Omar F. Miranda
University of San Francisco
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848–1918) is best known today for “Jerusalem,” the song he composed in 1916 based on the verse preface of William Blake’s epic poem, Milton. What initially circulated as an inspirational tune during the World War I era eventually became a public sensation. Parry’s musical adaptation rose in popularity as a church hymn and then more broadly as the unofficial national anthem in the United Kingdom. Today one can find performances of it virtually anywhere—from official British state ceremonies to sporting events such as cricket matches; it is, in fact, recognized as the “anthem of English cricket.” According to a BBC podcast from October 2016, the song is “held in the hearts and memories of people from different backgrounds and cultures” (Gregor).
For Parry, setting the poetry of the British Romantics to his own original music appeared to be a calling. Some four decades earlier during his years of study at Oxford University, he was steeped in the writings of Samuel Coleridge, Percy Shelley, and John Keats.  In 1880, he completed a musical adaptation of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, a fitting poetic choice for an orchestral choral cantata that spoke to Parry’s radical political commitments at the time. As Parry’s biographer, Jeremy Dibble, has noted, “in the summer of 1879 [Parry] had returned to the re-reading of Shelley, whose poetry he had read avidly as a student at Oxford, and found that the radical ideology of Prometheus Unbound chimed with his present political, aesthetic and musical state of mind” (289). Indeed, Parry’s composition was a progressive piece of music that marked the start of a renaissance in English musical history. Parry’s adaptation is regarded as extraordinarily avant-garde and experimental, especially given its many Wagnerian influences. According to Dibble:
Parry attempted to emulate the new style of seamless Wagnerian declamation where the voice, as a counterpoint, interwove with the polyphony of the orchestra in a larger symphonic structure ultimately conceived as an instrumental canvas. It is bold music, rebellious in tone, harmony and demeanour, with colourful orchestration and a rhetoric never before heard in an English composer (290).
Despite its consequential place in musical history, Parry’s cantata has been seldomly performed. The debut performance of Scenes from Prometheus Unbound took place on September 7, 1880, at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral; a second performance occurred there on May 17, 1881. Another performance by the Bach Choir took place at St. James’s Hall in London on February 19, 1885; in its review, The Musical Standard noted Parry’s “dreary illustrations” of a poem “sadly inferior . . . to the immortal tragedy of Aeschylos [sic], ‘Prometheus Victus’” (132). More recently, a centenary BBC performance with conductor Vernon Handley was broadcast on September 24, 1980.
The materials gathered here are historical. For the first time made available in digital format are five select piano recordings from Hubert Parry’s Scenes from Prometheus Unbound. The music was created and recorded by the talented musician Jennifer Castleton. Included among these resources is a digital copy of Parry’s libretto from his 1880 work, an original musical composition by Castleton of Percy Shelley’s “Life of Life” hymn from Prometheus Unbound, and an interview with Castleton (conducted by Omar F. Miranda) on becoming familiar with the original style of Parry's music. Sponsored by the Romantics Bicentennials collaboration between the Keats-Shelley Association of America and the Byron Society of America, this project commemorates both the bicentenary of Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound and the 140th anniversary of Parry’s music.
Dibble, Jeremy. “‘I pant for the music which is divine’: Shelley’s Poetry and the Musical Imagination.” The Reception of P. B. Shelley in Europe, edited by Susanne Schmid and Michael Rossington, Bloomsbury, 2008.
Gregor, Karen. “Jerusalem: Series 23.” Soul Music: A BBC Sounds Podcast, BBC, 18 Oct. 2016. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b07z43fm
Wyatt-Smith, B. F. The Musical Standard, vol. 28, no.1074, Feb. 28, 1885, p. 132.