An important figure in the revival of English music at the end of the nineteenth century, Parry is best known for his choral work, Blest Pair of Sirens. A composer, scholar, and a teacher, he helped raise the standards of musical performance, education and criticism from the mire into which they had sunk. His legacy is best reflected, though, in the generation of English composers that followed and admired him, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Howells, Bliss and Finzi.
The son of a painter and art collector, Parry was born in Bournemouth on 27 February 1848 and grew up in Gloucestershire. Educated at Eton, he went to Oxford to read law and modern history, having already obtained a BMus degree in 1866. In 1870 he began work at Lloyd's of London as an underwriter, and in 1872 married his childhood sweetheart, Maude Herbert.
While working at Lloyds, Parry began to study with William Sterndale Bennett and, thorough his acquaintance with Joachim, even applied to study with Brahms. He also studied with Edward Dannreuther, from whom he gained an appreciation for the instrumental works of Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. Parry also made frequent trips to the Bayreuth Festival and became a fervent supporter of Wagner's music. In 1877 he gave up work at Lloyd's and began the life of a professional musician.
In addition to composition, he worked for Grove's new Dictionary of Music and Musicians and, in 1883, became Professor of Musical History at the newly founded Royal College of Music. This first period of maturity was dominated by instrumental composition, including four symphonies. Parry tried his hand, unsuccessfully, at opera but gained national acclaim with his ode Blest Pair of Sirens.
Although establishing his reputation, Blest Pair of Sirens marked a shift towards choral composition as commissions flooded in. In 1888 he composed Judith, the first of three oratorios. In 1895 he succeeded Grove as director of the RCM, was knighted in 1898, and became Heather Professor of Music at Oxford in 1900. Although forced to give up the Oxford chair through ill health, he retained the RCM directorship until his death in 1918. His latter years were marked by a return to orchestral composition, including his only symphonic poem, From Death to Life.
Parry's early works show the influence of Sterndale Bennett, Stainer and Mendelssohn and, as one brought up in the Anglican choral tradition, it is in the field of sacred choral music that he is best known. He also composed some important songs in his 12 volumes of English Lyrics, however, and many of his best works, such as the Symphonic Fantasia, were orchestral.