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Gerald Finzi made an important contribution to British twentieth-century song, choral and orchestral repertoire. His acute awareness of the frailty of existence found its musical expression not only in his song settings, but in the Cello Concerto, music of turbulent and tragic emotions, and his great masterpiece Intimations of Immortality, a deeply touching lament for the passing of the innocence of childhood.
Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
The Best of Finzi
Gerald Finzi determined to become a composer when he was nine. His teachers were Ernest Farrar, Edward Bairstow and R.O. Morris, and he came to notice with works such as the orchestral miniature A Severn Rhapsody (1923). After his marriage to the artist Joyce Black in 1933, he settled in the countryside near Newbury. Finzi’s reputation grew during the 1930s with the publication and performances of his Thomas Hardy settings, A Young Man’s Exhortation (1926-9), and Earth and Air and Rain (1928-32), and was consolidated with the première in 1940 of his cantata Dies natalis (mid-1920s, 1938-9). 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 (1938-43) and the Shakespeare settings, Let us garlands bring (1929-1942).
To the post-war years belong the festival anthem Lo, the Full, Final sacrifice (1946), and the ceremonial ode For St Cecilia (1946-7). During this time he became associated with the Three Choirs Festival where the premières took place of his Clarinet Concerto (1948-9) and Intimations of Immortality for chorus and orchestra (late 1930s, 1949- 50). Although the final years of his life were lived under the shadow of an incurable form of leukaemia, he completed the Christmas scene In terra pax (1954) and the Cello Concerto (1951-2, 1954-5).
Finzi likened the creative artist to a ‘coral insect, building his reef out of the transitory world around him and making a solid structure to last long after his own fragile and uncertain life’. ‘Fragile’ and ‘uncertain’ are the significant words here; throughout his life Finzi was keenly aware of the frailty of existence; before he was eighteen the death of his father, three brothers and his first teacher Farrar, had etched upon him life’s uncertainty, and by fifty he knew himself that he was dying. The sense of transience is the most profound aspect of his art; it is heard in his many settings of Hardy, his favourite poet whose bleak fatalism accorded with his own view of the world. A further preoccupation which may be traced back to these traumatic years is the theme of adult experience tarnishing the innocent world of childhood, as heard in Intimations of Immortality.
Finzi’s music is rooted in the tradition of Elgar, Parry and Vaughan Williams, and Bach too was an important influence. About two thirds of his music is vocal and this gives the clue to the most individual characteristic of Finzi’s art, his response to words, which resulted in music that seems inevitably, and effortlessly, to be at one with the poet’s thought. This bonding with the authors he set arose from his encyclopaedic knowledge of English literature, especially poetry. In his teens and as a young man he was introspective and solitary; books were his companions, and in authors such as Hardy, Traherne and Wordsworth, he found kinship that shaped the ethos for his own life.
Striving indefatigably so that nothing should be lost, Finzi’s energetic mind went far beyond his compositions. He was an ardent champion of neglected composers such as Parry and Ivor Gurney and with his Newbury String Players he revived forgotten eighteenth-century composers such as Stanley and Mudge and fostered the music of his contemporaries, for instance, Edmund Rubbra and Herbert Howells, and young talents such as Kenneth Leighton. He collected a unique and valuable library of English poetry, philosophy and literature of over three thousand volumes, and not least, he rescued the stock of several English apples from extinction. For Finzi the choice and the rare, be it music, fine writing or simply a distinctive flavoured apple were joys to perpetuate.
Finzi had a natural affinity with the timbre of the deep-hued tones of the clarinet, as is obvious in the instinctive, idiomatic writing for the instrument in his Clarinet Concerto (1948-9), written for the greatest British clarinettist of the day, Frederick Thurston, who gave the first performance at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival in September 1949 with the composer conducting. Since then the work has established itself as one of the most popular twentiethcentury concertos for the instrument. The dynamic of the first movement lies between the orchestra’s attempts to establish the gritty, restless mood of the opening, and the soloist’s quiet determination to affirm a calm lyricism.
Another colour to which Finzi was drawn was the baritone voice as heard in his Shakespeare settings Let us garlands bring first performed in 1942 by Robert Irwin and the composer’s close friend Howard Ferguson. The first song, Come away, come away death, has a resigned, valedictory character emphasized by the tolling chime of the piano accompaniment.
