John Parry Senior (Bardd Alaw) 1776-1851

Career and Art of John Parry
His Collections
Examples to Modern Patriots
By T. Hubert J. Rees, B.A. Mus. Bac – 05.09.1929

Twenty-five years after the publication of Edward Jones’ prize collection, “Musical and Poetical Reliques of the Welsh Bards,” another collection of Welsh Melodies was awarded the silver medals annually offered by the Gwyneddigion Society, a society which was now more or less firmly established, and had succeeded to a great degree to fulfil its highest ambitions. This collection, compiled by John Parry (Bardd Alaw), (who, by the way, was supplied with literary information by Jac Glanygors), marked an important stage in the development of music in nineteenth century Wales. This was not the only work compiled by this well-known Welsh Musician, for he had already published several collections of Welsh airs arranged for instruments over years previously, and he again published other volumes in 1823, and 1829. These later works, no doubt, were better than his first collection, for these were about serious attempts made to improve the state of vocal music (more especially the song) in Wales.

Parry’s Career

Born at Denbigh in the year 1776, Parry, entered on a musical career when comparatively young; he was bandmaster of the Denbighshire Militia when only twenty years of age, and after that he became successively flageolet tutor in London, musical director of the Vauxhall Garden, musical critic to the “Morning Post,” besides holding various minor appointments.

He was a man of striking personality, and if we are to judge him by his own remarks about himself, he was a somewhat modest, retiring sort of gentleman. He was, however, a great worker and a prolific composer, for it is said that he published “upwards of 700 vocal pieces and as many instrumental ones, and about twenty books of instructions for different instruments, and a collection of 2,000 melodies of various nations, forming altogether about 40 thick folio volumes.”
Besides this, he had a practical knowledge of most of the instruments of the orchestra, and he could write graceful melodies, while his piano accompaniments were always appropriate and artistic. However, in spite of all his diligence, we cannot find among his works anything strikingly outstanding, though he always took the greatest care never to allow anything to pass slipshod through his hands until he had examined every detail carefully.

Sound Sense of Melody

He possessed a sounder sense of melody and accompaniment than Edward Jones, while his knowledge of speech rhythms and metre was certainly far more advanced. He could write lyrical verses himself, and one of his best known is that written on the occasion of the celebration of St. David’s Day by the Gwyneddigion Society in the year 1814. This “excellent cerdd,” which begins thus:

“Oh! let the kind minstrel attune his soft lay,
And welcome with rapture this thrice happy day!”

It was written to the tune “Glan Meddwdod Mwyn.” It was rapturously received, and became very popular in all the society’s meetings.

This poem gives ample evidence that the poet in him invariably worked hand in hand with the musician. He always took the greatest care with musical rhythm and accent. As a matter of fact, he tells us in one of his introductions that his chief aim in arranging these volumes was “to procure good poetry, and to adopt it with the greatest nicety to the different airs, after the manner of the Welsh, which in general, ‘has a word for every note.’” This is where contemporary (and even later) writers to a large extent failed, for we have only to examine the verses in Thomson’s collection of 1809 to see abundant evidence of this. The vigorous metre of Welsh melodies was repeatedly marred by injudicious use of slurs, but Parry seems to have brought this art to a very high degree of perfection.

Catered for the English

However, we cannot help feeling that he catered more for the English people than for his own countrymen. Of course, he took a keen interest in Welsh affairs and he undoubtedly improved the state of Welsh music, yet a man of his abilities could undoubtedly have done more useful work. When we examine his works, one thing that strikes us particularly is the fact that the words written are English, though they have been written by poets like A.A. Watts, J.H. Wiffen, Mrs. Hemans, &c., who took keen interest in Welsh literature and music. Some, of course, have succeeded better than others, but the most successful of the, perhaps, is Mrs. Hemans. She evidently took great interest in Wales, and took infinite pains to interpret faithfully the spirit of Welsh literature and legend. Her poems “The Green Isles of the Ocean,” “The Melody of Mona,” and the “Hall of Cynddylan” are well known than any of the others. This is a modern version of Llywarch Hen’s verses, which are to be seen in Llyfr Coch Hergest:

“Staffell Cynddylan ys tywyll heno,
Heb dan, heb wely;
Wylaf wers, tawaf wedy,” &c.

Sense of Dread and Awe

Mrs. Hemans’ lines certainly lack that mysterious, plaintive tone of the original. Those simple verses of the sixth century Welsh bard, couched in such simple language, gives us a sense of dread and awe. We feel the terrible power of Death and the grave, and the thoughts behind the words are so extremely powerful and intense that we cannot help feeling the force of the author’s tremendous personality. Place these side by side with Mrs Hemans’ lines and we at once sense a different atmosphere. We are in an entirely different world. We do not know experience that sense of awe, but we find ourselves in.

“a hall that is lonely and bare,
No banquet, no guest, not a footstep is there!”

It is the deserted “hail of the chieftain,” and nothing more. As Mr. Arthur Symons puts it, there is merely “a kind of prattle” as compared with Llywarch Hen’s immortal verses. Nevertheless, Mrs. Hemans’ could write singable verses which had real feeling, but she and her contemporaries failed gloriously in trying to interpret legends which they did not understand properly. Yet they undoubtedly led the way to Welsh poets, who had hitherto remained remarkably quiet on the subject.

Original Tunes

But besides collecting Welsh melodies Parry wrote original tunes, which have, more or less, been conceived in the style of the harp tunes. His best known are “Cader Idris” (or Jenny Jones), “Ap Siencyn,” “Hoffder y Gwyneddigion,” &c. His duet, “Flow Gently Deva,” which has an entirely different flavour, is probably one of the gems of the century. In all his works he betrays a close study and an undying love of Welsh national music. Indeed, nowhere can we find a better example of patriotism than that exhibited in this charming duet. It is not that vitriolic type (as one writer has aptly put it), but rather it is that kind which raises patriotism and nationalism to a very dignified plane. One feels that the whole work is brimming over with Celtic fervour and warmth yet it is evident that there is a certain amount of noble restraint both in the words and in the music.

However, whatever may be John Parry’s shortcomings as a musical historian, he was undoubtedly an able writer of verses, a good musician, and best of all, an ideal example of an ardent patriot – an example to be copied by modern Welsh patriots and nationalists.

Death of John Parry – 19.04.1851
The Welsh Harpist

It is with regret we announce the demise of John Parry, Esq., Bardd Alaw, and Editor of the Welsh Melodies.’ lie died Oil the 8th inst., in his seventy-sixth year. He was the father of the well-known comic singer, Mr. John Parry, jun. In reference to this event the ‘Athenaeum’, of Saturday last, says: “Our London concert-rooms are deprived of another of the ‘old familiar faces’ by the recent death of Mr. Parry, the Welsh harpist and composer, and the father of the best comic musical artist that England has ever possessed. A more amiable man than the late Mr. Parry is rarely to be found in any profession.”

Liverpool Eisteddfod – 02.10.1851

The President begged to put in, as an interloper, a duet, composed by the late John Parry, Bardd Alaw, well known in the musical world, Flow gently Deva.” He would read the words, as he considered they were very striking and expressive.

Flow gently Deva, on thy mossy bank,
The valiant Tudor sleeps, sweet be his dreams!
And when he wakes, 0 may he wake to peace.
Ah! no, I hear the clashing sound of arms!
Rouse the gallant warrior! Rise, Tudor, rise!
And lead us on to death or victory,
Then shall the bards in sad notes ring our knell,
Or chant in happy strains the song of joy.

The duet was very sweetly rendered by Messrs. T. Pierce and E. Jones, members of the Choral Society, and received an encore.

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