A stirring hymn resounded as William and Kate signed the register, now a new film by the Prince of Wales reveals the story of the man behind it


A stirring hymn resounded as William and Kate signed the register, now a new film by the Prince of Wales reveals the story of the man behind it

A stirring hymn resounded as William and Kate signed the register, now a new film by the Prince of Wales reveals the story of the man behind it

6:29 PM on 22nd May 2011

The composer you really ought to make a film about,’ said Prince Charles, fixing me with those piercing, pale-blue eyes, ‘is Hubert Parry.’ Before I’d recovered from my surprise, he added, ‘Do you know his symphonies’

We were standing in his study at Highgrove in May 2008, during the filming of a BBC documentary for his 60th birthday, The Passionate Prince. He told me he had seen another film of mine on BBC4 a few days earlier, about the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. I already knew the Prince of Wales was an enthusiast for classical music, but I had no inkling of his passion for Parry.

I thought quickly. Parry had, of course, written Jerusalem, and another great hymn, Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind, as well as some thrilling choral music, particularly the coronation anthem for Edward VII. But I had never heard his symphonies. All I knew was that there were five of them.

Inspiration: The Prince of Wales is a fan of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848 - 1918), an influential English composer so much so that he has made a film about the Victorian musician

Inspiration: The Prince of Wales is a fan of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848 – 1918), an influential English composer so much so that he has made a film about the Victorian musician

However, this was clearly not the moment to bluff my way through, so I confessed my ignorance. But at the same time I suggested he would be the best person to make such a film, and give this great Victorian composer his due. The Prince is not a man to let sleeping dogs lie. Several times over the next few weeks he badgered me about whether the BBC were taking up the idea of a film. Fortunately they did, and I began to realise I was dealing with not just a presenter, but an impresario too.

For his birthday that November, the Queen gave her eldest son a concert inside Buckingham Palace. At his request, the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra performed Parry’s exhilarating work Blest Pair Of Sirens in the palace ballroom. It was the first time he’d heard it, and he was bowled over by how romantic it was – ‘gloriously harmonious’, he called it, with ‘a kind of domestic grandeur’.

Last month, he heard it live for the second time, this time in Westminster Abbey during the signing of the register at his son’s marriage, where Parry’s work enjoyed one of the biggest audiences any piece of classical music has ever had in history, as several hundred million people around the world tuned in to watch the Royal Wedding.

Involved: The Prince of Wales and James O

Involved: The Prince of Wales and James O” Donnell Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey discussing a score for his film

Born in 1848, Hubert Parry was an incredibly glamorous young man who fell in love with an aristocratic teenager, Maude Herbert. Her mother tried to end the relationship as she felt he was beneath Maude socially, but Parry persisted: he kept meeting Maude in secret, and eventually won her mother over. But it was a troubled marriage, and Parry’s wife never much cared for his music. For a brief period, however, he was the doyen of British composers. Then he was overtaken by Elgar, and slid out of fashion.

But now, almost a century after his death in 1918, the tide has begun toturn. Perhaps this new BBC4 film, The Prince And The Composer, will help that process. Last summer, Parry’s Fifth Symphony was played for the first time ever at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall. The Prince ofWales came up to Manchester to hear the first rehearsal. After the BBC Philharmonic had played a few minutes of Tchaikovsky, the press and the cameras were ushered out (except ours), and Prince Charles and the orchestra got down to the main business of the Parry symphony.

He stayed, engrossed for a full hour, listening beside Parry’s biographer, Professor Jeremy Dibble. Both of them were very excited to hear the work live for the first time. ‘The magic of the moment was fantastic,’ said the Prince. ‘My real worry is I may never hear it again!’ He went on to chat with the orchest ra and its Russian conductor, Vassily Sinaisky, challenging them to explain what made the music sound so English.
They couldn’t answer his question, but he persisted, making his point in a sort of Socratic dialogue.

Score: The music chosen for the Royal Wedding had been a closely guarded secret and Parry

Score: The music chosen for the Royal Wedding had been a closely guarded secret and Parry”s I Was Glad was selected to launch proceedings

‘It couldn’t be Russian music, could it’ (Laughter from conductor and orchestra.) ‘It couldn’t be French.’ (Further chuckles.) ‘So what is it that defines the Englishness in it’ (Puzzled faces.) As part of his journey of discovery, the Prince travelled to Parry’s childhood home in Gloucestershire, where I managed to leave him alone in a field of rather restive Limousin cattle, and to a former priory at Shulbrede in West Sussex, which Parry often visited to see his daughter and her family.

The composer employed a chauffeur, but often chose to do the driving himself – at such breakneck speed that on one occasion the chauffeur had to get out of the passenger seat to be sick. Dating from the 12th century, Shulbrede Priory must be one of the oldest continually inhabited buildings in Britain, and houses an archive of Parry manuscripts and diaries preserved by his great-granddaughter, Laura Ponsonby.

Discovery: John Bridcut, director of The Prince And The Composer, had no idea that Charles was a Parry enthusiast

Discovery: John Bridcut, director of The Prince And The Composer, had no idea that Charles was a Parry enthusiast

I pleaded with the Prince’s staff to schedule at least two hours for his visit. He stayed for three, at one point standing in the rain quite happily while we fixed a technical problem. Little did I realise, as we filmed the choir of Westminster Abbey singing Parry’s choral music last July, that it was in effect a rehearsal for the Royal Wedding nine months later. After Evensong the doors were shut, and the choir, resplendent in red cassocks and white surplices, got down to work in a three-hour filming session.

Prince Charles came to listen and talk to them about past coronations and Parry’s music. He was a little late, so we had to start filming without him, as time was very short.

When he arrived, through Poets’ Corner, he was with the Dean, who dismayed me by saying he wanted to show the Prince the restoration work on the historic Cosmati pavement in front of the high altar. I was rescued from an awkward protocol moment by a neat intervention from the Prince, who explained we really had to get on with filming. The disappointed Dean withdrew to the strains of the choir singing Parry’s Songs Of Farewell.

When it came to the ceremonial anthem I Was Glad, the Prince listened intently, but I sensed his disappointment that we were recording it with just an organ accompaniment, rather than full orchestra. So, on 29 April this year, as the State Trumpeters of the Household Cavalry sounded the opening notes of the same anthem, and Catherine Middleton and her father began the long walk up the nave of Westminster Abbey, I knew the Prince of Wales would be a doubly happy man.

The music chosen for the wedding had been a closely guarded secret until the day before the wedding (to avoid radio stations playing it all to death before the big day), but Prince Harry had almost let the cat out of the bag by saying how involved his father was in helping the couple select the ceremonial music. He and Catherine apparently listened to many different pieces. But there was no better choice than Parry’s I Was Glad to launch proceedings. In Prince Charles’s own words, ‘It gives you tingles up the spine, and tears in the eyes.’

John Bridcut is the director of The Prince And The Composer, to be shown on BBC4, Friday, 7.30pm, and again on Monday 6 June, 9pm.