Born: 21 May 1841, Merthyr Tudful, Wales
Died: 17 February 1903 (aged 61), Penarth, Wales
Joseph Parry was born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1841, the third of five children to survive to adulthood. His father, who was illiterate, worked in the Cyfarthfa steel mill. The family was Welsh-speaking and faithful Annibynwyr (independents). They all sang and his mother is said to have had a very fine voice. In January 1853, his father emigrated to Danville, Pennsylvania where there was a flourishing expatriate Welsh community, and in the summer of 1854 called for his family to join him. The whole family took American citizenship.
Parry went to work in the same steel mill in Danville as his father. His interest in music rapidly grew and he took lessons in basic musical theory from local Welsh émigrés. He also developed a fine baritone voice and became a competent organist. In 1860 he submitted entries to two local eisteddfodau. Both entries won first prize. He submitted compositions by post to the National Eisteddfod in 1863 and 1864, winning numerous prizes and in 1865 travelled to Aberystwyth for the National Eisteddfod, where he was received into the Gorsedd of Bards.
With the help of funds raised by the Welsh-American community, Parry spent three years at the Royal Academy of Music from 1868 to 1871, winning the top prize for composition. He returned to Danville where he set up a music college.
In 1874, Parry was persuaded to return to Wales to take up the Chair of Music at the newly formed University College of Wales in Aberystwyth. It was during his seven years in Aberystwyth that his best known music was written – the eponymous hymn tune, the part-song Myfanwy , and the opera Blodwen .
There were a number of disagreements with the College authorities in Aberystwyth and in 1881, he moved to Swansea to take up the post of organist in Ebenezer chapel and to establish his own music college. In 1888 he moved again, to Cardiff, to take up a post of lecturer at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire, where he remained until his death in 1903. He continued to compose prolifically until his death and some of his best, though not his best-known, music was written in his later years. He remained as proud of his American citizenship as of his Welshness and visited America frequently.
Parry had five children, three sons and two daughters; all had some musical talent and the eldest, Joseph Haydn Parry, was a promising composer. Sadly, his father's years in Cardiff were blighted by the premature deaths of both Joseph Haydn and his youngest son Willie. His widow, Jane, lived on until 1918.
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The standard model for the publication of music in the 19th century was for the publisher to pay a flat, once only, fee to the composer, in return for the right to print and publish the work. In contrast to the present situation, the composer normally received no royalties from sales of the sheet music, hire of parts or performances.
The copyright regime in the latter half of the 19th century was very different from that obtaining today. The relevant legal provisions were those of the Dramatic Copyright Act 1833 and the Copyright Act of 1842. These continued in force until the Copyright Act of 1911, although two music copyright acts of 1882 and 1888 made some important and sensible modifications to the law. While the situation in detail is immensely complicated, very broadly, in modern terms, copyright extended for 42 years from the date of publication or until seven years after the death of the author, whichever is longer. Copyright protection however required that the copyright be registered with Stationers' Hall and asserted in the printed copies; it did not become automatic until the 1911 Act. In the absence of photocopiers, the difficulty of copying music meant that piracy was not too much of a problem.
There was some confusion over the right to perform a musical work. This was cleared up by the act of 1882, which stated that, if the owner of the copyright in musical composition wished to reserve the right to perform the work, then this must be stated on the printed work. In this context, it is interesting to note that on the front cover of Parry's song Y Melinydd (‘The Miller'), written around 1869 but not published until 1892, the publisher (Patey and Willis) specifically grants performance rights to anyone owning a copy. However, at four shillings (at least £18 in modern terms) for a copy of a six page song, the price seems to have been set at a level that would compensate for the lack of performance fees.
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Parry submitted compositions to the National Eisteddfod in 1863 and 1864 and achieved considerable success. His motet Gostwng, O Arglwydd Dy Glust (‘Lend Thine Ear, O Lord'), which won a first prize in the 1863 National Eisteddfod in Swansea, was published by Hughes a'i Fab in 1864(1), as part 20 of Y Gyfres Gerddorol Gymreig (‘The Welsh Musical Series').
(The publishing and printing firm of Hughes a'i Fab ( Hughes and Son ) had been established, in Wrexham, by Richard Hughes in 1824. His son Charles served an apprenticeship as a printer in London before joining the firm in 1848. By 1865, the firm had become the largest and best-known publisher of literature in Welsh and of Welsh music.)
In 1865, Parry decided not only to submit works but also to attend the eisteddfod, which was to be held in Aberystwyth. However, when he arrived he found that his entries, which had been sent by post, had not arrived. Nevertheless, he was afforded great honour at the Eisteddfod and one of the missing compositions was accepted for publication by Hughes a'i Fab, an act that showed considerable faith in the young composer's talent.
Parry wrote out the music for his four-part glee Ar Don o Flaen Gwyntoedd (‘On the Sea in the Face of the Winds') from memory – he had a tremendous musical memory – and sold it to Hughes in return for 500 copies, ‘feeling delighted with the great bargain ' according to his autobiography(2). Parry did quite well out of this deal. In Wales, Hughes a'i Fab were selling copies in staff notation at four pence each. Parry's 500 copies would have raised over £8(3) if sold at this price, a fairly generous fee. In practice, Parry would be selling them in the United States, where he would have a monopoly of the market and could probably sell them at a higher price.
