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ClassicsOnline Home » FINZI: Young Man's Exhortation (A) / Till Earth Outwears / Oh Fair to See (English Song, Vol. 16)
Gerald Finzi made an unrivalled contribution to British twentieth-century song-writing, especially in his settings of Thomas Hardy, his favourite poet. This third and final volume of Finzi songs includes two Hardy settings, A Young Man’s Exhortation and Till Earth Outwears, which share the poet’s preoccupation with the ‘passing preciousness of dreams’, the transience of life and death itself. The posthumously published Oh Fair to see draws on various authors, from Christina Rossetti to Blunden and Bridges. Volumes 1 and 2 of the complete Finzi songs with piano are available on Naxos 8.557644 and 8.557963.
By William Yeoman
If song was at the centre of English composer Gerald Finzi’s music, then Thomas Hardy’s poetry was at the centre of his songwriting…Of the three groups of songs recorded here, A Young Man’s Exhortation is the only genuine cycle; Till Earth Outwears and Oh Fair to See are posthumous collections. The latter features settings of poems by Christina Rossetti, Ivor gurney and Robert Bridges, as well as by Hardy. Tenor John Mark Ainsley and pianist Iain Burnside, both very experienced song recitalists in their respective fields, bring out the relationship between text and music with great clarity. There’s a real sense of mystery and sadness in ‘The Comet at Yell’ham’, both in the vocal line and in the often pointillistic piano part, while the folk-like simplicity of ‘The Market-Girl’ is counterbalanced by sophisticated tonal balance and phrasing. Ainsley’s vocal colouring in Edmund Charles Blunden’s elegy on the death of his bay daughter ‘To Joy’ feels like a genuine emotional response.
By David Denton
In the world of song we find Gerald Finzi following in the
footsteps of Vaughan Williams and taking music forward to the era of Benjamin
Britten. Born in 1901, a person of gentle personality who lived much of his
life in the British countryside, the pastoral atmosphere he loved coming though
in his music, though his songs often reflect the immense sadness that affected
his young life. When setting the words of Thomas Hardy - his favourite poet
- he shares the writer's bleak fatalism and the injustice of the way mankind
treats its kinfolk. He was only twenty-five when he started work on the extended
song-cycle, A Young Man's Exhortations, its ten songs divided in two
parts, words oscillating between hope and sorrow, the two combining in the tenth
song, The Dance Continued (Regret me not). The effect of the cycle is
so potent you are left remembering the things that might have been in your own
life as pictured in The Sigh. The difference between Finzi and Britten
comes in Finzi's avoidance of any sense of self-pity in the music, the listener
allowed to place their own slant on the words without interjection from Finzi.
Till Earth Outwears was composed over a period of twenty-five years as
a series of individual songs brought together and first performed in 1958, two
years after his untimely death. To those of advancing years many of the songs
will take on an added depth of sadness, though the fourth song, The Market
Girl, has a happy twist in the final words, and where he could have here
taken the music into final triumph, he resists such a temptation. Oh Fair
to See was also a posthumous compilation, Finzi this time using a number
of poets and setting them for high voice. There is more sunshine here with the
cycle finishing on a happy note. Many will say that Finzi needs a singer with
that innate English quality, though they forget how the sound of British tenors
has changed since his death. That said I don't suppose they will ever be performed
with more beauty, sincerity and understanding than we have here from John Mark
Ainsley. He has for many years been at the pinnacle of UK singers, Finzi's music
never causing any discomfort to his lyric quality, while his diction is spotlessly
clean. In Iain Burnside he has an accompanist that singers cherish, his playing
adding much to the music. Top quality recording and Naxos once again has a complete
Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
A Young Man's Exhortation, Op. 14
Till Earth Outwears, Op. 19a • Oh Fair to See, Op. 13b
Gerald Finzi studied with Ernest Farrar, Edward Bairstow and R.O. Morris. He came to attention with works like the orchestral miniature A Severn Rhapsody (1923) and a song-cycle to poems by Thomas Hardy By Footpath and Stile (1921-2). Finzi's reputation grew during the 1930s with performances of two groups of Hardy settings, A Young Man's Exhortation (1926-9) and Earth and Air and Rain (1928-35), and was consolidated with the première in 1940 of his cantata Dies Natalis (1925-39). During World War II Finzi worked at the Ministry of War Transport and founded a fine, mainly amateur orchestra, the Newbury String Players. Two of his most popular works appeared during the war, the Five Bagatelles for clarinet (1920s, 1941-3), and the Shakespeare settings, Let us garlands bring (1928-42) ( Naxos 8.557644). To the post war years belong the festival anthem Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice (1946) (Naxos 8.555792), the ceremonial ode For St Cecilia (1947) ( Naxos 8.557863) and a further Hardy song collection Before and After Summer (1932-49), the Clarinet Concerto (1948-9) (8.553566) and Intimations of Immortality for chorus and orchestra (late 1936-8, 1949-50). Although the final years of his life were lived under the shadow of an incurable illness, he completed the Christmas scene In Terra Pax (1951-4) and the Cello Concerto (1951-5) ( Naxos 8.555766).
