-and-a-half hours the rehearsal resumed, at seven thirty, and went on until midnight. The performing materials were riddled with errors and the manuscript choral parts – one for each individual voice (rather than the luxury of a printed vocal score) – made the task for the chorus, unfamiliar with the modern idiom, even more onerous. The chorus of 250 voices, drawn not only from Gloucester but also London, Bristol, Oxford, and Huddersfield, were put through their paces, and it was mainly owing to the Huddersfield contingent, who arranged a private rehearsal in the morning of 7 September, that the morale of the chorus was lifted. At the evening performance, in the Shire Hall, where the secular concerts took place, some sections went well, but others, such as the Chorus of Spirits, in Part I, and Jupiter’s scene, in Part II, suffered major mishaps. Thanks largely to the fine singing of the soprano, Anna Williams, as the Spirit of the Hour, Parry’s optimism was restored.

Press reaction to Prometheus varied widely. Hueffer and Shaw, both enthusiastic Wagnerians, found much to admire; for others it was the very presence of Wagnerian influence that engendered their vehement antipathy. This negativity was perhaps best encapsulated by the critic of the Musical Times, who reported that

in many parts we have detached phrases of real beauty; but these are very few and very far between.

Yet, the reaction of the leader of the festival orchestra, the French violinist Prosper Sainton, summed up the polarity of impressions when he wrote to Charles Harford Lloyd (conductor of the Gloucester Festival and the dedicatee of the work):

Let me add one line more to tell you the deep, very deep impression ‘Prometheus’ has made upon me. There is the étincelle électrique so seldom found nowadays. With a fine refined performance, Mr Parry’s work must create a great sensation.

Aversion to Prometheus continued, however, with the refusal of Stanley Lucas to publish it. ‘Being out of sorts and tired,’ Parry wrote in his diary, ‘I was cast down.’ Into the breach stepped Charles Villiers Stanford (with whom Parry had first become acquainted in 1877) who expressed a desire to perform it at Cambridge in 1881, and this positive initiative seems to have encouraged Novello to publish a vocal score. Aided by the latter and more rehearsal time, the performance by Stanford and the Cambridge University Musical Society on 17 May 1881 was a triumph. Substantial interest in the work was also shown when, after receiving an honorary D.Mus. from the university, Parry conducted it in the Sheldonian Theatre, in Oxford, on 21 May 1884. Prometheus was given as well by the London Bach Choir under Otto Goldschmidt, on 19 November 1885 (when old Wagnerian hostilities appear to have been reawakened), and it was sung again, by the same body under Stanford’s direction, on 24 March 1899. Since then, however, and in spite of its time-honoured position in England’s musical history, it has suffered almost complete neglect. Only on 9 September 1980 was it revived, by the BBC (thanks to the work of one of its producers, Michael Pope), to mark the centenary of its première, at Gloucester; it was performed before an invited audience by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC Singers, and soloists under the baton of Vernon Handley. The performance was later broadcast, on 24 September, on BBC Radio 3. Only now, however, forty-three years on from that ground-breaking broadcast, has Prometheus finally been recorded commercially, which allows us at last to hear and evaluate the energy, vibrancy, and historical significance of Parry’s first major choral work.

Perhaps one of the most compelling attributes of Scenes from Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’ is its heady flamboyance. At thirty-two, Parry was hardly a young man, but his musical development had been a gradual process in which the discovery and assimilation of modern German music had only occurred during the latter part of the 1870s, and in this sense his cantata, very much the product of his first flush of maturity, had a kind of infectious youthful verve. This can be felt in the work’s striking prelude, a tragic evocation of the stark landscape and of Prometheus’s harsh punishment, notably in its unsettling fugato on muted strings (which gives rise to some highly experimental harmony), and in the climactic Tristanesque material for wind and brass, which forms an important part of the setting for solo vocal quartet in the finale of Part II. That Parry was fired up by the example of Wagnerian declamation is evident in the two major monologues for Prometheus (who is the main focus of Part I). Clearly, his experience of Der Ring des Nibelungen had left its mark, but other works, such as Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Tannhäuser (notably in the triumphal hymn ‘Pour forth heav’n’s wine’), were inspirations for Jupiter’s monologue in Part II, while Lohengrin and Die Walküre were important influences in the music for the Spirit of the Hour, an enchanting reverie. These two movements and the Chorus of Furies (a vigorous and inventive sonata structure) also demonstrate amply Parry’s appetite for colourful orchestration. Imaginative instrumentation is a feature of the more consolatory intermezzo for Mother Earth (‘I felt thy torture, son’) as well, which, especially in its rich duo for cellos, is reminiscent of Brahms’s Deutsches Requiem (a work that Parry had heard for the first time in 1875), and of the felicitous female Chorus of Spirits which follows. The intermezzo is then reworked in the finale of Part I for all four soloists and chorus (‘Life of Life!’), the last stanza of which is almost operatic in manner and effect, and the music of the Chorus of Spirits is revisited in the finale of Part II. Yet, notwithstanding these potent modern German influences, the voice of Parry himself is evident throughout in terms of his instinct for the vocal rhythms of the English language. Moreover, there are striking moments of Parry’s ‘Englishness’ in the characteristic use of diatonic harmony. This harmonic palette Parry reserved specially for the emotional epicentre of the work, the scene with the Spirit of the Hour (‘and men walked one with another’), and for the grand choral architecture of Part II.