In the long term, Hughes a'i Fab must also have made a considerable profit out of the gamble because the glee was reprinted many times and a revised version was produced that included a translation of the Welsh words and corrected a number of errors. This was the first of Parry's pieces to be published on its own, although a number had been printed in magazines. Publishing Ar Don o Flaen Gwyntoedd was a major coup for Parry, and by 1868 it was set as a test piece at the National Eisteddfod in Rhuthun.
A year after the publication of Ar Don o Flaen Gwyntoedd , Hughes published Parry's anthem Achub Fi o Dduw (‘Save me O Lord'), which had won the second anthem prize at the Llandudno National Eisteddfod in 1864 – Parry had also won the first prize but Hughes chose to publish the second prize winner.
For the next few years, Hughes a'i Fab seem to have been Parry's preferred publisher. In 1871 they had published a collection of six of Parry's anthems, as his opus 9; these were republished many times. They subsequently published some fifteen of his anthems and songs, as well as some arrangements of Welsh airs. They seemed to have had a near-monopoly on Parry's work up to 1876, when they published his song Y Bachgen Dewr (‘The Brave Boy') as his opus 19 no 1. One or two of his songs were, however, published in America during this period – the song Yr Ehedydd (‘The Lark'), which was published by his brother-in-law, Gomer Thomas, who was the proprietor of a music shop in Danville and Cymry Glan Americ (‘The Fine Welshmen of America'), which was composed in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, in January 1872 and printed in Utica, New York state, by T J Griffiths.
Another more significant exception to Hughes a'i Fab's near monopoly of Parry's work occurred in 1875, when a series of six vocal pieces by Parry were published by Isaac Jones of Treherbert(4). Isaac Jones came originally from Pentre Dafis in the parish of Cynwil Gaeo, in that rather empty part of Carmarthenshire that lies between Lampeter and Llanymddyfri. He was a blacksmith turned printer and publisher in Treherbert, a man of considerable entrepreneurial talent, who saw in music publishing a promising commercial opportunity. Jones had paid Parry £12 (£928 adjusted for RPI but also one twentieth of his annual salary as Professor of Music) for the pieces. Four of them were settings of words by the Welsh poet and friend of Parry, Mynyddog. One of these was Myfanwy , the part song that came to symbolise the Welsh male voice choir tradition all over the world. Another was the successful anthem Pebyll yr Arglwydd (‘The Tabernacles of the Lord'). The six pieces were published as a series entitled Telyn Cymry . [ sic: s hould be either Telyn y Cymry (‘The Harp of the Welsh') or Telyn Cymru (‘The Harp of Wales') . ] There is evidence that seems to suggest that Jones was actively pursuing Parry and Mynyddog, doubtless seeing publication of something like Telyn Cymry as a way of boosting both his sales and his reputation as a music publisher, as indeed it did(5).
The scores of Telyn Cymry reveal a number of interesting details. For example, in the score of number 4 in the series, the vocal quartet Y Cychod ar yr Afon (‘The Boats on the River') we observe:
it was not a new song but had been written in 1865 and had been the winner at an unknown eisteddfod in America;
Jones describes himself as a printer (‘argraffydd') rather than a publisher (‘cyhoeddwr');
the song is number 4 in the series according to the footers but appears to be only one of three published by that date according to the back page;
there is no statement of copyright in the normal way but under the list of works advertised on the back page there are the words Mae Geiriau y Caneuon uchod wedi eu Registro (‘The words of the songs above have been registered');
the price (4d) is the equivalent of £1.31 today, using the RPI.
Jones died in 1899 but the company carried on publishing well into the 20th century. Its copyrights were acquired by D J Snell of Swansea in 1930 and he republished Myfanwy in 1931.
Although Parry used Jones as a printer on later occasions, this was the only occasion on which Jones published any of Parry's works.
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In 1878, Parry completed his opera, Blodwen . The first (and only) grand opera in Welsh, it was to prove a great success, clocking up over 500 performances in Parry's lifetime.
Parry decided to publish Blodwen himself, a practice that he followed with many subsequent works.
The most obvious course would have been to approach Hughes a'i Fab but their publishing policy was driven by commercial considerations(6) and it is unlikely that the firm would have wanted to take on a project of the magnitude of Blodwen . The longest of Parry's works Hughes a'i Fab published was Cantata y Plant (‘The Children's Cantata'), at forty-four pages substantially shorter than Blodwen and a great deal simpler. They had not published any music of the size and complexity of Blodwen before; they would have had to subcontract the printing and the cost of doing that would have been substantial; and they could have had no idea whether there would be a market for the work.
There was perhaps one other Welsh publisher who might have taken on Blodwen. William Hughes of Dolgellau published a great deal of congregational music, as well as, in 1886, Tanymarian's oratorio Ystorm Tiberias (‘The Storm on Lake Tiberias'), a score of 137 pages. (The first edition of Blodwen runs to 156 pages.) In any case he was a chapel deacon and, even if he had thought that publishing Blodwen was commercially and technically viable, he might well have been unwilling to be involved in publishing such a work. Much of nonconformist Wales regarded the theatre with horror and put it morally on a par with alehouses and brothels. Blodwen caused much controversy in Wales, a fact that may have contributed to its commercial success.
