Jerusalem the Golden

Teacher, philanthropist, founder of the Royal College of Music — Sir Hubert Parry was so much more than a composer of England’s finest songs

Culture & Anarchy Music
Sir Hubert Parry: Teacher, philanthropist and composer of one of England’s finest songs

A couple of years ago, as part of my research for a book on Victorian Britain, I was fortunate enough to secure access to the papers of Sir Hubert Parry. I have long harboured the unfashionable view (shared, to my consolation, by the Prince of Wales) that Parry was a truly great composer. He was overshadowed in his own country in the last 20 years of his life by the bombast and populism of Elgar and still awaits proper recognition as an artist. What is perhaps less widely realised, but every bit as potent, is that Parry was also an exceptionally great man. He was instrumental in the foundation of the Royal College of Music, being its first professor of composition. In that capacity he taught many of the most sublime composers of the 20th century, notably Vaughan Williams (whom he told to go out and write choral music as befitted “an Englishman and a democrat”), Gustav Holst, and also Herbert Howells. Indeed, Howells only survived to write the Hymnus Paradisi and other masterpieces thanks to Parry, who in 1916 paid for him to be the first person in Britain to receive radium treatment for Graves’ disease. Howells survived to the age of 90, dying in 1983, a tribute to the benevolence of Parry so long as he drew breath.

I searched Parry’s archive for his correspondence with George Grove about the making of the RCM; and in those letters I found a man of unlimited goodness, prepared to give his time, his money and his creative energy to the cause of recreating a serious musical life in Britain. The RCM has trained further generations of composers since Parry’s time, not least Benjamin Britten, whose centenary falls this year, and so long as it continues to do so, and to make an essential contribution to our cultural life, Parry’s legacy remains strong. Some of us are hoping to raise the money to put up a statue to him on the centenary of his death in 2018 — it is about time. But however easy and, indeed, necessary it is to celebrate him for his contribution to society as a teacher and philanthropist, let us never lose sight of the magnificence of his music.

While I was in his archive, which is lovingly kept by his descendant Laura Ponsonby, my attention was drawn to his engagement diaries — a row of pocket diaries on a shelf covering the period from the late 1870s to 1918. Miss Ponsonby showed me one particular entry, for March 10, 1916. In faded ink in Parry’s hand is written the sentence: “Wrote a tune for some words of Blake Bridges sent me.” The words the poet laureate, Robert Bridges, had sent him were the verses that begin “And did those feet in ancient time . . .” I was quite overcome. Parry’s whole demeanour was conditioned by his understatement and his modesty, though like most with a creative temperament he harboured titanic passions. This quotidian report of his having just written one of the greatest songs in the musical canon was humbling, and an insight into the true meaning of greatness. Miss Ponsonby then passed me a folded foolscap sheet of manuscript paper, which was the work Parry had done that morning. Having been quite overcome already, holding in my hand the first draft of “Jerusalem” rendered me speechless.

Bridges had taken Blake’s poem for an anthology he was preparing of patriotic verse for use in that time of war and he sent it to Parry to ask whether he might set it to music and create a song for the Fight for Right movement, to “brace the spirit of the nation”, that it might “accept with cheerfulness all the sacrifices necessary”. This was less than four months before the Battle of the Somme, and Parry — whose patriotism and public spirit had never been called into question — seems from the start to have been in two minds about the cause for which he was asked to write. Even before 20,000 British men died in one day, on July 1, 1916, there were deep-seated doubts about the carnage that was being inflicted on the country. Parry was uneasy about a blanket endorsement of further such suffering, but wrote the tune nevertheless. Not the least aspect of the appeal of “Jerusalem” is the lack of bombast, and the undertones of sadness and longing that are shot through it. I have always taken it that this tone is very much the result of the frame of mind Parry was in about the attitude he was being required to endorse.

By May 1917 Parry’s doubts had become convictions, and he asked Fight for Right not to use his tune any more. This was a blow to them because it had become almost instantly popular; however, such were the words that the song could be used for a variety of purposes and to fit with any number of ideologies. The women’s suffrage movement took it up, and Millicent Garrett Fawcett asked Parry if the song might be included in a pro-suffrage benefit concert in March 1918. He was delighted at the prospect, and subsequently agreed to a suggestion that the song should become the Women’s Suffrage Hymn, and should be known by the name “Jerusalem”. Parry assigned the copyright to the suffragists, who in turn passed it on to the Women’s Institutes.

His original arrangement of the words was for voices and organ, but when the song was needed for the suffrage concert he arranged it for orchestra. The orchestral setting one normally hears is Elgar’s, made for a big orchestra in 1922: lavish, pompous and overwhelming in its dynamic. Parry’s own orchestration is more spare — there is a particularly fine recording of it on Chandos, conducted by Neeme Järvi and with Amanda Roocroft as the soprano soloist — and closer not only to his original intentions, but to the spirit of the man. “Jerusalem” is no longer what it briefly originally was — an exhortation to tolerate slaughter in the interests of the triumph of Britain. It has evolved into a heartfelt, and refreshingly understated, expression of English national feeling, embodying Christian English values, and suffused with a sunlit optimism. The nobility of the song is peerless. As a statement of the English ideal in culture, this particular marriage of words and music is likely to remain unsurpassed.