Blest Pair of Sirens

Parry composed his setting of John Milton’s Ode At a Solemn Musick, better known today as Blest Pair of Sirens, in response to a commission from Stanford and the London Bach Choir for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, in 1887. Having suffered the crushing blow of seeing his opera, Guenever, rejected by Carl Rosa, in 1886, he was in need of something to restore his confidence. Much of Blest Pair was composed at Wilton House, near Salisbury, the former home of his wife, Maude Herbert. The work was completed in draft by 13 January and dispatched to Stanford. On 29 March, Parry, along with Grove, Joachim, and Frederick Bridge, attended a rehearsal; Parry recounted in his diary:

At the end old G. jumped up with tears in his eyes and shook me over and over again by the hand and the whole choir took up the cue... and applauded vociferously.

The first performance took place at St James’s Hall on 17 May 1887 and was greeted with shouts of enthusiasm from performers and audience alike. It was the success Parry craved, though he was at that time surely unaware that he had authored what would prove a classic of the English choral repertoire.

Various key factors contributed to the triumph of Blest Pair. One was Parry’s tight musical organisation which reflects the Pindaric model of Milton’s poetical design – the opening ‘strophe’ (‘Blest pair of Sirens’), the opposing ‘antistrophe’ (‘Jarr’d against nature’s chime’), and the aspirational ‘epode’ (‘O may we soon again renew that song’). Another was the carefully controlled ‘concerto’ structure whereby the opening orchestral material returns at strategic moments as a ‘ritornello’, especially at the end where it gives rise to one of Parry’s most epigrammatic choral statements. Other seminal stylistic elements include the muscular nature of Parry’s musical ideas, in particular the bracing orchestral opening which, in paraphrasing the beginning of the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, shows how thoroughly Parry had assimilated Wagner to form his own individual style. The same might be said of the dramatic use of the ‘Tristan’ chord (producing a ‘harsh din’) which acts as a critical fulcrum within the work. Melodically, Parry’s orchestral introduction also makes passing reference to the falling seventh that will flavour the epode’s yearning theme. Much of the dissonant diatonic harmony looks forward to the luxuriant sonorities of the eight-part choral counterpoint which not only characterises so much of the work’s noble sentiment but also confirms another powerful influence in the complex equation of Parry’s musical personality, that of J.S. Bach.

Blest Pair of Sirens had many admirers, among them Elgar and Vaughan Williams. The latter came to know and love the work as a schoolboy at Charterhouse and it remained a national choral monument for him for the rest of his life. Elgar became acquainted with the work as an orchestral violinist, at the end of the 1880s, and played it several times under Parry’s direction. Elgar eagerly declared it to be ‘one of the noblest works of man’ and, in consequence of his high regard for Blest Pair (as well as for Judith and Job), in his Birmingham inaugural lecture paid Parry the ultimate tribute by proclaiming that

no cloud of formality can dim the healthy sympathy and broad influence he exerts and we hope may long continue to exert upon us.


© 2023 Jeremy Dibble



Scenes from Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’: Synopsis

Part I of Parry’s cantata is drawn mainly from Act I of Shelley’s lyrical drama. At the opening, Prometheus is pictured in a ravine of icy rocks in the Indian Caucasus; there he has been bound to the precipice by Jupiter as punishment for his advocacy of mankind’s freedom; more immediately ominous for Jupiter, Prometheus has also learned, and refused to reveal, that the downfall of Jupiter will be brought about by his own child. After Prometheus has lamented his fate and predicament, though stoically willing to accept both, Mercury arrives with an ultimatum. If Prometheus will not divulge his secret, he will be delivered to the Furies. Prometheus refuses to yield and the Furies are summoned. A sympathetic voice emanates from Mother Earth who invokes the Chorus of Spirits and from these Prometheus draws some spiritual comfort, a sentiment captured in lines from Act II, Scene 5, ‘Life of life! thy lips enkindle’.

In Part II of the cantata, which consists of two scenes, the first is taken from Act III. Here Jupiter is depicted on his throne on Mount Olympus with Thetis and other Deities assembled. Initially Jupiter displays a mood of supreme confidence in his own powers, but he counsels the other gods to beware the threat of man. Convinced that Demogorgon, his destined child and the exemplification of the world’s primal power, will extinguish the soul of mankind, he dismisses any notion of danger or risk. The Car of the Hour arrives and with it Demogorgon, who cannot be fully seen or comprehended by Jupiter. Bewildered, Jupiter demands his identity, to which Demogorgon replies that he is Jupiter’s child, as Jupiter was Saturn’s child before him. Their destiny is an eternity in darkness together, for which they must sink into the abyss. At this point, Hercules unbinds Prometheus, and the Spirit of the Hour rejoices at the expunction of Jupiter’s tyranny. Part II, Scene 2, selected from Shelley’s Act IV, is situated in a part of the forest near the Cave of Prometheus. It is a hymn of jubilation on the part of the Spirits and Hours and a paean of elation at the new-found liberty of Prometheus.


© 2023 Jeremy Dibble

Powered by Google Translate