You may know Jerusalem and I was glad, but it’s unlikely you have ever heard a major work for choir and orchestra by C.H.Hubert Parry. Why has a major oratorio by one of Britain’s best-loved composers been neglected for 125 years?
Pax Christi Chorale is determined to turn the tide on Parry’s unjust obscurity in the realm of oratorio. You will be the first audience to hear Parry’s Judith in North America when this dramatic work is revealed at Koerner Hall on May 3, 2015.
Judith’s first performance in 1888 was very favourably received. Though Parry was self-critical and struggled with the score (he was over-extended with other work, and his father died while he was writing it) Judith was an overwhelming success. Parry had Europe’s top musicians backing him up. Hans Richter conducted the premiere at the Birmingham Festival. Alexander Mackenzie conducted Judith at the Crystal Palace (Jaeger sang in the chorus,) Stanford conducted a London performance, and when the Three Choirs Festival performed it, Elgar played violin in the orchestra under Parry’s baton.
Parry was not so lucky with friends in the press. George Bernard Shaw panned all of Parry’s large choral works with scathing reviews, suggesting that all of Parry’s oratorios should be burned. Shaw perceived Parry’s approach as “academic” and preferred Elgar’s unbridled, self-taught approach.
So, like many objects of Victorian design, masterfully crafted, with vibrant detail, vivid emotional and dramatic character, Parry’s music fell out of favour with the twentieth-century crowd.
One practical reason for Judith’s disappearance has been Novello’s reluctance to make the score and parts available. We have undertaken a project to create a new edition of the Judith score, with the help of the foremost Parry scholar, Jeremy Dibble, from Durham University in the UK. Along with our team of students from York University we are creating a digital edition of the score from which we can produce instrumental parts. It’s tedious, painstaking work entering each note, articulation and expression mark into our Sibelius notation programme, but we have an instant reward in that we can hear Parry’s beautiful orchestration leap off the page.
Judith is full of dramatic plot twists. The first act focuses on the King of Israel, Manasseh, who has abandoned the faith of his father Joseph, who is about to sacrifice his children to the fiery god Moloch. The Queen, Meshullemeth, comforts her children with the emotive tune “Repton” (Dear Lord and Father of mankind) as she recounts the history of her people. Bits and pieces of the memorable tune reappear as a leitmotif throughout the work.
The character Judith does not appear until the plot is well under way. She intercedes to stop the sacrifice, putting her own life in danger. She is in turn saved by a twist of fate. The Assyrian army invades, and chaos ensues. Winning the war requires an act of unparalleled heroism. Judith steals into the enemy camp, finds her way into general Holofernes’ tent, gets him drunk, and wielding her enemy’s sword, murders him in his sleep, thus saving her people from certain defeat. Parry’s own refined taste places all this violence off stage. The audience only witnesses Judith’s triumphant return.
The music of Parry’s Judith has been examined and tested in Toronto’s toughest test kitchen – my own living room with 20 singers, both professional and amateur, gathered around my piano some 10 months ago, singing through the entire score. It passed the test unanimously. The lead solo singers have been cast, the hall has been booked, and the process of raising funds for Judith’s first ever recording is underway. We have an unprecedented opportunity to be the first choir in the world to record this major work.