An Introduction to Sir Hubert Parry’s Oratorio Judith
Countless people will have sung the hymn ‘Dear Lord and father of mankind’ without knowing the origin of its fine tune, known as ‘Repton’. And why should they? The tune is taken from Sir Hubert Parry’s oratorio, Judith, a work that has lain in almost total obscurity for decades. Now, however, the complete work is shortly to be heard in the UK for the first time in over 65 years. William Vann is to conduct a performance in London’s Royal Festival Hall on 3 April. That’s great news for admirers of Parry’s music and even better news is that the performance will be followed by sessions for a commercial recording to be issued by Chandos.
Though I’m a great admirer of Parry and his music I have to count myself among those to whom Judith was a largely unknown quantity, so I did a bit of digging. As always, the prime source for information about the composer is his biographer, Jeremy Dibble, and I acknowledge my debt to him for some of the background knowledge I’ve gathered.
Parry began to attract serious attention in the 1880s. In 1883 he was recruited to the staff of the recently opened Royal College of Music. (He was the College’s Director from 1895 until his death). Just as importantly, he composed several important works during these years, including his Third and Fourth symphonies, both of which were premiered in 1889 – the Fourth by the great conductor, Hans Richter – and were well received. What we might term his ‘breakthrough piece’ was a choral and orchestral work that his friend, Stanford, invited him to compose in 1887 for the Bach Choir to celebrate the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria. The masterly Milton setting, Blest Pair of Sirens rightly established Parry in the public eye as a significant composer. An immediate fruit of the recognition he achieved with Blest Pair of Sirens was an invitation to write a full-length oratorio for the prestigious triennial Birmingham Festival. As Jeremy Dibble relates in his biography of the composer (C Hubert H Parry. His Life and Music) the gestation of the work was not without its problems: there was some agonising over the choice of a subject, and once the oratorio was complete the Festival committee deemed it too long and tried to inflict substantial cuts on the score. In the event, all was well and the first performance, conducted by Richter on 29 August 1888, was a success.
Parry wrote the libretto himself, drawing to quite an extent on the Old Testament. In addition, though, a significant element of the libretto consists of Parry’s own words, including the solo ‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’, sung in Act I, Scene 2 by the queen-mother, Meshullemeth. This is the tune which we now know as ‘Repton’ and Parry’s colleague and friend, Stanford enthusiastically praised the words of that aria.
The oratorio is divided into two acts separated by an Intermezzo. A brief synopsis of the action is as follows. In Act I the Hebrew king, Manasseh (the tenor soloist) has espoused the cult of the pagan god, Moloch but, in an unpleasant turn of events, the High Priest (sung by the bass) demands that Manasseh sacrifice his own children to Moloch. In the second scene Manasseh’s wife, Meshullemeth (the mezzo-soprano), comforts her children. Judith (soprano) tries to halt the sacrifice but at first her pleas fall on deaf ears. Undeterred, she tries again when the Worshippers take the children to be sacrificed. Judith upbraids the people for forsaking Jehovah in favour of Moloch. The sacrifice is then interrupted by news of an invading army of Assyrians. They defeat the Jewish people and take Manasseh into captivity in Babylon.
Act II is preceded by a short Intermezzo in which the imprisoned Manasseh repents of his devotion to Moloch. As Act II opens, Manasseh returns to his people, having escaped. He joins Judith and Meshullemeth in singing what conductor William Vann describes as ‘a wonderful trio in praise of God.’ The enemy, Holofernes sends a messenger (the bass soloist) to threaten that unless Manasseh and his people submit to Holofernes he will raze Jerusalem to the ground. This is the point at which Judith saves her people, although how she does this is not depicted explicitly in the libretto. She enters the camp of Holofernes, seduces him and, while he sleeps, she slays him. After this, Holofernes’s army is routed and Israel rejoices.
