Finzi, Gerald

| Category: Composers

(b London, 14 July 1901; d Oxford, 27 Sept 1956). English composer. The son of a shipbroker, he was educated privately, and studied music with Ernest Farrar (1915-16) then, when Farrar joined the army, with Edward Bairstow at York (1917-22).

Gerald Finzi
Gerald Finzi

Finzi was shocked when Farrar was killed in France, following his own father’s death when he was eight, and that of his three elder brothers, confirmed his introspective bent, his recourse to literature, and the sense of urgency in his dedication to music. In 1922, drawn to the countryside of Elgar, Gurney and Vaughan Williams, he moved to Painswick in Gloucestershire, working (as in a deeper sense he always did) in isolation. On advice from Boult he took a course in counterpoint from R.O. Morris in 1925, then settled in London, moving for the first time in a circle of young musicians which included Arthur Bliss, Howard Ferguson, Robin Milford and Edmund Rubbra, meeting Holst and Vaughan Williams, and avidly going to concerts, exhibitions and the theatre. From 1930 to 1933 he taught at the RAM. Some of his freshest, most individual music was written at this time, as well as some weaker pieces: he later withdrew the Severn Rhapsody (Carnegie Award), a Violin Concerto conducted (1928) by Vaughan Williams and some songs. (His habit of revising compositions years later makes dating them problematic).

In 1933 Finzi married Joyce Black (1907-91), herself an artist, whose liberating warmth and practical efficiency eased his way; in 1935 they retired to Aldbourne in Wiltshire. Acutely aware of life’s transience, Finzi had always a need to consolidate, collect and cultivate. In 1937 the Finzis found a 16-acre site on the Hampshire hills at Ashmansworth, and built a house designed to work in. Living frugally by worldly standards, there he composed, assembled a library and an orchard of rare apple trees, took such adjudicating, examining and committee work as came his way, and gave hospitality to friends drawn by his zest and sense of endeavor. His first published Hardy sets of songs attracted quiet admiration. More positive recognition was due when Dies natalis was to be performed at the 1939 Three Choirs Festival; war caused the festival to be cancelled, and the first performance took place modestly at the Wigmore Hall on 26 January 1940.

For all his carefully created environment, Finzi was politically alert, and, though he was an agnostic, his parents were Jewish (his father’s forebears moved to England from Italy in the mid-18th century). By instinct and reason he was a pacifist, with a distrust of dogmas and creeds (an attitude that drew him to Hardy, as did his preoccupation with time, its changes, chances and continuities). His reluctant admission of the necessity for the 1939-45 war deepened his conviction that the creative artist is the prime representative of a civilization. In December 1940 he founded the Newbury String Players, a mainly amateur group which performed in local churches, schools and village halls, and kept the group going when he worked in London at the Ministry of War Transport from 1941 to 1945, and afterwards (when he died, his son Christopher took them over). Finzi was not a fluent pianist, and never a singer. This orchestra became his instrument; through it he gave many a hearing to young performers and composers, and fiercely involved himself in reviving 18th-century English works, his scholarly and practical research resulting in published editions. He also collected and catalogued Parry’s scattered autograph manuscripts. He worked selflessly, too, for Ivor Gurney (they never met), being a force behind the Music & Letters Gurney issue in 1938 and the publication of his songs and poems.

The first performance of Finzi’s Intimations of Immortality at the 1950 Three Choirs Festival brought discussion about whether Wordsworth’s ode was suitable for musical setting, a controversy bound to pursue a composer who had also chosen texts from Traherne and Milton. Finzi’s principle was that no words were too fine or too familiar to be inherently unsettable by a composer who wished to identify himself with their substance. He developed and formulated his ideas in the Crees lectures, a knowledgeable, stimulating and on occasion provocative survey of the history and aesthetics of English song.

In 1951 Finzi learnt that he was suffering from Hodgkin’s Disease, and had at most ten years to live. He kept the knowledge within his family, and, between treatments, simply continued to work. During the 1956 Gloucester Festival he took Vaughan Williams up to nearby Chosen Hill church, where as a young man he had heard the New Year rung in (those bells peal through the exquisite In terra pax). The sexton’s children had chickenpox, which Finzi caught; weakened by his disease, he suffered brain inflammation and died. In 1965 his library of music from about 1740 to 1780, considered the finest of its period assembled privately in England at that time, went to St Andrews University, Fife. His library of English literature, his sustenance and inspiration, is housed in the Finzi Book Room at Reading University Library. The Finzi Trust, formed in 1969, promotes recordings, concerts, festivals and publications of the music of Finzi and other English composers.

