Parry Songs of Farewell

Professor Robert Quinney has produced the first critical edition of CHH Parry’s Songs of Farewell from autograph materials held in Oxford, and which have just been published by OUP. Professor Quinney has also released a recording of the work with New College Choir. You will be able to hear the Choir perform the songs on 19 October as part of the Oxford Lieder Festival. The Bodleian Library has also mounted an exhibition, curated by Professor Quinney, to mark the centenary of the death of Parry, a former Heather Professor of Music.

Robert Quinney writes:

I have had the pleasure of making the first critical edition of Parry’s late choral masterpiece, the Songs of Farewellwith reference to the autograph manuscripts, held in the Bodleain Library and a set of early printed versions. He composed the set over a period of nearly a decade, beginning in 1907: the manuscripts give us a vivid picture of the compositional process, with some motets emerging almost complete in early sketches, and others involving an apparently tortuous process of drafting and redrafting. The first and best known, My soul, there is a country, was subject to several revisions, including the recasting of its mystical opening, and obvious indecision about one particular soprano note toward the end. The fourth motet, There is an old belief, was the first to be composed, for a ceremony at the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore in January 1907. In 1913 it was revised, and at this point Parry began to assemble a set around it. In the process he vacillated between two versions of the section ‘serene in changeless prime’, apparently deciding on the eventual form only at the last minute. The new recording of the Songs by New College Choir includes the variant of There is an old belief for the first time on disc.

Early performances of some of the motets were given in services at New College. He later heard the final motet Lord, let me know mine end performed by the Oxford Bach Choir, a note of thanks for which is among Allen’s papers in the New College archives. The fact that the manuscripts generally ascribe the top vocal line to ‘Treble’ rather than ‘Soprano’ perhaps suggests that Parry had a collegiate-style choir with (in his time boy) choristers in mind, though there is no doubt that the motets sound magnificent performed by mixed and/or larger forces.

The exhibition uses primary materials, including several photograph manuscript, to tell the story of Parry’s life and impact on musical culture in this country. The exhibits include Parry’s B.Mus. exercise (he was the youngest person ever to be awarded the degree), the composing score of I was glad and the shakily written draft of the final Song of Farewell (Lord, let me know mine and), together with photographs of Parry through his life, correspondence, and even a remarkable survival: a mark sheet in Parry’s hand from the Oxford B.Mus. examination – by this time he was Professor of Music.  There is also a listening post accompanying the exhibition, with a number of recorded extracts.

One theme of the whole thing is that Parry’s life was drawing to a close amid the slaughter of the war, which also signalled the end of many decades of cultural cross-fertilisation between Britain and Germany.  So the valedictory texts of his Songs of Farewell have several different but complementary resonances.