C17 Italians

Hubert Parry and history

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Extracts from a long La main gauche article prompted by the publication of the second edition of Parry’s major musicological work.

[…] Parry’s Music of the Seventeenth Century, published in 1902, was the third volume of the then newly projected Oxford History of Music. It has now reached a second edition, revised by Edward J Dent, the publication being continued by the Oxford University Press (17s.6d. [87½p]). Parry’s writings have not been altered, the present edition being reproduced from the original printed page. Such emendations or elongations from or to the original are incorporated in the Appendix. Let it be said at once that Mr Dent has not gone about his work like Beckmesser, the rival and marker of the blackboard. He knows the value of Parry’s work, for in his preface he says that, while the specialist in a period may criticise Parry for omissions, no musical historian of today can take so broadminded and well-proportioned a view of the whole period as he did.

I know that in the fields of history of Italian or English music Professor Dent is a specialist: and in view of the intensive musical research into that history that has taken place, his emendations of Parry are invaluable. Parry himself would probably have preferred to have written the fourth volume, because it contained the music of composers that influenced his own music. In spite of Parry’s modest disclaimer about the seventeenth century drawing almost a blank, his own magnificent history refutes such a suggestion and shows that it was a great period of incubation. Composers were unconsciously working and striving for clearer articulation, and they were developing the habit of expressing themselves, so that they were making moulds, some of which were to reveal the flower of genius in the following century through Bach and Handel, and later reach perfection in the works of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. […]

As an experimental period, the beginning of the seventeenth century has resemblances to the twentieth century. Until then modal music had swayed the world for centuries, the absolute property of the Church. The first attempts at secular music— the private performances of crude opera by way of an entertainment for guests — led unconsciously to the break from modal, and eventually established modern tonal music. Those early pioneers had no other models for guidance: but entertainment music soon became a fashion, and composers improved on the work of their predecessors. And as in this age, the pioneers were held up to scorn and ridicule. Parry warns us that the famous Amfiparnaso, by Orazio Vecchi — a remarkable piece of secular choral music, written on a popular Italian puppet play not unlike the English Punch and Judy, and regarded as one of the earliest attempts at opera — is nothing more than a lampoon on Vecchi’s pioneer contemporaries. Stanford was acting the role of Vecchi when he wrote his Ode to Discord.

Even this lampoon contained something which was to prove of the greatest use later — the conventional subdominant-dominant-tonic close, becoming a plague in the eighteenth century and a favourite close of Mozart. The greatest genius was Monteverde1, who was a seasoned composer in the old art before he began his studies in original harmony, instrumentation and opera. He discovered that discords intensified the dramatic element. His works became popular. As Parry writes: ‘Men tasted of the tree of knowledge, and the paradise of innocence was thenceforth forbidden them. Monteverde was the man who first tasted and gave his fellow men to eat of the fruit; and from the accounts given of the effect produced upon them they ate with avidity and craved for more’. Monteverde may be barbaric, but his operas are strokes of genius: he gave his successors a brand new palette to work with in harmony and instrumentation — including the string tremolando so much abused by Wagner in his early period. Later, the opening of public theatres in Italy for the performance of music dramas led to a solidification of the early operas, and it became established as a definite art. […]

Important pioneer as Frescobaldi undoubtedly was, he stood apart from the secularists who were developing the new music and worked out his salvation independently of them. Parry regards Frescobaldi as a kindred spirit to Brahms. Many examples quoted from the early English composers of music for the virginals suggest that there is much less skilful keyboard music published today. Even in this age of diminutive tonal density, men let their fancies roam in the direction of pictorial music, evidently excited by contemporary events. Both Byrd and Frescobaldi wrote ‘Battle’ pieces, and imitation of church bells has been a favourite fancy of composers of every age.

Peter Phillips, that enigmatical English composer who lived abroad, toyed on the keyboard with madrigals of Italian composers. decorating them with trills and scale passages, thus anticipating in a humble way the masterful genius and decorator, Liszt.

[…] Parry’s most eloquent writing is his masterly treatment of Heinrich Schütz — a pupil of Gabrieli of Venice — the greatest genius of the seventeenth century who struck a profound note in his religious compositions.

Parry’s work is indispensable in showing the simultaneous preparations and strivings of a great period of growth when men were keenly interested in what they did, and listened intently as they expressed themselves and, as Parry suggests, when they were too proud of their art to vulgarise it.

  1. The spelling is HB’s, but also Parry’s. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, June 1938, pp. 775–776