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C. H. H. Parry’s Songs of Farewell

Not long after I joined Cantemus in late 2016, we were given a list of music which was to be recorded in January 2017 in Keble College Chapel for our Under a Celtic Sky CD. One of these pieces for Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s My soul, there is a country. It was unfamiliar to me and I took to Itunes to find a good recording of it, stumbling across Tenebrae’s Hubert Parry Songs of Farewell album. The whole album is well worth a listen (personal favourites are Edward Elgar’s They are at rest and William Harris’s Bring us, o Lord God), but it was Parry’s Songs of Farewell which really grabbed me. Many a long hour was spent trudging up and down hills with the dog, with this album in my ears for company.

It’s hard to say exactly what makes these pieces so magical for me. From a singing point of view the shaping of the music is interesting, starting with the four-part, largely homophonic My soul, there is a country, growing through five, six and seven part movements to the incredible Lord, let me know mine end for eight part double choir.

The words are also heartbreakingly beautiful. It is almost impossible to pick examples without quoting all six poems but just as a taster; “my wearied sprite now longs to fly out of my troubled breast: O come quickly, sweetest Lord, and take my soul to rest” (from Never, weather beaten sail, words by Thomas Campion) and “Teach me how to repent, for that’s a good as if Thou’dst sealed my pardon with Thy blood” (from At the round earth’s imagined corners, words by John Donne). Throughout the piece Parry picks poems which highlight the transience of life and failings of man, and the redeeming power of faith, and the word painting just brings the text to life.

Another point of interest, for me at least, is the context in which they were written. Parry was born in 1848 and worked at the Royal College of Music from 1883 until 1908, when he had to retire due to ill health. The Songs of Farewell, composed in the years before 1918, were written right at the end of Parry’s life and against the backdrop of the First World War, a time which Parry found particularly painful. I feel that it must have been in Parry’s mind that these would have been one of the last things that he would write. Parry died of Spanish Flu a month before Armistice Day; he never saw the end of the First World War and, although the first five movements had been performed in 1916, the first performance of all six Songs of Farewell was at a memorial service for Parry in Exeter College, Oxford, in 1919.

I wondered whether to pick a favourite movement here, but it’s so difficult to choose. My favourite words are those in There is an old belief (words by John Gibson Lockhart), but I do also love the moment in the middle of At the round earth’s imagined corners, where the fortissimo and accents in the lower voices are perfectly complimented by the growing pianissimo of the upper voices before the wonderfully atmospheric “But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space”.




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