Though the oratorio was taken up by a number of choral societies and music festivals after its premiere, it soon faded from view. For instance, despite Parry’s close ties with the Three Choirs Festival, the only performance of Judith that is listed in the authoritative book, The Three Choirs Festival. A History, took place in 1889, conducted by the composer. That was also the year in which, I understand, London last heard the work, in a performance conducted by Stanford. The Canadian conductor, Stephanie Martin has traced 16 UK performances after the Birmingham premiere, the last of which was in 1922. After that there was an amateur performance in South Wales in 1951 and there may have been a later student performance at the RCM conducted by Sir David Willcocks, with piano accompaniment, but that seems to be it. As we shall see, a Canadian performance in 2015 sparked new interest in the oratorio, but when I had the chance to discuss Judith with conductor William Vann the obvious first question to ask was why the work has been so long neglected in the UK.
He observed that Judith was popular at first with audiences, receiving performances in various parts of the country in its first few years. However, ‘it seems that it fell out of fashion, along with Parry’s music in general, shortly after his death. Without continuity of performance, it became harder and harder to resurrect it. In addition, the demands on the soloists are substantial.’ Unsurprisingly, Vann doesn’t feel that the neglect is justified. ‘It’s a wonderful piece, full of vigorous choruses, thrilling solo arias and one of the most wonderful of all Parry’s tunes: Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land, that became the famous hymn tune Repton – Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. It’s deeply Romantic and fills an often-ignored bridge between the oratorios of Mendelssohn and Elgar.’
I was keen to get an idea of what the listener can expect. The oratorio is scored for a quartet of soloists – SATB – mixed chorus and a fairly large orchestra. William Vann stressed how important it is to have the right soloists. ‘The four solo parts are comparable to those in major Romantic oratorios such as The Dream of Gerontius or Elijah. They require big voices and personalities to project rounded and developed characters: far tougher than the average oratorio solo. We are so lucky, and excited, to be working with four of the top soloists in the country in this field.’
Judith followed hot on the heels of Parry’s great Milton setting for chorus and orchestra, Blest Pair of Sirens. That’s a work that’s close to my heart: I’ve had the good fortune to sing it on many occasions and I never tire of it. I asked William Vann if the choral writing in Judith is on the same masterly level. ‘Yes, and interestingly I have recently heard of choral societies across the UK taking choruses out of Judith for performance alongside other choral works. The choruses are wild and dramatic: a perfect match for an energetic and thrilling libretto.’ Rehearsals have recently started, and I was cheered to learn from Vann that ‘everyone has been surprised by the quality of this work – and shocked it has been so neglected.’
I asked William Vann to pick out one or two highlights in the score. He singled out these: ‘The touchingly poignant scene [in Act I] with Meshullemeth and her Children is a particular highlight, though Judith’s arias are all sensationally vivid, Manasseh’s final aria [towards the end of Act II] God breaketh the battle is exhilarating, and the final chorus is immense.’ Having seen and heard a complete performance of Judith, of which more in a moment, I wouldn’t disagree with his choices but it’s worth adding that these are peaks in a work that is impressive overall and contains many memorable passages.
As I mentioned earlier, there was a performance of Judith in Toronto in May 2015, and that’s the one that I’ve enjoyed on YouTube. That performance, the work’s North America premiere, was given by a very good solo quartet and the excellent Pax Christi Chorale and Orchestra under their then-conductor, Stephanie Martin. During her time leading the choir, Stephanie championed a number of major English choral works, not least several by Elgar, but I asked her how the performance of Judith came about and what drew her to the score in the first place. It seems that her interest in the score came about almost by chance. One day, one of the baritones in her choir, knowing of her interest in Romantic English choral music, gave her an old leather-bound volume It was the vocal score of Judith and the music immediately engaged her full attention. ‘I studied the score, and then invited 20 singers over to my house to have a read-through. I needed my singers to be as excited about the work as I was, and thankfully, they adored it.’ Stephanie resolved to programme Judith in 2015. The hall and soloists were booked but the project nearly came to grief for one unexpected reason: the unavailability of performing materials. ‘We never dreamed it would be a problem acquiring the full score and instrumental parts for a piece by a composer as important as Parry. But no publisher could supply them.’ Nor did it prove possible to hire parts. Parry’s old College came to the rescue. ‘Thankfully we had great cooperation from the Royal College of Music in London who created a digital scan of Parry’s handwritten manuscript for us…then two graduate students at York University in Toronto, John-Luke Addison and Floydd Ricketts worked hundreds of hours to transcribe the score.’ I gather that Addison and Ricketts had no less than 400 pages of manuscript to transcribe; a massive undertaking. The full score and orchestral parts that resulted from all this devoted work were used for the Canadian performance and will be used again by William Vann and the London Mozart Players in the Royal Festival Hall.