Song-writing is at the heart of Finzi's output and he made a significant contribution to British twentieth-century music in this genre, especially the settings of Thomas Hardy, his favourite poet, whom he set more than any other. His volume of Hardy's Collected Poems was a treasured possession; as he wrote to a friend: 'If I had to be cut off from everything that would be the one book I should choose'. He felt an empathy with Hardy's bleak fatalism, his sense of transience, and his anger at the suffering that mankind afflicts on mankind. About Hardy he wrote tellingly: 'I have always loved him so much and from earliest days responded, not so much to an influence, as to a kinship with him.'
Unusually for Finzi, A Young Man's Exhortation (1926-9) was conceived consciously as a song-cycle which is divided equally into two parts, each prefaced with a quotation from Psalm 90. Part 1: 'Mane floreat, et transeat' (In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up) deals with youth and love, whilst Part II: 'Vespere decidat, induret, et arescat' (In the evening it is cut down, and withereth) looks back on life from the perspective of old age. Frank Drew accompanied by Augustus Lowe, gave the first public performance of the work on 5 December 1933.
Finzi must have identified closely with the sentiments of the title song, ' A Young Man's Exhortation', since Hardy wrote the poem in his mid-twenties when living in London and struggling to gain recognition as a poet, just as Finzi was trying to do as a composer in the same city at a similar age. In the final stanza the 'passing preciousness of dreams' draws from Finzi a melodic phrase of tender wistfulness. ' Ditty' is a contented love-song basking in secure diatonic harmony which is disturbed just once by a discord at the word 'smart' as an apt musical symbol to the thought, unbearable to the poet, that chance circumstances might never have brought him and his true love together. ' Budmouth Dears', described by Finzi as a 'storming march', has a swaggering accompaniment that brilliantly enhances the portrayal of the handsome huzzars eyeing up the young beauties of the town. In ' Her Temple' the poet imagines creating a lasting memorial to his love. Finzi's response is a tightly organized song bound around three motifs within the piano introduction. ' The Comet at Yell'ham' was Encke's Comet which Hardy saw in 1858. It inspired a poem that contrasts the brevity of human life with the aeons of the universe's existence. Finzi mirrors this by evoking the vast night sky in mysterious ethereal music high in the piano register with no pulse and austere harmony. Briefly the music becomes earthbound as the poet ponders on his own short life, before it rises again to the stellar heights. ' Shortening Days' is equally evocative as the dappled music of the opening matches Hardy's childhood memories of autumn days. In the second stanza Finzi perfectly marries the poet's description of the cider-maker's arrival by a lumbering processional. At the heart of ' The Sigh' is a question: did the poet's beloved harbour love for another man rather than himself? Finzi, in the piano's introduction, creates an equivalent musical image for the woman's 'sigh', which, in varied form, sets the closing lines of each stanza, as if analogous to the nagging question that haunts the man over the years. In ' Former Beauties' the maidens of Budmouth Dears have become elderly 'market dames' whose memories of youth are poignantly recalled in a gently lilting dance. The final two songs deal with death itself. ' Transformations' refers to Hardy's philosophy that as the dead decay they become alive again in the plants that grow above their graves. Finzi echoes this in a song of blossoming energy within which he weaves a reference to ' Her Temple'. In ' The Dance continued' ('Regret not me'), the dead man speaks from his grave. The music recalls his joyful recollections of a life fully lived, as well as resignation, but not regret, as youth gives way to age.
