Symphony No. 3 in C Major “The English” (1893)
I. Allegro energico
II. Andante sostenuto
III. Allegro molto schezoso
Hubert Parry (1848–1918) is best known today as the composer of the hymn tune “Jerusalem,” which ends every season of the London Promenade Concerts as a jingoistic drunken sing-a-long with the audience at the Royal Albert Hall, The irony cannot be overstated that while his great works have been woefully neglected, he is now best known for a tune that has become a celebration of the Imperial oppression and “glory” that was destroyed by the Great War. Parry was appalled by Imperial excesses, was mortified by the Great War, and was of a decidedly liberal political bias, despite his status as a member of the lower nobility.
Perhaps on the hundredth anniversary of his death it is time for a worldwide reappraisal of a figure whose influence on English music and English culture was profound, and whose reputation as both an Imperial standard bearer and superficial note spinner is completely unfair. One of the best places to begin is the Symphony we are performing, a powerful and brilliant work whose almost total neglect is inexplicable, Even in this anniversary year I have been unable to find a single live performance of this work outside of our own.
His aim in writing “The English” Symphony was to create a work that evoked the country in the same way as Mendelssohn did in his Italian and Scottish Symphonies or Schumann did in his Rhenish Symphony. To that end the four-movement work does express a sense of the bucolic, especially in the first movement. It is emotionally restrained, but with an inner intensity that very much a characteristic of Parry’s music. The second movement, a beautiful and evocative score that directly influenced the development of the English Pastoral style of Vaughan Williams, has an autumnal melancholy familiar to anyone who has heard the late music of Brahms. Unusually for a Symphony, the last movement, a set of variations, is the longest movement. Ending a Symphony with a set of variations was also unusual at the time – witness the surprised reaction to Brahms’ 4th Symphony, which ends with a passacaglia – this was considered a radical idea. (Brahms and Parry works are roughly contemporaneous). The movement itself develops to a glorious climax, with a characteristic nobility and power in the final moments.
The Symphony was completed in 1889, and was an immediate hit. For the next twenty years it was the most-performed English Symphony, but after the ascent of the Elgar First Symphony it gradually faded from the repertoire. There was irony in that too, for Elgar freely admitted the influence of the Parry on his own work.
Parry’s music continued to grow and develop throughout his life, and although a conservative composer, he stayed abreast of new ideas in music, and as teacher and charismatic personality he was an important force in British music. In an odd way he was a victim of the Great War he detested, for he died of Spanish Influenza at the height of the pandemic, a disease whose lethal effect was related to the way it spread on the battlefields of the war.
Although I cannot vouch that our performance is an American or local premiere I can find literally no evidence of a live performance of this Symphony in this century anywhere. (There is an excellent recording on Chandos). And I find no evidence of any American performances, even in the days when it was performed regularly in England. So, there is every reason to consider our unearthing of this masterpiece to be a unique event!