Blake’s »Jerusalem«

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Under this title Brian devoted a good part of the November On the other hand column to William Blake and Parry’s Jerusalem. I almost included the discussion in Volume 1 of Havergal Brian on Music, under Parry; but it is more properly an essay on Blake, which I will give in full in Volume 5. For the meantime, here are a few extracts.

It seems the fate of National Hymns to engender dispute: probably because some have come out of the mist, to be changed or disfigured by men of more languid or fervid patriotism. No such fate should attend Jerusalem, for its origin, verse and tune, are as clear as noontide: the only mystery lying in Blake’s mind, the greatness of which we shall never more than partially realise. He lived through the reign of George III, and was for ever a child of London, walking its streets, and dying at last in a courtway by the Strand. Not that he is unknown, for after many years of neglect, books about him began to appear on an average of about one a year, though probably read and viewed mostly by the cognoscenti. This extraordinary man was in fact a number of geniuses resolved into one whole:

he had but grudging recognition during his life and little reward, and too few know him now except by the association of his name with those wonderful Songs of innocence.[…]

Blake worked throughout his life under a series of spiritual manifestations, or mystic driving forces. He believed that such works as Jerusalem, Milton, and Job were the creation of celestial beings and he himself the medium to man. As a child, Blake thought the Songs of innocence came to him by the voice of an angel: and surely little in English equals them in sweet simplicity. Such marvellous sensitiveness in a human being is rare, and I seek in vain among musicians to find his like. He was fortunate in his wife, for she suffered to be taught by him, learning from him as he learned himself, and receiving through him the influence of dictating spirits.

Such is almost a vain attempt to describe the mind of Blake. Parry was doubtless a student of Blake, musing often over the preface and those lyric lines that make the beginning of Milton, which must have come on wings from the days of Elizabeth. We do not feel that Blake had any direct patriotic impulse, but sensed an England worthy of the heavens, —Jerusalem the city or country of Light; a place as Rupert Brooke saw it, where all evil was shed away, though Blake, more fiery, would drive it out with the sword. Parry’s setting of the four verses is a magnificent effort, telling how deeply he felt.

The setting is simple and almost rugged, for unison voice and piano (or orchestra), the first two verses for solo voice and the last two for unison voices. The composer marks this latter ‘all available voices’, so he probably conceived the possibility or suitability of the hymn for a great national occasion. May not that great occasion have been when war would end in the triumph of Right? — for copies of the music are marked 1916, the year of England’s greatest sacrifice1. […]

Perhaps to many no further explanation is necessary, but those who read or sing only the lyric lines used for the hymn may not quite realise that Blake is addressing Milton, whom he regards as a demi-god fraught with the task of maintaining truth in a green and pleasant land. Blake’s prophetic book called Jerusalem is a tour de force twice the length of his Milton, from which the lyric is taken. But we seemed destined to go on wondering under what circumstances the verses were detached and set to music. Sir Walford Davies settles the question by mentioning Robert Bridges as having suggested them to Parry2. Bridges, doubtless, had running in his mind the theme of England as seen by Blake but presently in dire distress. And to the credit of both, not a line is changed.

It may be stated that for the Leeds Festival of 1922 Elgar scored Parry’s tune for orchestra, and that the parts are now in the possession of the Royal College of Music. Parry’s own orchestral arrangement and the music of the hymn itself are published by J. Curwen & Sons, of Berners Street. It might be pertinently asked how it came to pass that Parry’s own orchestral version of his own music to Jerusalem should have been passed over for an orchestral version by Elgar for performance at that Leeds Festival. Parry had then been dead three years3.

  1. Jerusalem was written for a rally of the ‘Fight for the Right’ movement in Queen’s Hall, but became more generally known when Parry conducted it in 1918 at a concert to mark the final stage in the Votes for Women Campaign, after which it was adopted by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. Since five months of 1916 were occupied with the holocaust on the Somme, it was probably correct to call this the year of 'greatest sacrifice'. ↩︎

  2. Brian does not say where Walford Davies ‘settles’ the question. Perhaps in one of his radio talks; or perhaps Brian just asked him. The previous year, as a matter of fact, Davies had organized a Royal Concert for George V’s Jubilee. The King, when presented with the draft programme, had complained that it did not include Jerusalem, and insisted that the omission be remedied. ‘Otherwise’, he continued, ‘I shall get up on the platform and whistle it myself!’ Bridge and Parry had been closely associated for over 20 years, and the composer had set many of the poet's own texts. ↩︎

  3. Parry's own orchestration, more sombre and less crowd-pleasing than Elgar's, has only been revived a few times in the last 80 years. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, November 1936, pp. 107–108