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ClassicsOnline Home » FINZI: Dies natalis / Farewell to Arms / 2 Sonnets
Quintessentially Finzi, the tender yet radiant Dies natalis, a setting of texts by the 17thcentury poet Thomas Traherne, depicts both the first sensations of a child as it enters the world, and life’s tarnishing experience of the innocence of childhood. In Farewell to Arms, a further example of Finzi’s enthusiasm for 17th-century poets, the steady but inevitable tramp of time, symbolized by the measured bass and the tenor’s sad, arching melody, becomes a poignant symbol for the brevity of life as expressed in lines such as ‘O time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing’. Finzi knew all too well that ‘Beauty, strength, youth are flowers but fading seen’.
By Andrew Stewart
Boosey & Hawkes
By David Denton
Gerald Finzi (1901–1956) Dies natalis • Farwell to Arms • Two Sonnets
Gerald Finzi studied privately with Ernest Farrar, Edward Bairstow and R.O. Morris. During the 1920s he came to attention with works like the miniature tone poem A Severn Rhapsody (1923), first performed by the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra (the forerunner of today’s Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) under Dan Godfrey, who was an indefatigable champion of British music. Finzi’s reputation was enhanced with the first performances of the song-cycle A Young Man’s Exhortation (1926-9) and the cantata Dies natalis (1925-39), which is rightly regarded as a minor masterpiece of its time. Two of his most popular works were first performed during World War II: his Shakespeare settings Let us garlands bring (1929-42) and the Five Bagatelles for clarinet (1920s, 1941-3). To the post-war years belong his choral ode For St Cecilia (1947), the Clarinet Concerto (1948- 9), and his large-scale choral setting of Wordsworth’s ode, Intimations of Immortality (1936-8, 1949-50). His final years were lived under the shadow of an incurable illness; nevertheless, he was able to write two further major works, the Cello Concerto (1951-5) and the ‘Christmas scene’, In terra pax (1951-4, 1956).
Song and vocal writing was a major facet of Finzi’s art, and his settings, most frequently of his favourite poet Thomas Hardy, as well as authors of the great flowering of English prose and poetry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, resulted in music that seems inevitably to mirror the essence of the poet’s thought. Finzi’s energetic mind went far beyond his compositions though: he was an insatiable reader who amassed a library of over three thousand books; he was an ardent champion of neglected composers such as Ivor Gurney and Hubert Parry; and he founded an excellent amateur orchestra, the Newbury String Players. Last, but not least, in his orchard he rescued the stock of several traditional English apples from extinction.
It was a characteristic of Finzi to complete works slowly over a number of years; Dies natalis had its origins in the 1920s, yet it was not completed until 1939. Conceived for high voice and strings, it was sung at its première in 1940 by Elsie Suddaby with the New London String Ensemble conducted by Maurice Miles. The work reveals essential facets of the composer and his music. There are his musical roots stemming from Elgar and Vaughan Williams; Bach too, is a further influence, reflected in the form of the work which resembles a solo cantata. The choice of the little known Anglican metaphysical divine Thomas Traherne (c1637- 1674) reflects both Finzi’s keen literary sensibilities, as well as his ardent championing of neglected figures if he believed their work had quality. Finally Dies natalis shows Finzi’s quintessential preoccupation with the themes of life’s brevity and life’s experience tarnishing the innocent state of childhood. The text is taken from Traherne’s Three Centuries of Meditation; what attracted Finzi to it was the poet’s unsullied vision of the world as perceived by a newborn child.
The Intrada, for strings alone, muses on the themes of the following Rhapsody, where the words are set in a supple mixture of recitative and arioso at which Finzi excelled. It recalls his comment to the poet Edmund Blunden: ‘I like music to grow out of the actual words and not be fitted to them’.
The Rapture had two inspirations: the carved angel roof of March church in the Fens and the Botticelli Nativity in the National Gallery: from them came Finzi’s joyous dance of angelic praise. The spiritual ecstasy expressed in Wonder is heightened by the subtle use of harmonic clashes, and The Salutation is cast in the form of a Bachian chorale prelude. With the peaceful unfolding of the string melody, off-setting the voice’s limpid, sighing phrases, and Elgarian falling sevenths, the movement concludes the work in a mood of rapt awe.