It is unlikely that Novello or Boosey or any other English publisher would have been prepared to take the risk of publishing Blodwen . Novello had published Parry's Maesgarmon , a fantasia for piano, as his opus 24, in 1875, and were subsequently to publish Nebuchadnezzar and Ceridwen , as well as some shorter works. But choral works in English were one thing, operas in Welsh quite another. The only operas by native British composers to have achieved commercial success in the previous fifty years were the operas of Balfe and, to a lesser extent, Wallace, both Irishmen deeply immersed in the Italian operatic tradition. Regardless of the merits of the work, an opera in Welsh, by a Welsh composer, would not have seemed commercially attractive.
There is, however, nothing to suggest that Parry approached any of these firms, whether because he realised that there was little likelihood that they would agree to publish the opera or because he felt that he would be better off financially publishing it himself.
In contrast to composers, it was common for Welsh authors to retain the copyright in their works, simply paying the printing costs and then taking on the responsibility of distributing and selling the work – printers were reluctant to run any risk and preferred to leave the responsibility for publishing a work to the author. It was common practice for Nonconformist ministers with a reputation for preaching to publish books of their sermons and then arrange extended preaching tours, selling copies of their books after the service(7). It may well be that Parry saw this as a model that he could profitably adopt.
The practical difficulty for the composer of a work of the size of Blodwen was that the work had to be printed and paid for before it could be sold. This meant that the composer needed access to a considerable amount of capital – the cost of printing a work like Blodwen was far higher than the cost of printing a book of sermons. The solution Parry adopted was the traditional one of inviting individuals or organisations to subscribe, that is, to pay in advance to receive copies of the work. Some 230 subscribers are listed in the first edition of Blodwen ; allowing for some ordering of multiple copies, this amounted to 262 copies.
Parry tells us in his autobiography that the cost of printing Blodwen was £400. It is by no means clear what this figure covers and, anyway, we know that Parry's memory was unreliable. The work was available in three types of binding – paper covers, cloth boards and extra cloth, with gilt edges. The prices were 5 shillings, 7 shillings and 10 shillings and 6 pence respectively for staff notation copies, and 2 shillings, 3 shillings and 6 pence, and 5 shillings for sol-fa copies. Sol-fa would have been much more popular than staff notation; almost certainly no more than 20 per cent of copies would have been in staff notation. We can expect that subscribers would all have subscribed for the luxury binding, so that we can estimate the income from subscriptions as £78. If we assume sales of 500 board, staff notation copies and 2,500 paper, sol-fa copies, this would have produced a profit of around a £100. Given the success of Blodwen , it is likely that, in the long run, sales substantially exceeded this and that consequently it earned Parry a lot of money. However, we know from correspondence regarding projected performances of Blodwen(8) that in 1878 and 1879 he was having to sell copies at half price and that there were severe financial problems with some of the productions.
Parry wrote a total of ten operas but Blodwen was the only one to be published complete. The only other to achieve popular success was Arianwen and it is surprising that it was never published. Given the success of Blodwen and the fact that, according to an article in the Western Mail in April 1897, Arianwen had by then received 116 performances, it might have been expected that a publisher would readily have been found. We do not know whether Parry tried unsuccessfully to find a publisher or whether he decided that it would be more profitable to restrict performances. The result, however, was that performers could not easily obtain copies and individual items from the work were not therefore performed. In the event, the failure to publish may well have been the main factor that led to such a successful work being so quickly forgotten. A sol-fa edition of the choruses was eventually published by Snell in 1931
Although Parry never attempted to publish another opera himself, he continued to publish substantial choral works – Emmanuel , Nebuchadnezzar , Joseph , and Caradog all appeared over a Parry imprint – as well as many shorter pieces. The music published by Parry and his sons carries a variety of imprints – ‘J. Parry & Son' (the commonest), ‘J. Parry & Sons', ‘J. Parry & Co', ‘J. Parry', and ‘D. M. Parry'. The place of publication appears as Aberystwyth (or, in a number of cases, Aberystwith), Swansea or Penarth. Nebuchadnezzar is particularly interesting in this regard because the sol-fa edition appears over the imprint ‘Swansea: J. Parry and Sons' but the staff notation edition has the imprint ‘Novello, Ewer and Co. London and New York; Swansea: J. H. Parry'. The J. H. Parry in question would presumably have been Joseph Haydn Parry, Joseph Parry's eldest son.
From 1890 onwards, Parry seems to have been less keen to publish his music himself. In 1891, however, he published the third movement of his orchestral suite Three Tone Statuettes, the only instrumental work he published himself.
In one respect at least, Parry's decision to publish his work himself proved to be wise. In 1916, D J Snell, the Swansea music publisher, bought from Jane Parry the stock and copyrights of the works Parry published himself, for £1150(9). Simply adjusted for RPI, the most conservative way of estimating present-day worth, this was the equivalent of £63,980 today and must have made a lot of difference to Jane's financial position. Snell had already, in 1910, acquired the stock and copyrights of the Swansea music publisher, Benjamin Parry (no relation to Joseph), which included the cantata Joseph and the two anthems that Parry composed for the visit to Swansea of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1881. During the interwar years Snell reprinted many of Parry's better-known pieces and many of these are still available from Snell and Sons today.
