Letter from Ralph Vaughan Williams to The Musical Times

Letter No.: 
VWL2572
February 27th. 1948.

The White Gates,
Dorking,

To: The Editor of the “Musical Times”1

Sir,

The Article on Hubert Parry in your issue of February 1948 appears to one who had the privilege of being a pupil of that great man, as inept, inaccurate and impertinent (I note the article is not signed).2 We are told, for example, that Parry is not quite so unworthy of remembrance as - Paolo Tosti and Augusta Holmes!
If your contributor's object was merely to insult Parry's memory, which according to him is already non-existent, why write about him at all? The frequent performances of “Blest Pair”3 and the fact that “Jerusalem” is becoming our second National Anthem are apparently of no account. It is true, of course that many people do not like “Jerusalem”. There are also people who do not like “Land of Hope and Glory” but that does not mean that either of these are forgotten.
We are told in this article that because the more intelligent critics of Parry's day took the trouble to explain why they admired his music they did not really admire it; they ought, apparently, to have said, “This music gets me, I cannot tell you why.” But in those days the better writers on music thought it necessary to give a reason for the faith that was in them. The modern “sensitized plate”4 style of criticism had not yet been made fashionable by the Manchester school.5 Your contributor asks, “Was his music ever really loved?”. I can only speak from my own small experience. I have had the honour to conduct “Job” with a country choir more than once and they are always asking for it again and their enthusiasm for it, probably regretfully uncritical, showed itself in their emotional singing. Luckily for them they do not have to analyse their appreciation, and passages which we professional prigs may condemn as Mendelssohnian or Brahmsy are eagerly and uncritically swallowed by them. The truth is that Parry's genius was not, as this writer suggests, “clean and bright and making no smoke,” but was like a smouldering fire, often obscured by smoke and dust but occasionally bursting forth in a great flame as in, for instance, the Prelude of “Job” or the superb choral passage starting “Then shall God also confess”.
Some of us will remember a performance of Parry's “1914” Symphony at the Balfour Gardiner concerts in that year - We all felt that here was something very great and portentous struggling for expression like a lion in a cage, but which the inhibitions of what one supposes must have been an inadequate technique, refused to set at liberty.
The chief fault of Parry's orchestral writing is usually held to be his bad scoring and this is partly true; he had a moral repugnance to what he called “mere colour”; but what about that magical horn note just before the entry of the voices in “Blest Pair of Sirens”? The style is the man and we cannot fundamentally alter Parry's orchestration without also taking away that individuality which is essential to a work of art.

I was once sitting next to Elgar at a rehearsal of Parry's “Symphonic Variations”. I commented on the curious spiky sound of the orchestra which fascinates me though it may repel others. I said to Elgar, “I suppose this would be called bad scoring though personally I do not think so.” He turned on me almost fiercely and said, “Of course it's not bad scoring; that music could not have been scored anyhow else.” Elgar probably recognised this profound truth when he tried, at the request I believe of Sir Hugh Allen, to smarten up the orchestration of “Jerusalem” with the result that the music seemed to lose much of its character.
Parry suffered all his life from bad performances, owing partly to the inadequate preparation of Festival conditions, partly it must be admitted, owing to a certain hurry and carelessness which prevented him giving the finishing touches of marks of phrasing and expression to his work, partly to his extraordinarily bad conducting and to his good nature which prevented his insisting on adequate rehearsal. Is it not time that new editions of his work were prepared, carefully and accurately edited? This would make the music glow once again with fresh life and vigour. I see that the B.B.C. are performing “Job”. Let them follow it up with the still finer “De Profundis” and let them be carefully prepared and intelligently understood performances and not merely barren acts of piety to be got through somehow as a dreary duty.
Ralph Vaughan Williams


1. This letter was not published. 
2. 'Hubert Parry' in the Musical Times, 89 (Feb 1948), p.41-2 was an unsigned centenary assessment of Parry's music and achievement. While VW was disposed to take issue with the approach taken by the writer, the article was in general admiring of Parry.
3. Blest Pair of Sirens.
4. A reference to photography, in which Adeline was much interested, having been taught by her aunt, Julia Margaret Cameron.
5. Perhaps a reference to the critic Neville Cardus.

Location of copy:

Shelfmark of copy: 
MS Mus. 1714/1/17, ff. 189-191
General notes: 

Typewritten, signed.

Format: 
Letter
Citation: 
Cobbe 493
Original database number: 
480227