Blest Pair of Sirens, by Sir Hubert Parry
Singing in a concert, The Dreamers of Dreams, in Wells Cathedral with the Somerset Chamber Choir on 31 July set me thinking about the works we performed. Here is the first in a series of reflections; it focuses on Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens.
Sir Hubert Parry is one of those oft-cited ‘neglected composers’. Much of his substantial body of compositions – symphonies, concertos, oratorios and much more – has indeed lapsed into relative obscurity.
Although better known nowadays than much of the rest of Parry’s output, Blest Pair of Sirens is certainly eclipsed by Jerusalem and I was glad. A setting for choir and orchestra of an ode by a major poet – John Milton’s At a Solemn Music in this case – it follows in a European tradition that encompasses Beethoven (Goethe in Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) and Brahms (Hölderlin in the Song of Destiny).
Blest Pair of Sirens properly achieves the impact Parry surely intended when performed with a large chorus and full orchestra, although it can be sung with a smaller choirs with organ.
When singing the work accompanied by a full orchestra, the first thing that strikes you is the opulence of the introduction. It begins with an expansive, ceremonial theme played tutti, from which emerges another that surges through the orchestra to a climax in the style not so much of Brahms, one of Parry’s acknowledged influences, as Charles Gounod, who enjoyed considerable popularity on the Victorian musical stage.
The second thing that strikes you is how well it fits the vocal range of each part. The outer sections are scored for double choir and parts sit comfortably within each vocal range. Nevertheless, with its liberal use of counterpoint, you do need to keep your wits about you.
If there is one thing it lacks, it is that sense of an emotional journey. There is little sense of brooding and I always miss a climactic soprano top C on the jubilant final chord. There is a minor key episode when describing how ‘disproportioned sin/Jarr’d against nature’s chime/Broke the fair music that all creatures made/To their great Lord’.
Yet Milton and Parry do not seek to take the listener on a journey; the text is more akin to a fresco depicting the ‘faire heaven where happy souls have place’, to paraphrase Spenser, rather than a narrative ballad.
The dominant mood in Milton’s ode is of celebration and optimism and, with Parry piling fugal entry upon entry to build inexorably to an exultant conclusion, Blest Pair of Sirens is indeed a very exciting piece to sing.