Several of Finzi’s compositions were planned initially to be part of larger scale works. Having composed them, Finzi consciously laid them aside until ideas for the companion movements stirred in his mind. The Prelude for strings is an example, first conceived in the 1920s as a movement of a chamber symphony, then an orchestral triptych on the subject of the seasons entitled The Bud, The Blossom and The Berry, but this too did not come to fruition. The ‘Bud’ movement was performed in a piano duet version in 1929, but then rewritten as this Prelude for strings to which Finzi intended to add a contrasting movement. Nothing came of this, however, and the work was posthumously performed in 1957 by the Newbury Strings conducted by Finzi’s eldest son Christopher.
The Fall of the Leaf grew out of ideas that had been intended for the ‘Berry’ movement of the triptych. In piano duet form it was performed in the same concert in 1929 as the ‘Bud’ movement that became the Prelude. Finzi revised the work, completing it (after some five versions) again as a piano duet, probably in the early 1940s and he also left about a third of the work scored at his death. The task of completing the scoring fell to Finzi’s close friend and musical executor, Howard Ferguson, who also added phrasing and dynamics. It was first performed by the Hallé Orchestra in 1957 conducted by John Barbirolli. The title is taken from a short almain by Martin Pearson found in The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Subtitled Elegy, the music grows from a pastoral string melody, rising to two dramatic climaxes.
The Two Sonnets, settings of John Milton, were completed in 1928 and were first performed in 1936 by Steuart Wilson with Iris Lemare conducting. When they were published, a critic took Finzi to task for attempting to write music for poetry that defied setting. His robust retort was typical: ‘I do hate the bilge and bunkum about composers trying to “add” to a poem; that a fine poem is complete in itself, and to set it is 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 ... I don’t think everyone realises the difference between choosing a text and being chosen by one.’ Finzi, writing to his fellow composer Robin Milford, aptly described their character as ‘rather gnarled and uncompromising’. Particularly effective is the conclusion of the second sonnet, which is underlaid by a Holstian marching bass, and swells to a heartfelt, dignified melodic line that captures Milton’s burning desire to serve God, his ‘great task-master’.
Finzi was again to benefit from Godfrey’s advocacy in 1932 when he conducted his Bournemouth orchestra in the first performance of New Year Music, which when published was given the title Nocturne (New Year Music). It was composed in 1928 and was revised during the 1940s. Finzi revealed the inspiration behind the work in a preface to the score in which he cites two literary sources - Charles Lamb’s New Year’s Eve essay in his The Essays of Elia, as well as Robert Bridges’s poem Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913. Finzi quotes Lamb’s view that New Year’s Eve has a ‘sober sadness’, and continued, ‘Here, then, are no merry-makings and suchlike, but something of the mood which is well suggested by the words of Robert Bridges – “when the stars were shining Fared I forth alone” ’. He elaborated this in a letter to Milford, remarking: ‘I love New-Year’s eve, though I think it’s the saddest thing of the year. Anyway that’s what my New Year Music was about!. Don’t you know Lamb’s New Year’s Eve essay?’
In the opening section Finzi dwells on Lamb’s ‘sober sadness’ with music that is sombre and reflective. It gives way to a central section, a stately yet solemn dance in the manner of a galliard, that suggests not only Bridge’s purposeful setting out on his journey, but also the glory of the starlit sky. The dance is driven to a climatic conclusion, before the melancholy returns.
Farewell to Arms is a further example of a work whose gestation took place over many years as well as reflecting Finzi’s enthusiasm for seventeenth-century poets. The second movement, Aria (composed 1926-8) sets a sonnet from George Peele’s Polyhymnia and it was first performed in 1936. During World War II Finzi discovered Ralph Knevet’s poem The helmet now, whose shared images with Peele’s sonnet made it a perfect companion movement to the Aria. Finzi headed it Introduction, and under the title Farewell to Arms, the two movements were performed in 1945 by Eric Greene and the BBC Northern Orchestra conducted by Charles Groves.
Finzi’s skills at writing fluid, expressive recitative are once more evident in the Introduction, whilst the Aria is again a Bachian chorale prelude. Here the steady but inevitable tramp of time, symbolized by the measured bass and the voice’s sad, arching melody, becomes a poignant symbol for the brevity of life as expressed in lines such as ‘O time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing’. Finzi knew all too well that ‘Beauty, strength, youth are flowers but fading seen’.
Sung texts are available at www.naxos.com/libretti/570417.htm
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FINZI: Dies natalis / Farewell to Arms / 2 Sonnets