Gerald Finzi may have set Wordsworth’s great Intimations of Immortality to music but his own life was, by ironic contrast, hedged around with the doubts and fears of mortality. It was a mindset he shared with Thomas Hardy, whose notoriously challenging poems he chose to set to music more than any other in his songs. Creativity cannot be separated from personality and Finzi’s was a troubled, obsessive nature.
His father’s appallingly disfiguring cancer of the mouth killed him when Gerald was only seven; he had a difficult relationship with his mother; all his uncles had predeceased his father and, by the age of 17, he had lost all three of his brothers and his teacher, Ernest Farrar; his Jewish ancestry and Italian looks (and name) made for a world of uncertainty and of an unnaturally heightened sense of the passing of time. So it’s hardly surprising that the brevity of human existence was a preoccupation throughout his own short life and led to his predilection for a feeling of lyrical melancholy in much of his music.
Finzi’s education was chaotic. After his father died he went to boarding school in Surrey, where he was so unhappy he faked fainting fits in the hope of being removed. Further halting progress was made in different establishments until his mother removed the family to Harrogate in 1915 where Finzi’s first influential composition teacher, Ernest Farrar, worked. When Farrar was killed in action near the end of the First World War Finzi went to study in York with Sir Edward Bairstow, whose disciplined approach to composition made Finzi despair. But both Farrar and Bairstow were concerned that he should learn the technique of composition and not just write on his ‘inspiration’.
Finzi was deeply attracted to the English countryside – in 1922 he moved to the village of Painswick in Gloucestershire for a short while – and there is a strong pastoral vein flowing through much of his music. He was a close friend of Vaughan Williams and the older composer’s quietly revolutionary style was highly influential. But if RVW was an important musical muse, Thomas Hardy began to work his literary magic on Finzi in the early 1920s, and some of his earliest settings were newly published poems at that time – unusually scored for string quartet and baritone, By Footpath and Stile (1922) was Finzi’s first song cycle exclusively setting Hardy’s poems. This was a youthfully ambitious setting of six poems which in their almost constantly elegiac tone gave him an outlet for his feelings of loss, which saw a more specific voice in his later Requiem da Camera, dedicated to the memory of Farrar.
This lovely work shows clearly emerging features of Finzi’s style which became the hallmarks of his maturity – these include marching bass lines (often pizzicato) which take their inspiration from Bach, subtle but intricate counterpoint which reflects not only Bach but another of Finzi’s principal influences, Hubert Parry, and soft but often direct dissonances taking their cue from the Tudor period he so admired. It is a piece that certainly deserves to be widely heard, especially amid the current centenary commemorations of the First World War.
Another early work which, because of Finzi’s misgivings about its first movement, lay dormant after its 1927 London premiere was the Concerto for Small Orchestra and Violin. After effectively discarding the work Finzi gave its rapt second movement new life as the Introit. This elegiac, soul-searching music became a core element of his style, which is also powerfully expressed in the Eclogue for piano and strings, itself intended as the slow movement of an incomplete piano concerto. The first movement of that same concerto later became the stand-alone Grand Fantasia to which a Toccata was added much later.
The Grand Fantasia is an extraordinary hybrid work demonstrating Finzi’s love of Bach in its obvious homage. Finzi was passionate about music of this period and created performing editions of works by English baroque composers including Capel Bond, Richard Mudge, John Stanley, William Boyce and Charles Wesley. Finzi made these editions for the Newbury String Players, an amateur orchestra he founded in 1940 and which also acted as a platform for some young composers, Kenneth Leighton among them, whose early suite, Veris Gratia, was dedicated to Finzi in gratitude for his help and encouragement.
But key to Finzi’s compositional output are his many songs, and in many ways they define him. It was an intimate, almost private form of expression through which he could explore his deep love of the English language and especially its poetry. His personal library was extensive and after his death was given to Reading University where it could be visited for a number of years as the ‘Finzi Bookroom’. Finzi claimed that he did not choose the poems he set to music but they chose him. He also said ‘I do hate the bilge and bunkum about composers trying to “add” to a poem: that a fine poem is complete in itself, and that to set it is only to gild the lily… the first and last thing is that a composer is (presumably) moved by a poem and wishes to identify himself with it and share it.’
