“My Soul, there is a country/Afar beyond the stars,”

COLLEEN PHELPS wrote for Nashville Classical Radio on April 29, 2020:

“For all of Europe, and eventually the world, the events of the first World War were devastating as they unfolded. Over just four years the population saw unprecedented death and destruction. English composer Hubert Parry did not reach the armistice, as he died just a month before. But during those difficult years he composed his Songs of Farewell – six motets that collected deeply meaningful poetry from across the United Kingdom.

Parry was director of the Royal College of Music during the war, and the losses that the school faced were particularly painful. In a letter to fellow composer Herbert Howells, Parry said, “The thought of so many gifted boys being in danger […] is always present with me” as many of his students were moved from the classroom to the trenches.

The collection acts as a final testament from a great composer who was disheartened, both figuratively and literally. By the time the complete set premiered in 1919, Parry had died, the war had ended with the loss of 40 million people, and a flu epidemic raged on across the world.

My Soul, there is a country

A poem called Peace is the first in Parry’s set. Poet Henry Vaughan wrote it in 1650 as part of a collection called Silex Scintillians – one of the great works of English literature in the 17th century. The “peace” from the title does not refer to peace on earth, or even as state of peace at all, but rather refers to God sitting in heaven.

My Soul, there is a country
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a winged sentry
All skillful in the wars;
There, above noise and danger
Sweet Peace sits, crown’d with smiles,
And One born in a manger
Commands the beauteous files.

Welsh writer Stevie Davies describes Vaughan as trapped in a bellicose world, living in Wales during the English Civil War. Davies labels the Silex Scintillians as a work composed in protest during great emotional distress – much like Parry’s Songs of Farewell.

While “Peace” relies on simple language and imagery, Parry’s setting finds the emotion of every sudden outcry and surprising exclamation. An especially moving one seems to come midsentence – as the choir even holds a soft dynamic all the way until breathing together and exclaiming “O my Soul awake!” “.

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