Blest Pair of Sirens      Charles Hubert Hastings Parry

Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heav'n's joy,
Sphere-born harmonious sisters, Voice and Verse.
Wed your divine sounds, and mixed pow'r employ,
Dead things with inbreathed sense, able to pierce:
And to our high-raised phantasy present
That undisturbed song of pure concent,
Aye sung before the sapphire-coloured throne
To Him that sits thereon,
With saintly shout, and solemn jubilee;
Where the bright Seraphim in burning row,
Their loud, uplifted angel-trumpets blow,
And the Cherubic host in thousand quires,
Touch their immortal harps of golden wires,
With those just Spirits that wear victorious palms,
Hymns devout and holy psalms singing everlastingly:
That we on earth with undiscording voice
May rightly answer that melodious noise;
As once we did, till disproportioned sin
Jarred against nature's chime, and with harsh din
Broke the fair music that all creatures made
To their great Lord, whose love their motion swayed
In perfect diapason, whilst they stood
In first obedience, and their state of good.
O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with Heav'n, till God ere long
To His celestial concert us unite,
To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light.

‘At a Solemn Musick’ John Milton (1608-1674)

Originally for orchestra and double SATB choir, this extended anthem was commissioned by Stanford in 1886 for the London Bach Choir, of which Stanford was conductor, and Parry a member. In making this setting, Parry chose Milton’s Ode, ‘At a Solemn Musick’, which he set unaltered and unabridged, except for modernising the spelling. The work was composed for a concert in the Royal Albert Hall in 1887 to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. (The Hall had been opened by Victoria in 1871.) In the same concert was the first London performance of Hector Berlioz’s Te Deum, the performance of this work dedicated to the late Prince Albert. Concerning Parry’s anthem, a review in ‘The Times’ the following day states: 

‘The choral writing is in eight parts and abounds in contrapuntal devices. At the same time the spirit and the accent of the words are carefully attended to, as befits a work in which "sphere-born harmonious sisters, Voice and Verse" are invoked to "wed their divine sounds, and mix'd power employ". An excellent rendering contributed to the brilliant success of the ode.’

The work was performed again at the Three Choirs Festival the following year, this time with Parry conducting. Following this it passed comfortably into mainstream Anglican repertoire, where it has remained ever since; recent prominent performances of it took place at the Last Night of the Proms in 2010, and at the royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011, in Westminster Abbey.

A long instrumental introduction gives way to a tranquil opening, the choir singing in a dense 8-part texture. An imitative section follows, the texture building up from the basses, one part at a time, and this is followed by choral fanfare figures (‘Where the bright seraphim ..… angel-trumpets blow.’). The texture thins to four parts at ‘That we on earth…’. Preceded by a short organ interlude, this middle section contains some colourful word-painting. A new melody in the sopranos (‘O may we soon again...’), preceded by the organ alone, gives the music renewed energy and momentum. This melody soon floods down into the lower parts, leading into a faster coda (‘…to live with Him…’) which is loosely fugal in its construction. The music gradually expands back into a grandiose 8-part texture before surrendering to a triumphant homophonic ending. 

It is well-documented that Charles Parry, a great Victorian socialite, had a very forceful personality and was hugely charismatic. The combination of these personality traits with a life of teaching, performing and composing led to his playing a huge part in the revitalisation of English musical life at a time when the UK was just emerging from a long drought of musical activity - a period of hibernation which had begun shortly after the death of Purcell in 1695. Parry was born in Bournemouth, and his mother died twelve days after his birth and was buried in the church yard of St Peter’s Bournemouth two days before Parry was baptized there. He was sent to Twyford Preparatory school just outside Winchester, and took organ lessons from S.S. Wesley at Winchester Cathedral. A place at Eton followed. A precocious but highly gifted child, he entered himself for the Cambridge BMus exam whilst still in the sixth form at Eton, passed it, and subsequently became the youngest person ever to receive this prestigious qualification. As early as the 1860s, and still in his teens, Parry was publishing songs, chamber music and sacred music. Such confidence at an early age could only ever lead on to a glittering career and this proved to be the case. Organ lessons with George Elvey in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, a degree (not in music but in Law and Modern History) from Exeter College Oxford, the performance of his piano concerto in the Crystal Palace, and of his sacred music at the Three Choirs Festival, all to great acclaim, led to a stream of commissions. More sacred music followed, as did piano music, symphonic music, chamber music and incidental music for Greek plays. He was invited to join the staff of the RCM when it first opened in 1883, and also, at the invitation of George Grove, made generous academic contributions to the new musical dictionary which Grove had started compiling in 1879. In 1894, he succeeded Grove as Director of the RCM, a position he held until his death, combining it, from 1900, with the position of Professor of Music at Oxford, successor to the eminent Sir John Stainer. Pupils at the RCM included Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bridge and Ireland. As well as a prolific output of composition, Parry contributed much academic research to musical literature including, in 1893, The Art of Music, in which he applied to musical history the Darwinian conception of evolution. He was also entirely responsible for the third volume of The Oxford History of Music, as well as critical papers of research into music from the seventeenth century and, more specifically, the music of J.S Bach, which was enjoying a revival in the late nineteenth century. Elgar, who did not attend music college and had no formal musical training at all, credited the writings of Parry as having had a huge impact on his musical education. The impact of Parry’s charismatic personality, coupled with his talent, earned him not only the respect of his peers, but also honorary doctorates from Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, and a Knighthood in 1898. Five years later he was made a Baronet. His most enduring compositions include the hymn tunes Jerusalem, and Repton (Dear Lord and Father of Mankind), The Songs of Farewell and the coronation anthems I was Glad, and Blest Pair of Sirens. In 1918 he contracted Spanish flu in a global pandemic and died at Knightscroft, West Sussex. He is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. In 2015, over seventy unpublished compositions by Parry were discovered in a family archive and were sold at auction.