Sermon preached at Evensong on the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity (7 October 2018) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
The first sermon in our October preaching series 'For Whom the Bells Toll' reflects on the life of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, on the centenary of his death.
This series remembers the great and the good in the Crypt of St Paul’s a series of addresses on the lives and achievements of men and women whose memorials are found in the Crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry is a man of contrast and complexity and, despite the breadth of his legacy, is still often misconceived as a conventional establishment figure who must always have intended Jerusalem to be sung at the end of Conservative Party conferences.
We gather here today on the one hundredth anniversary of the death of Sir Hubert Parry, the great English composer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the very church where the great man’s funeral service took place nine days after his death.
His funeral service was indeed a decidedly establishment occasion, at least on the face of it. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the great Frederick Temple, presided. Representatives of George V, Edward, Prince of Wales, and Queen Alexandra were present. Stanford and Elgar were there alongside many other of the great composers of the day. And all of the most significant of the academies and musical institutions were also represented. All sitting where you are sitting now. Nine Etonians bore his coffin into the Cathedral – and surely you don’t get much more establishment than that.
But, as I said at the start, Parry was a man of contrast and complexity and his legacy is much broader than face value might suggest. And in this act of worship, we have already tasted something of that breadth merely through the hymns that we have sung. Even as I speak, the echoes of Jerusalem are only just dying away with its Wagnerian pulse and sonority but earlier we sang Repton and possibly felt a touch of Schumann whispering his lieder into the inner ear of our imagination.
Because, yes, Parry was brought up amidst East India Company wealth, the son of a collector of Italian art. And, yes, they lived in a small stately home in Gloucestershire and, yes, Parry went to Eton and Oxford. And, yes, he was knighted and later even made a baronet. And, yes, his funeral service took place at St Paul’s Cathedral.
But Parry was also the boy whose mother died of consumption when he was only 12 days old. This was the young man who struggled under pressure from his father to follow conventional studies and a career choice in insurance and who saw his brother crumple under the same pressures and fall amongst drugs and wastrels. This was the Parry who lost his sister Lucy when he was only a teenager. And, perhaps more tellingly, this is the Parry who espoused the theories of Darwin and became a humanist and who, along with his wife Maude, took up the cause of the Suffragettes and other radical politics of the day.
In other words, this was a man whose experience of life was etched with the hallmarks of dignity and suffering and whose smooth edges were roughened by the shadows which are inevitably cast however warm the rays of the sun that shines down upon us.
This is a man who was refined in the refiner’s fire.
And perhaps that is why the same composer gives us both Repton and Jerusalem to sing in our service of Evensong this afternoon. Both The Songs of Farewell and I was Glad. And, less well known, but both the oratorio Job and the motet The Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Indeed, the legacy of Jerusalem itself almost mimics the contrasts of Parry’s life – being as it is England’s other national anthem with all the national pride but also jingoism that go with national anthems; but it was also the anthem of the suffragist movement in the early twentieth century and there was nothing proud or jingoistic about that movement, but rather plenty of radical challenge to the conventions of national life and national injustice.
The critical response to Parry’s work and to his legacy is also one of contrast: Stanford calling him the finest English composer since Purcell; Delius, however, disagreeing. Some seeing only the mirror image of the Victorian gentleman; others seeing through the looking glass to the man who composed from his scars, not from his country house.
And another inevitable complexity for Parry which some saw as an obstacle and others saw as an opportunity was the balancing act which he managed between his academic work and his composition. For Parry was one of George Grove’s most assiduous contributors to his Dictionary of Music and Musicians; he was Professor of Composition and Music History at the Royal College of Music and later its Head; he took over from Stainer as Heather Professor of Music at Oxford; and he wrote the great 1909 study of Bach.
And it was Elgar himself, not professionally trained in any of the music academies, who always claimed that he learned most from Parry’s 123 entries in Grove’s Dictionary which perhaps says something particularly important about the musician who is also the teacher and the nurturer – indeed, the relay runner who passes on the baton without which generosity and imagination no one succeeds in the next generation.
And that must surely be another of Parry’s legacies, less audible than rousing hymns and coronation anthems, but more secure – especially if we can claim that Parry has played his part in leading us from the great revival in English choral music in the late nineteenth century to the present day when the Church can claim justifiably I believe to be one of the principal commissioners of new choral music in our own age.
Lloyds of London lost a reluctant insurance broker; the world gained a great composer.
Hubert Parry died a few days before the Armistice of 1918, the one hundredth anniversary of which we will commemorate next month. His final legacy was – appropriately enough – his Songs of Farewell: settings largely of metaphysical poetry against a backdrop of bloody and destructive warfare which gave the lie to romantic visions of green and pleasant lands but which are suffused nevertheless with heart-cramping hope as the man whom we salute today moved slowly and peacefully towards his end.
One of those poems is by our very own John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s in the early seventeenth century, and I will let his words speak of the Christian hope which we espouse in each act of worship offered here in this holy place while we also commend to God the soul of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry and give thanks for his deeply human legacy.
At the round earth’s imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls and to your scattered bodies go!
All whom the flood did, and fire shall overthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance, hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe;
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For, if above all these my sins abound,
’Tis late to ask abundance of Thy grace
When we are there. Here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if Thou’dst sealed my pardon with Thy blood.