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By the 1890s, Parry's reputation led to many of his works being produced as a result of commissions. His oratorio Saul of Tarsus , commissioned for the National Eisteddfod in Rhyl in 1891, is perhaps his greatest work. It is largely free from the faults that mar many of his other works and shows Parry at his creative best. Early performances of the work, including one in Newcastle-on-Tyne, were well received but the work was too difficult for most choral societies and it never established itself in the repertoire. Its publication was a massive task, since the vocal score runs to 305 pages. It was published by Patey and Willis of London, in 1891. It's not at all clear why they should have published the work. The only other work by Parry that they are known to have published was the song Y Melinydd , mentioned earlier. John Patey had been a distinguished operatic bass before turning to music publishing and he was married to Janet Monach Patey, a famous English contralto – not to be confused with Adelina Patti – but there is no obvious connection with Parry. However Madame Patey was a member of the Gorsedd of Bards and had performed at Eisteddfodau – certainly at Carmarthen in 1867 and Wrexham in 1876 and probably on other occasions – so it may well be that this connection was sufficient to cause the National Eisteddfod Committee to select Patey and Willis as publishers. This may also have been the case for the cantata Cambria , published by D Trehearn of Rhyl in 1896, and Iesu o Nazareth , published in Caernarfon by the Welsh National Press Company, although both of these publishers also published a number of other shorter pieces by Parry.
In the early 1890s, the Edinburgh company of T. C. and E. C. Jack, commissioned Parry, along with Dewi Môn, to produce a collection of Welsh national songs under the title Cambrian Minstrelsie as a companion set to the company's Scots Minstrelsie . The six volumes were published in hard covers, with coloured illustrati ons. Although a number of collections of Welsh national songs had appeared during the course of the nineteenth century, this was the richest in both form and content . As well as traditional songs, the volumes included a number of Parry's own songs .
In 1895, the John Church Company, an American music publisher with offices in New York, Cincinnati and Chicago, published a number of songs by Parry. Included were seven English translations of poems by Heine. The translations were by respectable poets including the 19th century Scots poet James Thomson (not to be confused with the 18th century Scots poet James Thomson, he of The Season ). Since it is very unlikely that Parry had any previous acquaintance with Heine's poetry, this suggests that someone from the Church company had perhaps met Parry during the long and successful visit that he and his wife had paid to Pennsylvania the year before, and had commissioned the songs from him. Ohio and Pennsylvania had substantial populations of German origin and interest in German culture was high.
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By now, it is evident that Parry used a large number of different publishers to publish his music but how does his behaviour in this respect compare with other English and Welsh composers?
Some English composers were fairly loyal to their publishers. Elgar's early works were published by Schott but he soon turned to Novello and famously stayed with them for the rest of his life. The ‘other Parry' [Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, 1848-1918] – he of Jerusalem , Blest Pair of Sirens , and I was Glad – was, largely, faithful to Novello throughout his career but even he used other publishers on occasions – Breitkopf und Härtel for incidental music to various Greek plays, Boosey for a set of songs, and a number of minor publishers. Stanford, on the other hand, used all the major English publishers, as well as publishers in Germany and America. And, while the Savoy operas were all published by Chappell, who specialised in music theatre, Sullivan's other works were published by a wide variety of publishers. From an earlier generation, Sterndale Bennett, who taught Parry composition at the Royal Academy and was almost certainly responsible for persuading Novello to publish Maesgarmon , used Novello to publish his choral works but had his instrumental works published in Germany.
Turning to Wales, we see that the larger part of the oeuvre of Gwilym Gwent (William Aubrey Williams, 1834-1891) was published either by Hughes a'i Fab or Isaac Jones, but at least another eight publishers published at least one of his works. In addition, a number of his pieces appeared as supplements to Y Cerddor and other magazines, while others appeared with no publisher's name. To some extent the number of publishers involved may be due to his spending the last 20 years of his life in America but he was by no means as prolific a composer as Parry. Even Tanymarian (Edward Stephen (Jones), 1822-1885), who composed many fewer pieces than Gwilym Gwent and lived all his life in Wales, used eight different publishers.
In the latter half of the 19th century, England had a significant number of publishers dedicated to classical music – Novello, Boosey, Chappell, Augener (founded in London by a German immigrant) and many smaller and more ephemeral companies; foreign publishers such as Schott were also very active there. Typically they were founded by musicians and they employed editors who could read a score and were capable of making intelligent, if not always correct, decisions about whether a work merited publication, whether on grounds of intrinsic merit or likely sales.
The only firms of any size specialising in music publication in Wales in that period were Hughes a'i Fab and Isaac Jones. Their target market was Wales, which meant vocal music, largely on Welsh texts.
Parry was the only Welsh composer of the period whose music had any significant impact outside Wales and the Welsh diaspora and that impact, though real, was limited. Publishing his own work jointly with Novello, as was the case with the cantata Nebuchadnezzar , was probably the best (and most profitable) way of getting his music performed. But Novello had no interest in settings of Welsh text.
