Style, Character and Revelation in Parry’s Fourth Symphony

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C. Hubert H. Parry’s life, musical compositions, educational leadership, musical writings and genial personality together form a rich case study in the interplay of music and Victorian liberalism. As a writer he brought art music into dialogue with the intellectual preoccupations of the age, applying Victorian values to a canonic repertory and a practice of musical self-cultivation more readily associated with the German educated middle classes than the British.
Although Parry’s five symphonies lay unregarded and unperformed for most of the twentieth century, and even today have attracted minimal critical or analytical attention in musicology, they show all the processual and structural qualities that Parry prized in highly evolved music and recognized as proof of noble and sincere character. The finest of the series is probably the Fourth in E minor (1889, revised 1910). In the revised version Parry added a title (‘Finding the Way’) and a programme concerning the moral fortitude of an individual. He labelled the themes with moral qualities in a manner close to his practice in his high-minded ‘ethical cantatas’ of the 1900s. At the same time the symphony presents an aesthetic problem, since, judged on the terms of the Romantic aesthetics of originality, its style is derivative of Brahms. Many passages in the first three movements are almost quotations from Brahms’s symphonies.
Parry’s idealism meant that in his book Style in Musical Art (1911) he dismissed style as an end in itself, along with the values of Aestheticism, favouring the ‘idea’ of the strong artistic character. At the same time he developed notions of musical revelation and discipleship which together cast light on the paradox of style and character in the symphony. These ideas, along with a consideration of two significant passages of the symphony—the serene coda of the first movement and the ‘deformational’ entrance of the ‘Dedication’ theme of the finale—point to a spiritual conception of symphonic music, echoing Evangelical habits of thought and expression.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMusic and Victorian Liberalism
Subtitle of host publicationComposing the Liberal Subject
EditorsSarah Collins
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781108628778
ISBN (Print)9781108480055
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2019


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