Finzi’s first complete song cycle setting poems by Thomas Hardy for voice and piano was A Young Man’s Exhortation, first performed in December 1933. This cycle neatly encapsulates Finzi’s (and Hardy’s) obsession with passing time – divided into two parts, the first is headed ‘Mane floreat, et transeat’ (‘In the morning it flourisheth, and growth up’) and the second ‘Vespere decidat, induret et arescat’ (‘in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.’). But this is not to say that the whole cycle is full of introspective yearning for things to be other than what they are: ‘Budmouth Dears’ is a romp as we watch the girls ‘fresh as peaches, With their tall and tossing figures and their eyes of blue and brown.’
But this excursion into the lively caper is not Finzi’s natural usage and, like Herbert Howells, we tend to be relieved when he returns to the elegiac lyricism at which he excels – the song called ‘The Sigh’ is a perfect example. Its intimacy of expression draws the sensitive listener into a highly personal world. This is as true of another of Finzi’s song cycles written to Hardy poems soon afterwards: Earth, Air and Rain, which includes two of Finzi’s best-loved songs, ‘To Lizbie Browne’ and ‘When I set out for Lyonesse’. But perhaps the greatest example is what many consider to be Finzi’s masterpiece, Dies Natalis, for tenor and string orchestra.
Dies Natalis – a good place to start if you are new to Finzi’s music – sets the words of the 17th-century English mystical poet Thomas Traherne, whose work had fallen into oblivion until it was rediscovered and published in the early 20th century. It was a perfect match for Finzi, conjuring, as it does, emotive images of childhood innocence and wonder expressed in adult terms: ‘These little limbs, these eyes, these hands which here I find, This panting heart wherewith my life begins; Where have ye been? Behind what curtain were ye hid from me so long? Where was, in what Abyss, my new made tongue?’
The string writing in this work is worthy of the best of what was a particularly strong English tradition at this time including Elgar’s Serenade, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Howells’s Concerto for Strings, Bliss’s Music for Strings, Tippett’s Double Concerto and Britten’s Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge. This, coupled with Finzi’s natural lyricism and empathy with words, makes for a powerful combination.
Dies Natalis was Finzi’s last work completed before the start of World War Two. Its premiere at the Three Choirs Festival in 1939 was cancelled and took place the following year in the Wigmore Hall. In 1939 Finzi and his artist wife Joy had moved to a purpose-built house in a beautiful location at Ashmansworth, near Newbury, designed by Robert Harland, who also built a different style of house for composer Arthur Bliss. Here he had space for a special music room and library as well as a large orchard where he nurtured rare species of apples. Among Finzi’s most enduring works is the festival anthem Lo, the full final sacrifice written for St Matthew’s Northampton in 1946.
He wrote a good deal of choral music including, from 1934-7, a fine set of part songs to poems by Robert Bridges of which the short, ecstatic ‘My spirit sang all day’ was a spirited love song to his wife, Joy (…‘thou art my Joy!’). Larger-scale works include 1947’s For St Cecilia with its specially written text by Edmund Blunden, the 1952 Magnificat for concert, not liturgical use, the mystical and beautiful In Terra Pax (1954) and, largest of all, the work which occupied him for many years, Intimations of Immortality premiered at the Gloucester Three Choirs in 1950 (the same year as Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi) and now a staple of the choral society repertoire.
The following year, Finzi discovered he was suffering from Hodgkin’s Disease – this gave him a ten-year life sentence that brought his feelings of the transience of human existence into sharp focus. With so much still to achieve in his remaining years, he worked intensively on a series of concerted works. Perhaps his concentration on a soloist pitted against an orchestra in these late works was an expression of his personal predicament. A beautiful Clarinet Concerto was followed by the addition of the Toccata to the Grand Fantasia which, in its exciting showiness, reflected a distinct influence of William Walton. His final work, the Cello Concerto with its heart-rending slow movement, was broadcast, night before Finzi died.
In his catalogue of works compiled in 1941, Finzi wrote a preface called ‘Absolom’s Place’ in which he set out his credo as a composer. Just before his death, he added these words: ‘I like to think that in each generation may be found a few responsive minds, and for them I should still like the work to be available. To shake hands with a good friend over the centuries is a pleasant thing, and the affection which an individual may retain after his departure is perhaps the only thing which guarantees an ultimate life to his work.’ Gerald Finzi’s music has certainly achieved that warmth of public affection in the years since he died, on 27 September 1956, aged just 55.