Today’s offering is a little longer than a normal anthem, but certainly meets our criteria of being suitable for Sunday morning church services. When it comes to music in the Anglican tradition, it is very hard to match some of the glory days of the late-nineteenth century.
# 3 Blest Pair of Sirens Charles Hubert Hastings Parry
Choral music aficionados will associate Parry with his more famous anthem: “I Was Glad.” I find “Blest Pair of Sirens” slightly more inventive. The text, by John Milton, is so rich in imagery that it would be impossible to discuss in-depth in this forum. The text follows. I encourage performing a close-reading on your own, forming your own ideas about Milton’s visions.
Blest pair of Sirens, pledges of Heaven's joy,
Sphere-born harmonious sisters, Voice and Verse,
Wed your divine sounds, and mix'd power employ
Dead things with inbreathed sense able to pierce;
And to our high-raised fantasy present
That undisturbèd song of pure concent,
Aye sung before the sapphire-coloured throne
To Him that sits thereon,
With saintly shout and solemn jubilee;
Where the bright Seraphim, in burning row,
Their loud uplifted angel trumpets blow;
And the Cherubic host, in thousand quires,
Touch their immortal harps of golden wires,
With those just Spirits that wear victorious palms,
Hymns devout and holy psalms
That we on earth, with undiscording voice,
May rightly answer that melodious noise;
As once we did, till disproportion'd sin
Jarr'd against nature's chime and with harsh din
Broke the fair musick that all creatures made
To their great Lord, whose love their motion sway'd
In perfect diapason, whilst they stood
In first obedience and their state of good.
O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with heaven, till God ere long
To His celestial concert us unite,
To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light!
One of the wonderful things about Parry’s setting is his ability to craft music that matches the text. At the beginning of the piece you feel transported to a transcendental land that would contain a pair of sirens. On the word “pierce” the texture is brittle and striking. When the angel trumpets blow the entire chorus and organ is in employ. When the poem turns to sin, the music becomes dramatic only to subside when Milton talks of fair music. The words “harsh din” is accented and dissonant. The ending is magnificent, with the entire choir singing in fugue and building to a climax that leads us to “the endless morn of light.” There are more examples. Maybe you will find some.
While working on my graduate degree, I performed this with the choirs of the College-Conservatory of Music under the direction of Stephen Darlington who was visiting at the time. Darlington is one of the premiere interpreters of Anglican choral music. Watching him work was fascinating. The experience opened up a whole new world of choral music to me. I have since performed the piece as both conductor and organist, and I continue to treasure this music.
Follow the link and enjoy!