The Seven Partsongs (1934-7) were first performed in a BBC broadcast in 1938. As exemplified by Clear and gentle stream, their fresh lyricism has continued to make them justly popular with small choirs.
Several of Finzi’s compositions were planned initially to be part of larger scale works. Thus the Prelude for Strings began as a movement of a chamber symphony, then a work evoking the seasons titled The Bud, the Blossom and the Berry, but this too did not come to fruition. Subsequently ‘The Bud’ movement was rewritten as this Prelude to which Finzi intended to add a contrasting companion. Nothing came of this, however, and the work was posthumously performed in 1957 by the Newbury String Players conducted by Finzi’s eldest son Christopher.
The anthem God is Gone Up sets Edward Taylor and was commissioned for the annual St Cecilia’s Day Service on 22 November 1951. Overall it has an exultant air, with its fanfare-like opening mirroring the words ‘The Lord with sounding trumpets’ melodies’.
Subtitled ‘Elegy’, The Fall of the Leaf grew out of ideas intended for the ‘Berry’ movement of his early work celebrating the seasons. Finzi completed it as a piano duet, probably in the early 1940s and he also left about a third of the work scored at his death. Howard Ferguson finished the scoring and 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.
During 1946-7 Finzi collaborated with the poet Edmund Blunden on the ceremonial ode For St Cecilia, commissioned by the St Cecilia’s Day Festival Committee for the 1947 celebration of music’s patron saint. The excerpt here, Delightful Goddess, in whose fashionings … is the opening of the work where the celebratory mood is established with fanfares and the sonorous sweep of the choral writing.
Finzi had long contemplated writing a Cello Concerto. Sketches for the slow movement exist from the mid-1930s, which he took up again and completed in the autumn of 1951 shortly after the diagnosis of his terminal illness. The spur to finishing the concerto was a request from Barbirolli for a major work that he and the Hallé could perform at the Cheltenham Festival. At the première in July 1955 Christopher Bunting was the soloist. The song-like theme of the Andante quieto, breathes a quiet acceptance and resignation of Finzi’s fate in music of haunting poignancy.
Finzi’s setting of Wordsworth’s Ode, Intimations of Immortality was begun in the late 1930s but interrupted because of the war. It was not finished until 1950, when it had its first performance at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. In his ode Wordsworth laments the loss of childhood’s joys, and warns adults not to lose those intuitive senses they had when very young. For Finzi this became a crux of his artistic creed, that the artist must keep his or her vision alive and fresh at all costs, and by extension any adult too. The excerpt on this CD, Then sing, ye Birds, sing a joyous song! is a fast exultant passage from towards the end of the work.
A Young Man’s Exhortation (1926-9) received its première in 1933. The eponymous opening song ends with Finzi drawing a melodic phrase of wistful tenderness at the words ‘the passing preciousness of dreams’.
It was a characteristic of Finzi to complete works slowly over a number of years; thus Dies natalis had its origins in the 1920s, yet was not completed until 1939. Conceived for high voice and strings, it sets words by the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne. The Intrada, for strings alone, establishes the contemplative mood. Many regard Dies natalis as the composer’s masterpiece.
The set of Hardy songs, Earth and Air and Rain, were performed individually, or in groups during the 1930s, but it was not until 1943 that the first complete performance took place by Irwin and Ferguson. Rollicum-Rorum is a drinking-song with a bravura rollicking accompaniment.
Finzi’s slow process of composition meant that his songs generally took time to be gradually grouped into suitable combinations. Consequently at his death some two dozen songs had been finished which Ferguson, together with Finzi’s widow and eldest son, divided into four song groups of which Till Earth Outwears brings together the remaining Hardy settings for high voice. 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.
The Eclogue was the slow movement of an unfinished piano concerto. It was composed in 1929, then twice revised and after Finzi finally abandoned the concerto he was content to leave it as a single movement. Nevertheless it was not performed in the composer’s lifetime and the title was given to it by Finzi’s musical executors. It was first performed in 1956 at a memorial concert to him. Throughout, the music unfolds with the arching, curvaceous lines and calm serenity that are a hallmark of this distinctive and individual composer.
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FINZI (THE BEST OF)