All of this suggests that Parry was not unusual among composers in the range of publishers he used. There were probably three factors that affected his decisions on publication.
First, he was a generous man and he liked to say yes. In many cases, he was approached by publishers wanting to publish works by him and he liked to comply. It seems pretty likely that this was the case with Isaac Jones, we know it was the case with the Jack brothers, and it is very likely to have been the case with the John Church Company.
Secondly, there was force of circumstance. He had to publish Blodwen himself because no one else would.
Finally, there was finance. Although he earned quite well from his teaching appointments, his eisteddfod work, his conducting, and so on, Parry had five children to bring up and he was generous. While one would not call him extravagant, he needed as much money as he could get. He would accept offers that looked profitable and he made money by publishing himself.
All this having being said, it remains the case that some of the small amount of Parry's correspondence that survives shows signs of a tetchiness that may have made him a difficult man to work with and may have led him to change publishers frequently. While one might perhaps have expected that Y Doctor Mawr , buoyed up by pride in his achievements and status, might be sensitive to treatment that failed to accord him due respect, it is, surprisingly, as evident early in his career as later.
3. In terms of the retail price index (RPI), to buy what could be bought for £8 in 1865 you would now need £628. In terms of average earnings, it would have taken the average person 10 weeks to earn £8; in 10 weeks today, the average person earns around £5000. Modern equivalents in this paper are calculated in terms of the RPI, calculated using the Measuring Worth web site of the Economic History Association, but it should be borne in mind that in many ways this undervalues the original sums.
5. There is a fascinating article by Rhidian Griffiths on the history of Myfanwy, called Genedigaeth Myfanwy , in Yr Aradr, the journal of Cymdeithas Dafydd ap Gwilym, the Oxford University Welsh Society. The article is based on a talk given to the Society.
9. Rhidian Griffiths, ‘Swansea's “Mr. Music”: the career of D. J. Snell, music publisher', Y Llyfr yng Nghymru: Welsh Book Studies 1 (1998), pp 59–90 National Library of Wales. Available on the website of the National Library.
I'm sure the name of Joseph Parry will be familiar to most of you, if only because of the Joseph Parry Hall in Laura Place. But for those of you who are not quite sure who he was or why I should be talking about him, the best thing I can say is that he was the composer of the hymn tune, Aberystwyth , which has carried the name of this town across most of the English-speaking world. The tune was written by Parry, when he was Professor of Music here, indeed, the first professor of Music in Wales. It was first sung in 1879 in the English Congregational Chapel in Portland Street, which is now the Church Surgery and on the front of which the Civic Society has placed a plaque commemorating the occasion.
You may also be familiar with Joseph Parry from the television mini-series shown in 1983. This was an adaptation of a biographical novel about Parry, written by the Anglo-Welsh novelist, Jack Jones, from the Rhondda, called “Off to Philadelphia in the Morning”. It starred David Lyn as Joseph Parry and Siân Phillips as Myfanwy Llywellyn, Parry's childhood sweetheart (according to Jack Jones) who became a famous opera singer. It is a very enjoyable novel and was a great success on television. Unfortunately, although Jack Jones never claimed the work was anything other than a fictionalised biography, much of what he invented has become generally accepted as true.
Another source of error and confusion is that there were two British composers called Parry active in the latter half of the 19th century. Hubert Parry was seven years younger than Joseph Parry. He became Director of the Royal College of Music and Professor of Music at Oxford. Like Joseph Parry, his popular fame rests on a single hymn tune, in his case Jerusalem . Unlike Joseph, whose father was an illiterate steelworker, Hubert came from a family of minor landed gentry; he was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge and married the daughter of an Earl. The journalistic confusion between Joseph and Hubert goes back to at least the 1880s and the world wide web is simply the latest medium to perpetuate it.
Most of this talk is going to be about Parry's seven years in Aberystwyth, from 1874 to 1881 but first let me give you a brief overview of his life before he came here.
Joseph was born in Merthyr Tydfil, then very much the largest town in Wales, in 1841. His father, Daniel, came from just south of Cardigan and his mother, Beti, from Kidwelly. She had come to Merthyr at the age of 11 as maid to the splendidly named Rev Methuselah Jones. Joseph was the third of five children to reach adulthood; three others seem to have died as babies.
The family were Annibynwyr (literally Independents, but the Welsh equivalent of Congregationalists), and Joseph was to adhere faithfully to the denomination – and to teetotalism – throughout his life. It was a musical family: they all sang in the chapel choir, Joseph joining as an alto at the age of eight. But he was no prodigy – at that time, although he had a good voice and could hold a part, he couldn't read music. It was also very much a Welsh-speaking family – much of Merthyr was still Welsh-speaking at the time.
Joseph learned to read and write in English at the school provided by the Crawshays, the owners of the steel works where his father worked, and he would have learned to read and write Welsh in Sunday School. But at the age of nine he started work down the mines, earning half a crown for a 56 hour week. By the time he was 12, he had moved to the steelworks where he worked as a ‘puddler's boy'. By this time he was singing in a prize-winning choir, that performed such works as The Messiah , Haydn's Creation and Mozart's Requiem , but he still couldn't read music.
