“The art of music above all the other arts is the expression of the soul of a nation.”—Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1934
Few countries have a richer musical heritage than Great Britain. Not only are the British Isles home to the distinctive Celtic music genre, but they are also home to a host of amazing composers and musicians. Henry Purcell, C. Hubert H. Parry, Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, and Benjamin Britten are just a few of the talented music-makers Britain calls its own.
Henry Purcell, born in 1659 in Westminster, England, is one of the oldest of Baroque composers. He was closely associated with Westminster Abbey, not only because he was born near it, but also because he began work as the abbey’s organist and composer at an extremely young age, positions he held for almost his entire life. As his fame grew, Purcell began to compose works commissioned by Charles II, James II, and William and Mary. Many of the pieces Purcell composed were incidental music (works created for specific occasions), but as the 17th century began to draw to a close, Purcell began writing operas, the most famous of which is Dido and Aeneas. Other notable works by Purcell include the two semi-operas King Arthur and The Fairy Queen. Even after his death in 1695, Purcell remained the foremost British composer until the late 19th century.
Though not as famous as Purcell and other British composers, Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (often abbreviated C. Hubert H. Parry) is one of the most influential English composers. Parry was born in 1848 in Bournemouth, England. He began studying music—the organ in particular—during his years at preparatory school, and he amazed his teachers with his compositional skills. At his father’s wish, Parry read law and studied modern history at Oxford and then began work in the insurance business. He continued to improve his musical skills, however, and around 1875 Parry began writing influential articles about music. About the same time, Parry’s compositions began to be performed in England, and he quickly grew in fame due to his settings of poems by popular writers like Milton, Shelley, and Tennyson. His most famous compositions are the choral works Blest Pair of Sirens, I Was Glad, and Jerusalem. Parry’s most lasting legacy, however, was his teaching of composition students at Oxford and the Royal College of Music, for he instilled in his pupils a love of the choral and British symphonic traditions.
One of the composers Parry influenced was Sir Edward Elgar, born in 1857 in Worcester, England. Elgar received most of his musical education from his father; he never attended a conservatory, but rather worked from a young age performing, conducting, and composing. Later in his life Elgar declared that C. Hubert H. Parry’s writings contained in the Dictionary of Music and Musicians were of great influence on him as a musician. In 1899 Elgar composed one of his most famous works, the Enigma Variations. The 15-movement work is an “enigma” because the theme on which the variations are based is a counter-theme to an unknown melody. The Enigma Variations is an extremely moving piece and the ninth variation—nicknamed “Nimrod”—is famous for good reason. Elgar composed his most popular work, Pomp and Circumstance No. 1, in 1901, and it is often heard at graduations and other ceremonies. Because his education was based on his experiences as a musician and conductor, Elgar’s compositions are very much written in his own style. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to notice that the regal sounds of Elgar’s music hearken back to the anthems written by C. Hubert H. Parry.
Gustav Holst was yet another British composer influenced by Parry. Holst was born to a family of musicians in 1874 and began writing music as soon as he was able to hold a pen. When he was old enough, Holst attended the Royal College of Music, and there he was taught by Parry in the art of composition. After graduating, Holst began to teach at different schools, but he continued to compose, and by the time he died in 1934 he had written about 50 works. Many of his compositions were for choir, but his most famous piece is “Jupiter,” from the orchestral suite The Planets. This massive work is certainly more modern sounding than many of the compositions of Holst’s predecessors, but Holst nevertheless managed to write grand, melodious themes that often sounded very traditional. Indeed, he was considered old-fashioned by his peers because he refused to be influenced by the other works composed in his era.
Benjamin Britten, born in 1913 by the North Sea, brought British music full circle through his most famous work The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, where he used a theme by Henry Purcell. Though this work can occasionally sound rather random—Britten was, after all, demonstrating the sounds of a lot of different instruments—the overall effect is very majestic and well-orchestrated, especially the “Fugue” and recapitulation of the theme at the end. Britten often used music as a vehicle for Christianity, and wrote a number of works for the church, most notable of which is A Ceremony of Carols, a work for choir and harp.
Music has always been important to the people of Britain. From ancient times to the present, Britons have used music to narrate stories, to express their love for their homeland, to tell others of their faith. The British Isles have turned out more composers than just Purcell, Parry, Elgar, Holst, and Britten—there are William Byrd, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Rutter, and Patrick Hawes, to name a few more—and the styles of music written by the composers vary. Yet British composers always seem to capture the beauty of Britain in their music, and because they learn from one another, study one another, and imitate one another, they craft a beautiful musical tradition for their beloved homeland.
♪ Bamert, Matthias, Richard Hickox, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra. Parry: Invocation to Music / The Soul’s Ransom / The Lotus-Eaters / Blest Pair of Sirens / I was Glad. Chandos, 2006.
♪ Davies, Sir Colin and the London Symphony Orchestra. Holst: The Planets. LSO Live, 2003.
♪ Jarvi, Paavo and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Britten: Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra/Four Sea Interludes From Peter Grimes/Elgar: “Enigma” Variations. Telarc, 2006.
♪ Purcell, Henry. Essential Purcell. Hyperion, 1995.