- An Imperishable Heritage: British Choral Music from Parry to Dyson: A Study of Selected Works by Stephen Town
Since the late nineteenth century, a number of English composers have endeavored to produce musical works of distinctly national character that can also stand alongside the masterworks of their European peers. This “English Musical Renaissance” remains something of a mantra to this day, inspiring fierce loyalty among its devotees despite some criticism about the music’s merits. Stephen Town’s volume marks the [End Page 93] latest effort to advocate for this music, a study of twelve large-scale choral-orchestral works by a group of composers that embodies the “imperishable heritage” of this British movement.
The volume proceeds chronologically across twelve chapters, each of which centers on a single work, assessing its history, sources, influences, and structure. The chapters follow a largely conventional organizational pattern. A general assessment of the composer in question usually comes first, followed by a range of details for each piece that includes source studies, pictorial and/or analytical descriptions of the music, and discussion of potential influences.
For those unfamiliar with the works under investigation, Town’s volume provides a valuable introduction to sources and analytical details. His intensive study of manuscript and print sources generates insightful theories about the various stages in certain works’ evolutionary processes. Town’s deep knowledge of the repertory allows him to identify multiple channels of influence for many pieces, one of this study’s most prominent and valuable features. His effusive enthusiasm for this music is plain and often emerges in subjective praise of the music’s beauty and power.
Those seeking more probing interpretations may be disappointed by Town’s level of analysis, which, while highly detailed, seldom aims beyond the surface phenomena of the score. Many sections are leavened with anecdotes, biographical details, and pictorial musical descriptions accessible to a wide audience. For deeper interpretations Town relies heavily on existing scholarship, and stronger efforts to critically engage these ideas would be welcome.
The volume’s initial chapters concern Hubert Parry, a composer at the vanguard of England’s musical renaissance. After a literature review offering several contrasting interpretations of the composer, his music, and his reception, Town explores The Vision of Life, the fifth of six “ethical cantatas” that reflect Parry’s distaste for more theologically oriented oratorios. Town highlights several gestures notable for their harmonic, melodic, and textual treatment and then catalogs Parry’s scribal practices among several manuscript sources. Presented with both an original and a revised ending, Town favors the latter for its superior poetry and more expansive musical setting. If readers are left wanting greater synthesis of these details into a larger aesthetic assessment, they at least gain an appreciation for Parry’s painstaking compositional process, the musical successes as well as occasional failures, and the complex interworkings of this piece.
Two other Parry works, the motet Voces Clamantium and ethical cantata Beyond These Voices There Is Peace, represent in Town’s view “two polarities of Parry’s character and compositional styles … the former soberly constrained, the latter profusely extravagant” (pp. 38, 56). Town draws attention to the intricate motivic construction and large-scale harmonic orientation of the first work. The second, written well after the first during a difficult period in Parry’s life, apes Wagnerian style in its greater harmonic complexities, enriched orchestral role, and dense motivic fabric. Both works survive in two autograph scores (plus drafts for Beyond These Voices), for which Town observes several similarities and documents numerous variants. He offers valuable analytical detail on these little-studied pieces, though the dichotomy he posits between “conservative” and “Wagnerian” might benefit from greater elaboration.
Turning next to Charles Villiers Stanford, Town first considers the 1885 oratorio The Three Holy Children, unusual for showing extensive revision among the surviving versions, something Stanford did sparingly. Town’s sketch studies reveal emendations to the original autograph that were omitted from the published version. In a substantially...