In late 1852, Daniel Parry decided to join the many people who were emigrating to America in the hope of finding a better life. He sailed from Cardiff in January 1853 and the family followed in the summer of 1854.
Daniel had settled in Danville, Pennsylvania, a steel-making town and Joseph, his father and his brother all worked in the town's steel mill. Many of the population had emigrated from Wales and Welsh was widely spoken; there was an Annibynwyr Chapel, which the family joined.
It was in Danville that Joseph began to have his first serious music lessons, from two enthusiastic amateur musicians who had emigrated from Wales. By 1860, when he was 19, he had made enough progress to submit two pieces, a ‘Temperance Vocal March' and a hymn tune, to local eisteddfodau, where both of them won prizes. It was at this time, also, that he first learned to play an instrument; this was a melodeon, a portable organ, which was bought for him by the chapel.
In 1861, Parry fell in love with and married Jane Thomas, a Danville girl of Welsh extraction. Parry's mother apparently opposed the match because Jane spoke little Welsh and it meant Joseph moving from the Welsh-language Annibynwyr Chapel to the (more fashionable) English-language Mahoning Presbyterian Church.
Parry continued to win prizes in local eisteddfodau in Pennsylvania and New York State, and in 1863 he was encouraged to send compositions to the National Eisteddfod in Swansea, where he carried off a raft of prizes. In particular, his entries in the competition to compose an anthem won both first and second prizes, a total of £15. The financial value of these prizes should not be underestimated – all told, the prizes he won at Swansea amounted to more than £25, as much as a skilled working man could earn in three or four months.
He had similar success at the National Eisteddfod in Llandudno in 1864 and resolved to attend the 1865 eisteddfod in Aberystwyth in person. Sadly, his entries to the Aberystwyth Eisteddfod never arrived but, on the strength of his success in previous years, he was made a member of the Gorsedd of Bards, with the bardic title of Pencerdd America, Master Musician of America.
As a result of his eisteddfod successes, the well-connected journalist, John Griffith (Gohebydd), caused a public subscription fund to be set up to enable Parry to study at the Royal Academy of Music, which he attended between 1868 and 1871, winning its highest award. He was very proud that, during this period, he was awarded a Bachelor of Music degree by the University of Cambridge.
(At that time, music degrees were essentially external 1 degrees that were viewed as professional qualifications. Universities did not teach music. To obtain a BMus degree from Cambridge a candidate sat an exam – four papers – and submit a setting of biblical words for voices and orchestra. The examinations were by no means easy. Out of the seven candidates for the degree when Parry sat, four were unsuccessful.)
On leaving the Royal Academy, Parry returned to Danville, where he set up a private music school or, as he preferred it to be known, a ‘musical institute'. He remained in Danville for the next three years.
The University College of Wales, Aberystwyth had been opened in 1872 and by 1874, it was looking for a professor of music. It was Gohebydd who suggested that Joseph would be a suitable person for the new post. He was duly appointed and took up his post on 1st October 1874.
For most of their time in Aberystwyth, the family lived in a house in St David's Road. The house is the left hand one of the pair of large semi-detached houses on the left, immediately before the gates of what was Ardwyn School and later Penweddig. It is now called ‘Glanbrenig' and the Civic Society recently placed a plaque on the house.
It was during his time in Aberystwyth that Parry composed his three greatest popular successes: the already mentioned hymn tune, Aberystwyth , the part song, Myfanwy , a staple of the Welsh male voice choir repertoire, and the opera Blodwen . The words for both Myfanwy and Blodwen were written by his friend the Welsh poet Mynyddog (Richard Davies), from Llanbrynmair, who sadly died in 1877 at the age of 44, before having the chance to hear Blodwen .
Indeed, 1877 was a very sad year for Parry because it saw not only the death of Mynyddog but also the deaths of Gohebydd and fellow musician, Ieuan Gwyllt.
Myfanwy was one of six pieces by Parry that Isaac Jones of Treherbert published in 1875; Parry was paid a total of £12 for all the rights – he never earned another penny from Myfanwy . The song was first performed on 21 May 1875, Parry's 34 th birthday, at the opening concert of the Aberystwyth and University Musical Society, a society founded on Parry's initiative.
Parry had seen operas in London and in Philadelphia and enjoyed them. He decided that the people of Wales should have an opera of their own, in Welsh.
Opera in Wales was very much of a rarity at that time. English touring companies made occasional visits to Llandudno and Swansea but otherwise it was unknown.
Very few people in Wales – and possibly no one in Aberystwyth except Parry – had ever seen an opera. Indeed, most people had no idea what to expect at an opera.
Blodwen is set in Wales at the beginning of the 15th century. Its plot is improbable and historically wildly inaccurate; there are serious weaknesses in its dramatic structure; and the music is derivative. Such weaknesses, however, do not necessarily prevent an opera from being successful. There was a growing cultural nationalism in Wales at the time and a grand opera, full of good tunes, in Welsh and based on Welsh history, was just what Wales wanted. Blodwen proved an outstanding success and had notched up around 500 performances by the time Parry died in 1903. I suspect that, apart from the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, it was the most successful British opera of the 19 th century, an accolade for which, of course, there is no great competition. The opera as a whole has now fallen out of favour but a few of the arias and choruses remain favourites in Wales and are regularly sung at concerts and as competition pieces at eisteddfodau.
