Gerald Finzi (1901-56)

Written by: David Wordsworth

Though some two orchestral works, the wonderful Clarinet and Cello Concertos, have crept, or are starting to creep into the repertoire, the essence of Gerald Finzi can be found most readily in his choral and vocal works. His word-setting of even notoriously difficult poets such as Thomas Hardy and Thomas Traherne is second to none; I would even go so far as to say on a level with those other two masters of English word setting, Purcell and Britten.

Like Purcell, Finzi’s music is never easy to perform – the
rhythmic intricacies, ties over the bar, changing time signatures that make bar-lines almost redundant. Against this, the rhythmic flexibility, the beautifully imagined melodic lines and the absolute rightness of his response to some obscure texts – Traherne (Dies natalis) or Richard Crashaw (Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice) or well-worn verse as Shakespeare’s ’Who is Sylvia?’ and ’It was a Lover and his Lass (Let us Garlands Bring) – make him well worth the re-discovery that seems to have been encouraged during this his centenary year.

With the exception of the Concertos already mentioned (and the curiously Waltonian Grand Fantasia and Toccata for piano and orchestra), Finzi was never that interested in attempting large forms – there is very little chamber music, certainly nothing approaching a string quartet, no symphony or stage work.

Composing never came easily to Finzi – it was a slow and painful
process, a work sometimes taking years to reach its final form. A friend that wrote an extended study of Finzi’s music spoke of finding some sketches for the recent and rather pointlessly unearthed Violin Concerto headed “damn, blasted Violin Concerto”. Such a case was Intimations of Immortality, Finzi’s largest scale and longest work, lasting some forty minutes and
scored for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra. Perhaps it is the rather ponderous text of my namesake (may I be struck dumb immediately!), but this cantata has never really entered the repertoire in the same way as say Belshazzar’s Feast. It makes considerable demands on the chorus, which need considerable stamina and great rhythmic agility to manage all the dangerous corners. Perhaps its time has come – the work has already had two performances in London this year; others are planned elsewhere in the UK and it recently had its US and Japanese premieres!

Those searching for the real Finzi should look for the remarkable song cycles with piano and the shorter choral works such as the
Magnificat, the beautiful Seven Poems of Robert Bridges and the Festival Anthem, Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice. As a conductor, once one has got over persuading a chorus to sing about “… self-wounding pelicans…” this is a really marvellous work. I would give a lot just to have written the closing Amen, one of the most magical moments in any music.

But if Finzi, in his all too short life, had written just one work, the solo cantata, Dies natalis, he would still be worth celebrating. I remember hearing this masterpiece for the first time and being completely overwhelmed. Only later did I learn that its composer was not only of Jewish origin but also an agnostic, but Traherne’s ecstatic words speak to even the hardest and suspicious of hearts; Finzi’s response is nothing short of breathtaking. Heaven only knows how many times I have heard it – even conducted it twice (if that doesn’t make one change one’s mind about a piece, nothing will!) – yet it still comes back fresh and inspiring as ever. The simple recitative-like episode “I was entertained like an Angel with the works of God…” still sends shivers down my spine.

Rather than express regret for what this wonderful composer didn’t live to give us, or dig around to find pieces that he quite clearly thought were not fit to leave his workshop (in the case of the recently put-together Violin Concerto – see review – his self-criticism was more than justified), let us celebrate him for what he did do.

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