Finzi unerringly found the live centre of his vocal texts, fusing vital declamation with a lyrical impulse in supple, poised lines. He was little concerned with word-painting, and his songs are virtually syllabic (in contrast with Britten’s and Tippett’s). Hardy’s tricky, sometimes intractable verse released his creativity, and his settings range from the loving Her Temple through the Wolfian bite of I look into my glass, and the distanced serenity of At a Lunar Eclipse to the dramatic Channel Firing. Few of his songs are plainly strophic; many are cast in an arioso style which can be colloquial or intense. Some, apparently improvisational, reveal a firm underlying structure. Finzi’s sense of tonality and form was idiosyncratic. The accompaniments, not obviously pianistic, work excellently with the voice; often they are formed from the kind of close imitative texture much used in his shorter orchestral pieces. Some of his movements, meticulous in detail, are less sure in overall grasp, and his limited idiom and the regularity of his harmonic pace can become monotonous. These drawbacks are balanced in the Clarinet Concerto by the fertility and gaiety of the thematic invention, and in the Cello Concerto by a deeper passion – the turbulence of its first movement suggests a line of development cut short by his death.

Melodically and harmonically Finzi owed something to Elgar and Vaughan Williams; as well as occasional flashes of Bliss and Walton, Finzi’s love and knowledge of Parry can be discerned. To none of these composers was he in debt for the finesse of his response to the English language and imagery, or for his vision of a world unsullied by sophistication or nostalgia. The adult’s sense of loss at his exclusion from this Eden inspires some of Finzi’s strongest sustained passages, from the melancholy grandeur that informs Intimations to the brooding power of Lo, the full, final sacrifice. Personal, too, is what he drew from Bach: in the Grand Fantasia the duality sets up a challenging tension, and in the aria movements from Farewell to Arms and Dies natalis the rare marriage of disciplined contrapuntal accompaniment and winged voice is logical and ecstatic. Dies natalis, a song cycle shaped like a Bach cantata to verse and poetic prose by Traherne, is a minor masterpiece of English music.

GERALD FINZI (1901-1965) Five Bagatelles for Clarinet, with string accompaniment arranged by Lawrence Ashmore (1989) Prelude Romance Carol Forlana Fughetta

Though his vocal works are quite well-known, Gerald Finzi’s instrumental and orchestral works, which amount to about a third of his output, remain unjustly neglected. In his short life he produced a series of miniature eloquent tone poems and two major concertos, one for cello and orchestra (1956) and the Clarinet Concerto (1948-49), works which display a distinctive voice of sensitivity, close melodically and harmonically to Elgar and Vaughan Williams. His early life was marred by a series of bereavements, of his father when he was eight, of his three elder brothers and his first influential music teacher in the Great War, and these events seem to have reinforced an already essentially introspective nature. He moved to Painswick in Gloucestershire in 1922 to seek inspiration from the countryside of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and there worked in isolation until 1925 when, on the advice of Adrian Boult, he moved to London to take tuition in counterpoint. Once in London he joined a circle of young musicians, meeting Holst and Vaughan Williams, and it was at this time that he produced some of his most original works.

Though he was Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music between 1930 and 1933, he remained outside the musical establishment and preferred to combine part-time composition with his career as expert apple-grower. He settled with his family near Newbury and in the early war years established the Newbury String Players. Finzi was an indifferent pianist and did not sing, and so this string orchestra became his personal means of expression, giving him deep insights into, and an affinity with, the nuances of string technique and texture. His distinctive string voice is particularly well displayed in the Clarinet Concerto; many of the same characteristics are prevalent in his Five Bagatelles for Clarinet and Piano, excellently realized in this arrangement for string orchestra by Lawrence Ashmore. Three of the Bagatelles – the Romance, Carol and Forlana – were produced in a spurt of creative activity during 1941 along with the Romance for String Orchestra. Realizing that these pieces required some introduction, he composed the Prelude during New Year 1942; this, he later told Howard Ferguson, “has turned out to be rather larger in scale, and more difficult, than the others and I only hope that it’s not outside the ‘Bagatelle’ radius”. The Romance is in the key of E flat, the same key as the String Romance, associated in Finzi’s music with a particular “mellowness of sonority and figuration or with romance and memory” (Stephen Banfield). Finzi’s publisher recognized the need for a finale and the Fughetta was squeezed out of the composer somewhat reluctantly in 1943. The Bagatelles are staple wind repertoire fare on the examination and competition circuit and Finzi himself described them as mere “trifles” but Finzi’s biographer Banfield recognizes them as “top-drawer Finzi”.

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