John Parry(1710 - 1782)
The Festival Lecture Recital - John Parry, the blind harpist - his story
in words and music
will be presented by Sioned Williams Principal Harp, BBC Symphony Orchestra, London
An Introduction by Ann Griffiths
The Second Wales International Harp Festival celebrates the tercentenary of the birth of John Parry.
Born to impoverished parents in the tiny hamlet of Bryn Cynan on North Wales’s Llŷn peninsula, the young boy who was blind from birth, was fortunate enough to receive the patronage of the wealthy Griffiths family who owned the nearby Cefn Amwlch estate.
The only possible way for a blind harpist to make a professional career in eighteenth century Britain was to find oneself a wealthy patron, and before he left Cefn Amwlch John Parry’s reputation was such that by the early 1740s he had been appointed harpist to the family of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn. It was in the employ of this distinguished family, with its London mansion and its Welsh country estate at Wynnstay, Ruabon, that John Parry remained until his death in 1782.
It must not be forgotten that it was the triple harp that John Parry played, and that until the very last years of the century, the triple harp represented the supreme achievement of British harpmaking. The triple harp was the only kind of harp known to Handel, and it comes as no surprise to know that it was for the triple that he intended all his harp works, including the Concerto in Bb which John Parry is documented as having played on at least three occasions in 1841.
Handel is known to have been a great admirer of his playing, and John Parry’s published collections of music included sets of variations on themes from Handel’s operas, as well as dance tunes and old Welsh tunes, with what the poet Thomas Gray described as having ‘names enough to choke you’. Publication was by subscription, and when John Parry published his first collection in 1742, Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn showed his support by subscribing to 10 copies. It is the more extensive second collection, published in 1761, which contains the famous Four Lessons.
Sonata No. 3 is the set work for Stage 1 of the Youth Competition and Sonata No. 4 is the set work for Stage 1 of the Chief Musician Competition, though it is on the concert harp that they will be played.
Despite our not being able to hear John Parry’s Sonatas on the original instrument on this occasion, there will still be several opportunities to hear triple harps, both Welsh and Italian. In Wales, the triple harp has always been known as the Welsh harp and as our Welsh national instrument, but it was in late-sixteenth-century Italy that it was originally developed. It will be fascinating to hear Mara Galassi play early seventeenth-century Italian triple harp repertoire on her Italian triple harp. We shall also hear the inimitable Robin Huw Bowen play a Welsh triple made by John Weston Thomas, and in the opening concert we shall hear Elinor Bennett playing a triple made 250 years ago by John Richards, Llanrwst.
It was a harp which John Richards made for John Parry in 1755 which can be seen in the portrait by his elder son, William (1743-1791). Sadly, the instrument was destroyed in a devastating fire at Wynnstay in 1858 but fortuitously, fifteen years earlier, in 1843, the harp had been meticulously recorded and measured by Thomas Price (‘Carnhuanawc’). It is Carnhuanawc’s specifications and measurements which have enabled Christopher Barlow to build the exact copy of John Parry’s famous triple harp illustrated here.
Thanks to the generosity of its owner, the art expert Miles Wynn Cato, a newly discovered later portrait of John Parry - again by his son, William Parry - will be displayed during the Festival, bringing together music, harp and art in an exciting and unusual way.
© Ann Griffiths 2010