“So that was God’s voice, after all...”
— From Parker’s Opera Mona
Youngest of the “Boston 6”, Horatio Parker was born 1863 in Auburndale, MA, a rural area at the time, now subsumed by the Boston city limits. He studied with George Whitefield Chadwick at the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) and eventually, like most serious musicians at the time, went to Europe and studied with Josef Rheinberger at the Royal Music School in Munich. A similar comment by both these teachers points to a characteristic that Parker carried throughout his compositional career. Chadwick, speaking of the young Parked, roughly aged 17-19, says:
He was far from docile. In fact, he was impatient of the restrictions of musical form and rather rebellious of the discipline of counterpoint and fugues. His lessons usually ended with his swallowing his medicine, but with many a wry grimace.
This quote probably says as much about the youthfulness of Parker as it does the fastidious Chadwick and his own workmanship-like character. Yet, while later studying with Rheinberger, also a former teacher of Chadwick, an observation by the Boston music critic William Apthorp would confirm Parker’s temptation to go against the grain:
It is said of H. W. Parker that when he was a student in Munich under Rheinberger he was repeatedly introducing some new wrinkle, some unheard of effect... Certain of these musical inventions were distasteful to the master... and others were railed at playfully but secretly endorsed and even imitated by Rheinberger himself.
Upon returning to the United States, Parker moved to New York and bounced around several church positions. This is where Parker found the strongest market for his compositions, as any choral, organ, or piano work he wrote was quickly performed and highly praised. At the end of his time in New York, Parker spent one, lone year teaching at the famous National Conservatory of Music in America. Famous mostly because this is the school at which Antonín Dvořák taught during his highly publicized visit to the “New World”. And, that lone year, 1892-1893, overlapped with Dvořák’s first year.
Eventually, Parker returned to Boston, having a substantial reputation as a composer, mostly of choral works. In an ironic twist, relating to the observations of Parker as a young man, musicologist and biographer William Kearns found in Parker’s diaries that one of the reasons he left his church position is “problems of discipline among the boys in the Holy Trinity Choir... he complained that they are a ‘burden’ to the choirmaster and expressed the hope that the adult mixed choir at his new appointment would leave him more time for the important work of composition.” I am sure Chadwick had a laugh about that!
Parker’s stay in Boston only lasted one year, as he then took a teaching position at Yale. There, Parker developed a long legacy of composition students, punctuated by Roger Sessions and the inimitable Charles Ives. Parker developed The History of Music course, served as editor of Music and Drama, served as dean of the School of Music, conducted and developed the New Haven Symphony Orchestra as both a professional ensemble and lab orchestra for Yale music students, all while continuing to compose. It was from this position that the rest of his life would be based. Also, this move towards academia would nudge Parker to analyze his own thinking about music, it’s place in society, and make definitive statements on the subject. Near the end of his life, Parker wrote in the Yale Review:
In truth there are two very different kinds of taste. May I call them high and low to save space?... I think an enormous part of our national common progress is made by breaking down barriers between such types. Training the lowly to enjoy exalted music is known to be meritorious. I never heard anyone commend the reverse process of training the fastidious to recognize vulgar excellence.
The man comes full circle! A somewhat rogue youth, tamed by well-disciplined teachers, now embracing the diversity of musical options. And as can be seen, these phases manifest in his composition as well.
At present day, Parker’s most well-known works are A Northern Ballad, written for full orchestra, and the oratorio Hora Novissima. A Northern Ballad, written in 1899, is probably his most often performed orchestral work, ironic since the thematic material is mostly Scottish, and that “Northern” reference is to the United Kingdom. And despite his career-long goal of establishing himself as purely American, trying to shed the German-European influences we are all still brought up with as music students, the piece is overflowing with similarities to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet overture. Still, it is likely these recognizable elements that make it such a great and accessible piece. The Hora Novissima, on the other hand, is a massive work, premiered to rave reviews in 1893, and even given the stamp of approval by religious music “experts” in England, which seems to have been the high water-mark at the time. While there was certainly no lack of oratorios, past or present, Parker created a unique sound in the context of an old tradition. On top of that, instead of the typical “mass”, “requiem”, or numerous other dramatically based texts available to him, he chose an obscure, medieval Latin poem mostly devoid of drama that in someone else’s hand would be more difficult to color with music. Parker had no such problem.
Horatio Parker stands as a remembered musical figure, significant in quality of production, but only a footnote to the narrative of history. Thankfully, much of his music is still available, and some of it is even recorded. Hopefully, we can see our way to hearing and enjoying more of it as history moves on.