With any piece of music, there are always two key tests: how performers embrace it and how audiences respond. Stephanie Martin was able to give an unequivocal answer on both counts. ‘[The singers’] enthusiasm for a work is essential for a quality performance and generates the ‘buzz’ necessary to attract an audience. The entire choir gave their thumbs up to Judith immediately after the first rehearsal. The choral parts are so masterfully and intuitively composed, it seemed like they had been singing this music all their lives. They also loved the drama of the piece. Along the lines of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, they were allowed to play the roles of both the good guys and the bad guys. Our audience embraced Judith. We sold out Koerner Hall in Toronto.’ I looked up the Koerner Hall, which is part of Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. It has a seating capacity of 1135, so clearly Parry’s oratorio attracted a big audience.
Stephanie Martin clearly has a unique perspective on Judith as the only musician who has conducted a full performance for decades. I asked her to sum up the oratorio. ‘Judith is a wonderful work that celebrates a (literally) un-sung, courageous, fiery, heroic female character of the Bible. She’s a figure often portrayed in historic visual art, but rarely given a platform on stage. My students and I learned so much about Parry’s orchestration as we transcribed, and gained such admiration for his work, living inside his manuscript for several months. We also began to appreciate that, had it not been for Parry, the future of English music would have looked very different, since he inspired an entire generation of composers, performers and educators. I’d recommend Judith for choral societies who love meaty chorus work, and for soloists who enjoy singing meaningful melodies in English. For the audience there are some spinetingling moments, like Judith’s high B flat – when she returns to her people, holding the severed head of Holofernes – that are unforgettable.’
I turned back to William Vann for the last word, not just about Judith but also about how Parry is regarded today. The centenary of his death in 2018 brought about some welcome extra interest in Parry’s music. There was a good number of performances of his works, including some unfamiliar ones, and also Michael Trott’s fascinating book Hubert Parry – A Life in Photographs was published. I suggested to William that it was high time there was a re-evaluation of Hubert Parry, not just as a composer but also as a key figure in British musical life in the period from 1880 until his death in 1918. His response was emphatic: ‘Certainly – I feel there has been a change in attitude in the last year. Although many performances in 2018 were of the old classics which everyone already knew, a few people started to go out on a limb – including the brilliant SOMM label, which released all Parry’s English Lyrics for the first time.’
The forthcoming performance of Judith can only help in that process. Excitingly, though, it won’t be a ‘one-night wonder’. In the days following the Royal Festival Hall concert the performers will make a commercial recording which Chandos plan to issue in 2020. That should surely bring Judith to the wider audience that it undoubtedly merits.
William Vann told me that the forthcoming performance is a project that was conceived as long ago as 2016. As he says, ‘putting together all the elements and fundraising from scratch has been a huge task!’ It is to be hoped, therefore, that he and his performers and sponsors – and Hubert Parry – will be rewarded with a large audience on 3 April.
There are a number of ways to learn more about Judith before the performance. There are a couple of trailers on YouTube. In one, Kathryn Rudge performs ‘Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land’. In the other, soprano Eleanor Dennis sings Judith’s Act 1 aria ‘Though into the valley of the shadow of death’. Miss Dennis was due to take part in the forthcoming performance but she’s been obliged to withdraw. Her place will be taken by another fine British soprano, Sarah Fox. If you’d like to experience more of the oratorio then you could do no better than to view Stephanie Martin’s excellent and highly committed performance of the complete work, which can be accessed online.
The forthcoming performance is being given under the auspices of the London English Song Festival. It’s the Festival’s most ambitious project since its foundation in 2011. A notable roster of soloists has been assembled: Sarah Fox (soprano), Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano), Toby Spence (tenor) and Henry Waddington (bass-baritone). Also taking part will be the Crouch End Festival Chorus and the London Mozart Players, all under the direction of William Vann.
The performance takes place at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 3 April 2019 and for further information and ticketing arrangements click here.