Parry began his career playing the clarinet in his parish church, before moving on to the Denbighshire militia band in 1793 which he led from 1797 to 1807.
Parry soon became famous for his mastery of many different instruments, particularly the harp, piano and violin as well the flageolet. He began to give solo concerts, including concerts on the flageolet, first in Rochester and then on the stage of Covent Garden, in shows arranged by the actor Thomas Dibdin in about 1803 or 1804.
According to Parry’s later account of these concerts, he played on two and then three flageolets by William Bainbridge fixed into a frame. Following this, he worked with Bainbridge to develop the innovation into a proper instrument, leading to the creation of the double flageolet.
Although Bainbridge was a performer as well as a maker, he was clearly less well known as a musician than Parry, who did much to popularise the flageolet and attempted to persuade the public that it was a serious musical instrument. In return, he seems to have benefited from the popularity of the double flageolet, becoming its first teacher and professional player, and he spent the next nine years playing and teaching.
From 1814 he returned to composing, writing many popular operas, operettas and ballads for Vauxhall Gardens and also to conducting and organising cymrodorions and eisteddfods (Welsh folk festivals). His son John Orlando Parry (1810–1879) continued his father’s work on Welsh folk music.
Two portraits of John Parry exist in the National Portrait Gallery, one by Abraham Wivell (1830) and the other by Harry Furniss.
Much of our knowledge of Parry comes through the following biography, written during his lifetime and printed in various different publications.
This prolific and popular composer was born at Denbigh, in North Wales, in 1776; and made his first musical essay, by constructing for himself a fife, of a piece of cane, upon which, without any instruction, he learned to play all the popular airs of the day. A dancing-master, who lived in the neighbourhood, taught him his notes, and gave him sufficient instruction on the clarionet to enable him to accompany the singers, at his parish church, in their psalm-tunes.
In 1793, upon the embodying of the Denbigh militia, he joined the band; and made such progress in the course of the next four years, that, in 1797, he was appointed master. He quitted the regiment in 1807, at which time he could take a part on any wind instrument; besides being well acquainted with the harp, piano-forte, and violin. Those on which he chiefly excelled were the clarionet and flageolet. At a concert given by him at Rochester, he played on three flageolets at once, fixed on a stand; and repeated the same performance at Covent Garden, for the benefit of Mrs. T. Dibdin. In the year last-mentioned, he settled in London; and the double-flageolet being much in vogue at that time, he was extensively employed in teaching that instrument.
A letter, written by him to a friend, after he had been some years in the metropolis, gives an account of his labours in a manner at once indicative of his merits and his modesty. “When I came to London,” he says, in a letter cited in The Dictionary of Musicians, “I had almost everything to learn; I accordingly applied myself seriously to study, with a view of turning my work out of hand without many glaring faults. I confined myself to vocal compositions, chiefly ballads, and easy pieces for the harp and piano-forte, also duets for flutes and other wind instruments; and never attempt now to soar above my sphere; well knowing that there are many musicians in the higher walks of the science much more able to produce erudite compositions than myself. I understand the nature of every instrument used in an orchestra; hence the rare instances of the necessity of a second rehearsal of any of my compositions. I score with uncommon facility, and, I trust, tolerably correct; I know the power of the various instruments, and I endeavour to ascertain the ability of the different performers, and write accordingly. I do my utmost to walk peaceably through life, in friendship with all my brethren, interfering with no one, and, I trust, bearing the ill-will of no man.”
In 1809, he published some songs, and other pieces; and, in the same year, was invited to compose for Vauxhall Gardens; the musical department of which he superintended for several years. His next publication was a collection of Welsh melodies, for which the Cambrian Society presented him with a silver medal; and, many years after, appeared his two volumes of Ancient British Airs, with poetry by Mrs. Hemans, then resident at St. Asaph. Between 1813 and 1818, he composed several songs, for public occasions, and two musical farces, entitled, respectively, Fair Cheating, and High Notions; of both of which the words and music were by himself. In 1820, he conducted the Eeisteddfodau, or Congress of Welsh Bards, at Wrexham; and at a gorsedd, or meeting of Welsh bards, in 1821, a bardic degree was conferred upon him, under the denomination of Bardd Alaw, or professor of music and master of song. In the latter year, he produced, at the English Opera, his very successful piece, called, Two Wives, or a Hint to Husbands; which was played for twenty-five nights successively. In 1822, he conducted at the congress of the Welsh bards, held at Brecon; and the meetings of the Welsh bards, held in London, have been constantly under his direction, as registrar of music to the Royal Cambrian Institution. Besides the above dramatic efforts, he has furnished parts of several operas, and other pieces; adapted the whole of the music to the opera of Ivanhoe, as performed at Covent Garden Theatre; and has composed songs, duets, &c., for all the celebrated theatrical and public singers of his time. His compositions and arrangements are said to amount to more than three hundred, omitting his dramatic pieces, and include almost every species of music. His most favourite publications are: two volumes of Welsh melodies, with English words; two of Scotch; two volumes of catches and glees; two of minstrel songs, for the flute; one, entitled Corydon, and one, Sapphonia, for the violin. Amongst his most popular songs are: The Peasant Boy; The Minstrel Boy; Ap Shenkin; Love’s a Tyrant; Sweet Home; The Voice of her I love; Take a Bumper and try; Smile again, my bonnie Lassie, &c. &c. He has also published several pieces of music for the harp; popular airs, lessons, and rondos for the piano-forte; music for single and double flageolet, the violin, and flute; many volumes of military music; books of instruction for several instruments; two sets of Welsh airs; and The Æolian Harmonies, consisting of selections from the works of the most eminent composers, arranged for wind instruments.Printed variously (with small changes) in: “The Georgian Era”, 1834, Volume IV: Composers; Vocal Instrumental, and Dramatic Performers; “Williams Dictionary of Eminent Welshmen”; “Ancient & Modern Denbigh”.