Gerald Finzi: a TragicHero

Gerald Finzi, my dear friend who died who died in 1956, a full 23 years before I was born, continues to be an inspiration to me from the grave.

It is difficult to muster a more suitable statement about this dear composer than one supplied by John Russell in the Autumn, 1954 edition of Tempo:

It would be of no help to anyone to reduce an article on Gerald Finzi’s music to a series of programme notes.  The music is there for all to study and perform, and all one can do is to introduce it to those who have so far passed it by.  There is no doubt that it is in the tradition of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Parry, and Holst, but of those only the last could have written a bar of Finzi. …he is not very “exportable,” which means that he is not fashionable.  The musician knows him as a writer of fastidious songs, and as a “Three Choirs composer” (how damning a term – why?); the informed listener has hardly heard of him.  He is either relegated to the neighboring coppice with Butterworth and Gurney or he is entombed in a western cathedral with Parry.  His style is so different from those of his much-noised contemporaries that his is regarded as a placid backwater of the main stream; as one who (it would seem) almost perversely writes music which is a joy to perform and a pleasure to listen to.  There are so many passages which find their way immediately to one’s heart.  There is beauty, sensitivity, immaculate craftsmanship, and colour, all working within what is necessarily a small-scale idiom to provide a richly endowed corner of the none-too-spacious garden of readily-accessible music of our time.”

The last sentence almost puts me to tears in that it is exactly what I aspire to accomplish with my own work, although I have only taken small, infantile steps toward that lofty goal.  I can almost imagine myself making the trek to his home to perhaps a weekly study in composition.  Perhaps I would have nearly the same experience as Alan Walker talked about in the 1959 issue of Tempo:

“On the only occasion that I had the privilege of meeting him personally, when I stayed as a guest in his home for two days, I came to the conclusion that not only was he extremely interested in all new developments affecting music, but that he was also well versed in the minutiae of twentieth-century music.  At that time I was a student, and he showed much interest in two songs which I had just composed.  When we were able to repair to his music room he asked me to play (and sing!) them to him.  I growled and thumped my way through them to the best of my ability, during which time he listened most intently, and after I had finished he got up and walked over to his bookshelves (he must have possessed one of the largest private libraries in the country), pulled down a volume, and said, ‘I wonder if you know this work? Play from the second page here.’ I had never seen the music before, but as soon as started to play it I recognized the style immediately as one almost identical with that of my songs.  Finzi at once removed the the sting by launching a discussion of the problems of word-setting, which I regard as one of the best composition lessons that I have ever received.  Only later was I allowed to turn to the title-page of the work he had shown me.  It was the early piano sonata, op. I, of Alban Berg.”

Certainly he wouldn’t pick out a Berg piece if it were me! …laughable really to consider that thought.  But what if he were to open a page to one of the Baritone solo excerpts from the Sea Symphony of Vaughen Williams, one of his dear friends?  Yes, indeed, I may share the same thoughts as Mr. Walker in the home of Finzi.

My favorite piece of his for choir continues to be In terra pax, for to me perhaps it is a primary example of John Russell talked of above.  Composition of In terra pax began in 1951, the year Finzi learned he had Hodgkin’s Disease and perhaps a maximum of 10 more years to live.  He kept this news from his family and continued to work between treatments.  It is a Christmas Scene, set for soprano and baritone soli, mixed chorus and string orchestra, with two equally engaging texts.  One is entitled Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913, by Robert Bridges, from The Shorter Poems of Robert Bridges.  The second text is taken from the gospels: Luke 2:8-14.
It begins with a short, four-note motive:

Even in a simple reading of this piece, one will find this motive permeating the entire musical landscape throughout.  These are the bells of Chosen Hill Church, which he heard ring in the new year as a young boy.  He listened to them once again with his dear friend Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1956 during the Gloucester Festival.  It was his unfortunate fate that the sexton’s children had chickenpox that year, which Finzi caught.  Weakened by this disease, he suffered brain inflammation and died.

Now go and listen to it, knowing death was knocking, knocking, knocking on his chamber door.  The depth and meaning sustained in the simplicity is incredibly profound and intense.

To close, here is what Finzi said about Herbert Howells (one who shares much in common with Finzi):  “To some the idiom will appear ‘dated,’ and poorer critical minds attach much greater significance to this word than it deserves.  ‘All only constant is in constant change,’ but too often the generations see only the change and overlook the constancy.  We are, after all, only a link in a chain and each link must, of necessity, lie the opposite way to its predecessor.”

What a sigh of relief to me.  Thank you my dear friend, Gerald.


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