Blodwen was first publicly performed on 21 May 1878 in the Temperance Hall – this hall stood, I think, on the corner of Queen's Road and North Parade and was the main venue for concerts in Aberystwyth at that time. Because of the general ignorance of what constituted an opera, it was felt necessary to put some explanation into the programme – that the singers would be dressed in costumes representing the characters but that they would not be acting, because the idea of acting was found offensive by many nonconformists. Indeed, theatres were held to be as much dens of iniquity as taverns and brothels.
That was the first public performance of Blodwen. However, there was a private performance of parts of the work earlier in the year in a Freemasons concert.
Parry had joined the Freemasons in Danville early in 1867, in the Mahoning Lodge. He does not seem to have been active as a mason during his period at the Royal Academy but he became a member of the Aberystwyth Lodge in 1876, 18 months after taking up the chair in Aberystwyth, and was appointed organist of the Lodge. The Lodge met at the Belle Vue Hotel at this time.
In 1878 Parry wrote to W R Williams:
...it was in the Lodge's Complimentary Concert to me for acting as Organist to our lodge that Blodwen was first performed so that it was the masons brought out my important work.
It is interesting that, as well as Myfanwy , the six songs that Parry sold to Isaac Jones of Treherbert in 1875 included one with Masonic overtones, Ysgydwad y Llaw (The Handshake), with words by Mynyddog .
Parry paid his final dues as a member of Aberystwyth Lodge in 1880. He does not appear to have joined a Lodge again after leaving Aberystwyth. The reason for this may have been pressure of work and the amount of time he spent away from home, conducting and adjudicating. Another view might be that he felt he was well enough known to have no further need of support from the Brotherhood but I don't think this is the case. Parry was somewhat naïve and sentimental and totally lacking in this kind of cynicism.
Blodwen proved instrumental in changing narrow minded attitudes to the theatre in Wales.
In 1890, the Pall Mall Gazette (no less!) reported
The Rev. F. C. Spurr, pastor of the English Baptist church, Cardiff, before commencing his sermon last night, said he wished to enter a solemn protest against the recent productions at the Theatre Royal of the Welsh operas of Dr. Parry—namely, ‘Arianwen' and ‘Blodwen.' With the operas themselves and the composer he had nothing to do, but he protested emphatically against daughters of officers of Nonconformist churches taking part in such performances. The principals and chorus were, he understood, drawn mainly from the Christian churches in Cardiff. One of them was the daughter of a Congregational minister, one the daughter of a Church of England clergyman, two or three were daughters of deacons, and a number were members of church choirs. It was a hideous spectacle, that of people who pretended to be Christians going to the theatre to amuse people they ought to try and convert. In a short time, he would have left Cardiff, but he washed his hands of the matter, and protested against the inconsistency manifested.
The Western Mail itself reported Spurr's speech at length and then, at even greater length, reported on the views of individual Nonconformist ministers who had seen the production and attacked the puritan attitudes of Spurr and those like him. It carried interviews with members of the chorus, all of them pillars of the church or the chapel, who asserted firmly that they had seen no signs of profanity or depravity during the production. In a powerful editorial, it welcomed the productions as an important step forward for Wales: “In one short week we have seen the old prejudice against the theatre visibly melting, prim Nonconformists joining with their more latitudinarian neighbours in seeking instruction and amusement from the stage. The Puritanism which has for two centuries held the Principality spell-bound has at last given way under the kindly influences of the Welsh national opera.”
Shortly after completing Blodwen , Parry decided to sit for a doctorate in Music. The requirements for being awarded a doctorate in music from Cambridge were similar to those for the Mus.Bac. he had obtained in 1871, that is, registering with the University, sitting an examination, and composing a substantial work – usually a sacred cantata – for voices and orchestra. But unlike the Mus.Bac. degree, the doctoral composition – the cantata Jerusalem in Parry's case (nothing to do with Hubert Parry's Jerusalem , of course) – also had to be performed. Despite the expense, Parry decided to take Blodwen as well as Jerusalem on tour through Wales and England including Cambridge for the doctoral performance. Twenty students from Aberystwyth as well as ‘The Welsh Representative Choir' from South Wales took part in the tour. Its high points were the performance of Jerusalem in King's College Chapel in Cambridge and the performance two days later of Jerusalem and Blodwen at the Alexandra Palace in London. The Western Mail carried a very full report of the Cambridge performance and the degree ceremony that followed it. The tour was a musical success but a financial loss for Joseph Parry, costing £800 to stage but with takings amounting to only a little over £550, although the members of the choir subsequently raised another £100 from a benefit concert.
Parry was immensely – perhaps excessively – proud of his Cambridge doctorate of music but we must acknowledge that it was no mean achievement for the son of an illiterate Welsh steelworker. And the experience of conducting his own cantata in the magnificent surroundings of King's College Chapel before such luminaries as Sir George Macfarran and Oscar Browning must have been mind-blowing.
The College in Aberystwyth seems to have taken no note of Parry's achievement, although it made him not only by far the best-known member of its staff but also by far the best qualified academically.