Finzi composed slowly so that songs that formed his sets (as he preferred to call them) were gathered over many years, gradually being grouped into suitable combinations. Consequently at his death some two dozen songs had been finished which Howard Ferguson, together with Finzi's widow, Joy, and eldest son Christopher, divided into four song sets of which Till Earth Outwears brings together the remaining Hardy settings for high voice. Ferguson accompanied Wilfred Brown at the first performance on 21 February 1958.
The first song, ' Let me enjoy the Earth', composed in the early 1930s for baritone and later transposed, is warm and relaxed in character. ' In years defaced' (1936), has a powerful emotional impact, created in part by the ubiquitous use of the tiny motif setting the opening words. At its climax, to the words 'Till earth outwears', the rapt melodic line seems suspended, like the moment of intense emotion felt by the lovers of the poem long ago. ' The Market-Girl' (1927, revised 1940) was intended for possible inclusion in A Young Man's Exhortation. It moves swiftly through a variety of emotions to its joyful conclusion when love has triumphed. In ' I look into my Glass' (1936), the poet laments that his heart has not shrunk as thin as his ageing body. The syncopated throbbing of the opening piano introduction creates the mood of frustrated regret. ' It never looks like summer here' was composed on 23 February 1956, Finzi having re-read the poem that morning decided to set it there and then. The music captures the laconic irony of the contrasting images of past and present times. ' At a Lunar Eclipse' (1929) was influenced by Holst's Egdon Heath and was initially planned to be part of A Young Man's Exhortation. The evocation of the poet's opening line is effortless as the music emerges in imitative entries from the penumbral depths of the piano to become the crescent arch of the singer's melody. It soars seemingly transcending time and space in the matching of Hardy's image. Underlying the voice is the persistent tread of the accompaniment that leads ineluctably to the ironic vision of mankind at the climax of what is one of Finzi's finest songs. The set concludes with a gem, ' Life laughs onwards' written on 18 March 1955, at the same period when he was composing his Cello Concerto. By this time Finzi knew that his days were numbered by an incurable illness and the music is suffused with a poignancy that seems only too well to reflect his own situation.
The songs comprising Oh Fair to See, were also published posthumously, and brought together Finzi's unpublished songs for high voice setting various poets. They were first performed on 8 November 1965 by David Johnston and Courtney Kenny. Of them, the first five are early and the last two belong to the final year of Finzi's life. ' I say 'I'll seek her side '' (1929) is a further Hardy setting which may have been intended for A Young Man's Exhortation. It opens dramatically and defiantly but ends as a lonely lament. ' Oh fair to see' (1929 ) setting Christina Rossetti, has the lilt of a folksong. Finzi wrote ' As I lay in the early sun', to words by Edward Shanks, when he was twenty; it shows little of the mature composer having the charm of Edwardian drawing-room music and suggesting too the influence of his teacher Ernest Farrar. ' Only the wanderer' (1925) was Finzi's sole setting of the composer and poet Ivor Gurney, who from the battlefields of France recalls his beloved ' Severn meadows'. At the beginning Finzi appropriately quotes the opening phrases from his orchestral Severn Rhapsody composed the previous year. ' To Joy' (1931) and ' Harvest' (1956) set Edmund Blunden with whom Finzi had collaborated on the ode For St Cecilia. Both were intended for a Blunden set of songs; in the first, Finzi's response to the poet's elegy on his dead child is intensely moving. ' Harvest', the most extended song of the set, is a fine example of Finzi's varied, imaginative treatment of setting words. Finzi set Robert Bridges in the Christmas scene In terra pax, then again in ' Since we loved', his final song, composed a month before he died. In retrospect the song might be both his musical epitaph and a celebration of his marriage to the artist Joyce (Joy) Black. With Joy at his side all his 'joys' had 'excelled'; all his work had indeed 'prosper'd well'.
Sung texts are available online at www.naxos.com/libretti/570414.htm
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