Story: Parker, Robert

Page 1 - Parker, Robert

Parker, Robert

1847–1937

Organist, choirmaster, conductor

This biography was written by John Mansfield Thomson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993

Robert Parker is a pre-eminent example of the professionally trained English musician whose high standards, enterprise and skills were fully recognised and developed in the New Zealand environment. He was revered by many as the touchstone of musical excellence in Wellington for almost 60 years.

Parker was born in Soho, London, England, on 9 January 1847, the son of Robert Parker, a bricklayer, and his wife, Mary Morris. He received an excellent musical education, studying organ with W. S. Hoyte (organist of All Saints, Margaret Street, London), Scotson Clark (organist at Exeter College, Oxford), and George Cooper (of the Chapel Royal, London). His other instrumental studies included violin and pianoforte, the latter at the London Academy of Music. He underwent choral training at St Paul's Cathedral, and later studied with Emil Behnke, whose vocal exercises were standard works. He also took a theoretical course. In his teens he won a scholarship to Queens' College, Cambridge, where he became organist. He had intended to take holy orders, but ill health led him to abandon such a career and he accepted a country appointment as organist and conductor. He left this to become professional assistant to the hymnist W. H. Monk at St Matthias, Stoke Newington. Monk established daily choral services which exemplified Tractarian ideals. The choir led the congregation, the music was chosen to suit the church calendar, and the psalms were chanted to plainsong. Parker absorbed these practices.

His health having further deteriorated, Parker sought a position overseas and was appointed organist and choirmaster at the Church of St John the Baptist in Christchurch, New Zealand. He arrived in Lyttelton on the Caroline Coventry on 8 June 1869. At St John's his inclination for ecclesiastical discipline and ceremonial greatly improved the choral service. His work in this field came to maturity at the Church of St Michael and All Angels from 1872, where he formed a choir guild in 1878 to train singers and give musical experience to the congregation. He introduced Handel and J. S. Bach and regularly performed cantatas. On 12 January 1871 in Christchurch he married Emma Martin.

On medical advice in 1878 Parker left Christchurch, moving first to Nelson, then to Wellington where he became organist at St Paul's Cathedral Church, the first city church to possess a reasonable organ and a well-organised choir. Here his activities diversified. He formed a boys' choir vested in cassocks and surplices; the men's choir was soon similarly robed. Appointed director of the Wellington Orchestral Society in succession to Angelo Forrest, he presented complete symphonies by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (unusual at the time), conducted the Wellington Choral Society and Wellington Musical Union, and the Wellington Liedertafel. From 1884 he instructed trainee teachers in music and later lectured at the Teachers' Training College. He was an examiner for the Department of Education and for the University of New Zealand. From 1924 until shortly before his death he was president of the New Zealand Society of Professional Music Teachers (later the Music Teachers' Association of New Zealand), and from its establishment in 1929 was chairman of the Music Teachers' Registration Board.

Parker's New Zealand Musical Festivals exemplified his skills in training and conducting choirs. Held at irregular intervals from 1888, they had opened characteristically with Mendelssohn's Elijah, and Sullivan's The golden legend, but also included works by the local composers Alfred Hill and Maughan Barnett. Parker was admired for his ability to direct a sometimes unsteady choir successfully through taxing works. His prolific activities included many public lectures, those on choral music showing a strong historical sense, a lucidity of expression and a concern for doctrinal changes within the church. Music's relationship to physical and psychic health engaged him, as did its efficacy in the treatment of mental illness and its value in speech therapy. He viewed music as having an improving and moral power. Gentle and tolerant, with a charming manner – he may be the model for the kindly piano teacher in Katherine Mansfield's short story 'The wind blows' – Parker was also capable of stinging sarcasm. His proselytising activities in choral, orchestral and educational fields, his concern for moral endeavour, his capacity for sustained work, and above all his dedication made him an outstanding and influential figure. His distinguished New Zealand career was marked by his appointment as a CMG in 1930. Active until his last year, he died in Wellington on 20 February 1937 at the age of 90. Emma Parker had predeceased him. He was survived by four sons and three daughters.