Elias Parish was born in Teignmouth on 28 February 1808. The baptismal record found at St James’s Church, West Teignmouth, reports: “Eli, son of Joseph and Mary Ann Parish”.
His father, an organist, voice teacher and book dealer in Teignmouth, gave him his first musical instruction which led to his first concert in Totnes in 1818 and subsequently becoming a renowned harpist and composer. For some reason he changed his name to Elias Parish Alvars
In 1820 he was sent to London to study with Nicolas Bochsa and, in 1822, applied to the Royal Academy of Music where Bochsa had been appointed harp professor. However, he was not accepted as a student there, probably because of his family’s inability to pay the tuition. (Joseph Parish had to declare bankruptcy in 1818.) In any case, Eli Parish continued his lessons with Bochsa thanks to the help of a local landowner.
In 1828 he finished his studies and left for Florence, where he remained for a year, studying singing with the Guglielmo family and composition with Maximilian Leidesdorf. He started using the pseudonym “Albert Alvars”. By 1842 he was living in Vienna, teaching and appointed solo harpist at Hofopertheater. He studied composition with Simon Sechter and Ignaz von Seyfried and performed several times in the city with Joseph Fahrbach and the Lewy brothers at Hofoperntheater and Kärthnerthortheater.
Franz Liszt wrote:
“Our bard has a somewhat rugged appearance; his gigantic figure, with his square shoulders, recalls the mountain peasant. His face is comparatively mature for his years and from underneath his prominent forehead speak his dreamy eyes expressive of the glowing imagination which lives in his compositions”.
After attending one of his concerts in Dresden Hector Berlioz wrote:
“In Dresden, I met the prodigious English harpist Elias Parish Alvars, a name not yet as renowned as it ought to be. He had just come from Vienna. This man is the Liszt of the harp. You cannot conceive all the delicate and powerful effects, the novel touches and unprecedented sonorities, that he manages to produce from an instruments in many respects so limited. His fantasy on Moses (imitated and adapted for the piano with such happy results by Thalberg), his Variations for harmonic notes on the Naiads Chorus from Oberon, and a score of similar taste, delighted me more than I can say …”
On 13 March 1848 the first riots erupted in Vienna and in April amid the general confusion, the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde closed suddenly, stopping all payments, and even refusing to pay the salary owed for the last six months. Parish Alvars found himself in serious financial straits. He could not travel to other cities or countries, as they were experiencing similar political difficulties; he had lost most of his pupils, who, as members of noble families, had left town out of fear; musical life had stopped, and the Hofoperntheater burnt down.
During this troubled period, which reached a climax in October, Parish Alvars and his family found refuge in Leopoldstadt, on the outskirts of Vienna. His health suddenly worsened and he died of pneumonia on 25 January 1849. His wife returned with their daughter to London.
The bicentenary of his birth was celebrated with a festival in Teignmouth in 2008 and amongst his many works he wrote an overture called “The Legend of Teignmouth”.
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