I want to turn now to Parry's relationship with the College and why it was that he resigned his chair.
The fundamental problem was a conflict of expectations. Parry's experience of institutional higher education in music was limited to the Royal Academy of Music – it could hardly have been otherwise, since this was the only institution in Britain that offered such education. Three important features of life at the RAM were:
the courses were primarily intended to produce performers not academics;
concerts by students and staff were an intrinsic part of the Academy's activities;
professors were expected to be professionally active as performers or composers outside the Academy. Parry's salary in Aberystwyth was £250 per year; this was a lot less than the £450 per year he'd been earning in Danville. He expected to be able to make up the difference from professional engagements – adjudicating, conducting, performing, so this was important to him.
In contrast, the College Council in Aberystwyth saw the primary job of the Music Department as producing music teachers. While it would – and did – take pride in the occasional showcase concert, it shared the distaste, widespread in Wales and provincial England, for what was perceived as ostentation. It was acceptable for professors to preach occasional sermons or write a scholarly article (though few did). But it was not acceptable for a professor and his students to go gallivanting (insofar as transport in Wales at the time allowed any travel speedy enough to be described as gallivanting) around Wales giving concerts. And it conceived of the relationship between the College and its professors as similar to that between a school and its teachers.
The Music Department, from the beginning, was different from the other departments in the College in two ways. First, students could be admitted to the College to study music only. Students taking subjects other than music were required to study more than one subject. And secondly, women were admitted to study music but it would not be until ten years later – still very early in the history of higher education for women – that they were admitted to read other subjects. These conditions, along with Parry's personal reputation, led to a flood of music students and to the risk that the College might become primarily a music college.
The problem was exacerbated by the College's financial problems. Funding to found the College had all come from charitable donations and the College was not receiving any grant from the Government. The income from student fees was not sufficient to cover the running costs of the College so it was dependent on donations even for its day-to-day operations. The fees could not be raised because the students would not be able to afford them. Press criticism, particularly in the Cambrian News , was making it increasingly difficult to raise money from the public to cover the running costs and the request for a government grant for the College had just been refused.
As a result, in the summer of 1878, the appointments of three other professors were terminated. There were doubts about the ability of all three and it proved possible to replace each of them with competent men at lower salaries.
Parry was not treated in this way. The minutes of the College Council meeting of 29 July 1878 state that it was decided:
“that Dr. Parry should retain his Professorship . . . . Dr Parry would be free to give . . . teaching, of a public or private nature, at Aberystwyth or elsewhere, . . .outside the walls of the College . . . during the Sessions of the College Dr. Parry should not give, nor professionally attend concerts in Aberystwyth or in its immediate neighbourhood.”
This was the culmination of a series of unfortunate events that had begun almost as soon as Parry crossed the threshold of the College. The restrictions were not the result of a sudden decision on the part of the Council but its final answer to a situation that had been smouldering since his arrival. The Council recognised that Professor Parry ‘has discharged his functions with zeal and ability . . . but that the interests of the College in its primary and essential objects should render this modification necessary.' However, Parry was by no means blameless, for he gave more attention to other activities – ones that brought more glory to him personally than to the College – than to his main job of running the music department.
On the face of things this was by no means ungenerous. Parry would be allowed to retain his professorship and to augment his professorial stipend with outside teaching, as much as he wished. However, Parry was primarily a practising musician – singer, organist, conductor and composer – rather than an academic musician. He was being asked to give up the things that he most enjoyed and, with the loss of the music students, the thing that he saw as his mission in Wales. It may be, of course, that the Council realised this perfectly well and intended to force his resignation, but it is more likely that its members simply did not understand Parry.
He resigned from the post in 1880.
For the brief period after his resignation, when he was trying to run a music college here, he moved to a larger house at 16 Llanbadarn Road. This was the house that became the Urdd Gobaith Cymru [a Welsh-language youth organization] headquarters, which was recently demolished to make way for new flats. In 1881, he was persuaded to move to Swansea to become organist at Ebenezer chapel and to establish a music college there.
Then, in 1888, he was offered the lectureship in Music at the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (now Cardiff University). He went to live in Penarth [a coastal town to the south], whence he commuted into Cardiff by train, just as many people do today. He held that post and lived in Penarth until his death in 1903. He was buried with great pomp in the churchyard of St Augustine's Church, Penarth.
During the last two decades of the 19 th century, Joseph Parry became not only the best-known musician in Wales but probably the most widely known of all contemporary Welshmen. As a cymanfa ganu [a Welsh hymn-singing festival] conductor, an eisteddfod adjudicator, a lecturer, a singer and an organist, he was in great demand across the whole of Wales and in America. As a journalist, his regular articles in the Cardiff Times and South Wales Weekly News appeared in the centre of the front page, and he was also a regular contributor to the Western Mail. He held American citizenship and was as proud of this as of his Welshness; in the 1880s and 1890s he made a number of lengthy trips to the United States, giving concerts and lectures across much of the country.
Above all, he was known for his music. He gave the Welsh people the music they wanted and they responded by performing it frequently and enthusiastically.
Hubert Parry, for example, gained the degree of Mus.Bac. from Oxford while he was still a schoolboy at Eton.