It’s October 1895 and the spirit of Music has been absent from Britain for exactly 200 years. Why she fled, and why she should return now — specifically, to the Leeds Festival — is not clear. Undaunted, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, the poet Robert Bridges and the massed choral and orchestral forces of the West Riding send up a prayer to the exiled ‘Myriad voicèd Queen’: ‘Thy many-hearted grace restore/ Unto our isle, our own to be’. You read that correctly: the composer whom Edward Elgar would call ‘the head of our art in this country’ begins his Invocation to Music by swallowing whole the Germanic libel that 19th-century Britain was ‘Das Land ohne Musik’.
Well, of course he does. By 1895 it was practically a reflex. Since the death of Purcell (which Parry’s Invocation commemorates), generations of British composers had internalised a cultural cringe towards Europe that lingers, in certain quarters, to the present day. The young Parry sought lessons with Brahms and headed his Second String Quartet — written at a country house in Gloucestershire — Zweite Quartette C-dur. The historical irony of the Invocation is doubly cruel. As Parry and Bridges prophesied, Britain was indeed about to witness a new musical dawn, but posterity has tended to consign Parry to the Victorian twilight before it.
That’s the problem with posterity — it generalises. When Parry finds precisely the right balance of inspiration and technique, as in his great Milton setting Blest Pair of Sirens (1887), he’s unsurpassable. As for the five symphonies and the large-scale choral works on which his Victorian reputation rested; well, who really knows whether Ernest Newman’s notorious crack about Parry ‘sickening for another oratorio’ was fair or not? We never hear them, outside of anniversaries or occasional recordings.
A pile-up of centenaries — Parry’s death in 1918, the partial granting of women’s suffrage, and the Armistice — has provided a chance to reassess that pre-dawn generation of British composers. Last week’s Three Choirs Festival was practically a survey of that era, with Parry’s Fifth Symphony and the Invocation appearing alongside Ethel Smyth’s 1891-vintage Mass in D and an apprentice work by Elgar, the 1896 choral saga King Olaf. It’s an ideal context for works like these, conceived for the great regional choral festivals that defined musical life in Victorian Britain, and of which the Three Choirs is the most venerable survivor. You feel the buzz of a shared endeavour (I’ve never seen a Three Choirs concert that wasn’t packed) and sense, distantly, the atmosphere of tradition, celebration and inspired amateurism in which 19th-century British music struggled to remake itself.
That process was almost audible at Hereford Cathedral. Sir Andrew Davis conducted, and the Festival Chorus soared as Parry deployed all his top-class training — Eton, Oxford, Stuttgart — to raise a succession of steadily grander choral climaxes. The Invocation strides forward, glowing and noble, and despite Bridges’ atrocious poetry (‘bells that dong the Sabbath morn’) you never doubt that you’re in the hands of a master. Still, it was like watching an ostrich trying to get airborne. There’s no problem with emulating Brahms per se. Parry stumbles when Brahms’s style becomes not a starting point for a new and individual language, but the outer limit of musical respectability.
Elgar had a metaphor for it. ‘An Englishman will take you into a large room, beautifully proportioned, and will point out to you that it is white — all over white — and somebody will say, “What exquisite taste”’, he explained at Birmingham University in 1905. ‘You know in your own mind, in your own soul, that it is not taste at all, that it is the want of taste, that it is mere evasion. English music is white, and evades everything.’ Parry isn’t all white, to be fair — he’s more Farrow & Ball than that. Elgar revered him. Too poor to attend music college, he’d used Parry’s articles in Grove’s Dictionary of Music as study guides, and he firmly rebuffed George Bernard Shaw’s observation that Parry ‘was a damned nice chap; and if he’d been a little less nice he would also have been a little less damned’.
Listen to the music, though (and believe me, I’ve listened), and you’re forced to conclude that Elgar and Shaw both had a point — and not just about Parry’s Invocation or Smyth’s slightly dogged Mass; or, for that matter, the symphonies of Charles Villiers Stanford. One eye is always looking cautiously to Germany for approval. There’s something lacking that only Arthur Sullivan managed to catch on the wing: a spirit of lightness, irreverence and daring.
And indeed, in the twopence-coloured world of popular music, the British Muse was actually having a high old time. Even the reactionary Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick conceded that Gilbert and Sullivan, in The Mikado (1885), had achieved something ‘which no Englishman has ever accomplished before: to be melodious and amusing for an entire evening’. As a window-smashing suffragette, Smyth famously conducted her March of the Women with a toothbrush through the bars of her cell at Holloway Prison. Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot’s operetta The Arcadians (1909), however, preferred to snigger facetiously from the wings:
And Christabel rang up to say,
‘Come round to lunch at Holloway,
O naughty one, Mayfair.’
Her feeding tube she wants to share
With naughty, naughty one, Mayfair!
I was a bit surprised that Opera della Luna left that in when they gave a ‘rehearsed reading’ of The Arcadians at Wilton’s Music Hall last week. In the event, it danced by unnoticed amid one of the freshest and funniest scores of the Edwardian era. Three Arcadians descend on fashionable London to teach simplicity and truth. By the time they retire defeated, thoroughly Gilbertian fun has been poked at English institutions ranging from Ascot to the Pankhursts. Yet even in Opera della Luna’s goofy semi-improvised staging you could detect the nostalgia behind the music-hall gags and dapper comedy numbers — that strange, wistful yearning for innocence that you find in The Wind in the Willows or Peter Pan. One night in this Arcady felt far too short. Monckton’s freedom from academic musical taste (photos show a Piccadilly boulevardier with a ferociously waxed moustache) liberated him to find real enchantment.
But you had to be willing to appear vulgar. Parry and his generation nourished the musical culture in which a ruder, bolder strain would take root, ultimately leading British music to the gates of a Jerusalem that, for the most part, they couldn’t enter. (Revealingly, some of Stanford’s best non-liturgical music is his most cheerfully populist — do catch his rollicking Songs of the Sea at this year’s Last Night of the Proms.) Elgar, a Roman Catholic outsider who’d learned his craft playing in music festivals and writing quadrilles for Powick Lunatic Asylum, understood that instinctively, and you can hear him straining at his self-imposed leash with every note of King Olaf. Wagner hangs like a thundercloud over the introductory bars. Then they begin — the sudden, startling flashes of fantasy and colour. A harp cascades downwards; a single brush of the cymbal crowns a sea-spray of violins. It’s the music of a composer who’s thrilled by the sound of an orchestra.
Four years later, in one supreme act of bad taste, he made the long-awaited leap from polite Victorian festival composer to certifiable genius. The Muse finally returned to these isles in October 1900 in Birmingham, with the ear-splitting sonic flash in which Elgar, in The Dream of Gerontius, attempted to reveal the face of God. The ambition — and the effrontery — is still breathtaking, and Richard Strauss, the living embodiment of German musical supremacy, proclaimed Elgar ‘the first English progressive’. Not the idealistic, impeccably liberal Parry, the Leipzig-trained Smyth or the clubbable Stanford, but a self-taught shopkeeper’s son from Worcester who never really learned to mind his manners. There are some in Britain’s musical establishment who still can’t forgive that.