Rhapsodic Centenary

Written by: Duncan Hadfield

Coming into the world at the turn of the previous century, in 1901, Gerald Finzi belongs to a generation of English composers that might be said, until relatively recently at least, to have suffered undue neglect. Finzi’s music is tonal, attractive, delicately hewn and inhabits the world of the English pastoralism. Born in London, the youngest of five children, Finzi’s father died in 1909; the family moved to Harrogate where he initially studied music with Ernest Farrar, a pupil of Stanford. By his early twenties Finzi had moved to English music’s pastoral heartland – Gloucestershire – beginning his lifelong love of poem-setting.

Befriending his exact contemporaries, Edmund Rubbra and Howard Ferguson, and soon receiving encouragement from the older generation of Vaughan Williams, Holst, Bliss and Howells, Finzi soon carved-out an idiosyncratic and rewarding niche for himself, settling eventually near Newbury where he completed some of his finest compositions. Sadly, what might have been a still-more fruitful career was cut off in its prime when, aged just 50, the composer was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease – he died five years later.

In 1933 Finzi married the artist Joyce Black by whom he had two sons, Christopher and Nigel, and it was to the latter that I recently had the privilege of speaking about his father’s legacy. “Whilst I’m obviously biased to some degree as to what I think about my father’s reputation, I suppose I’ve always recognised him as what I’d call a ’major minor’ figure – which I think is preferable to being a ’minor major’ one. That said, I believe his stature arises from the fact that everything he produced is of outstanding quality. He might well have known his limitations but he sought to stretch them with everything he wrote; I always sense in his music an exquisite craftsman at work.”

“I believe an undoubted strength is his word-setting – he just seemed to possess this remarkable affinity with verse or poetry and its enunciation, and seemed to be able to inflect his music with the most precise moods and nuances. What also seemed to fascinate him so much was the opposition of the singer against the accompaniment, both blending and yet standing apart; and I think that trend carries over to the purely instrumental pieces too, especially the concertos, like the one for clarinet. It’s often said that Mozart’s vocal and concerto writing possess a close affinity, and I believe something similar is true of my father’s idiom.”

What sort of person was he? “Well, I certainly remember him as a very loving, kind and supportive father. He was also a very intense man who believed in things passionately, all sorts of things from human rights to the sanctity of the environment and much more. And because he was so generously spirited, he was always inundated by people requesting his support, especially of course other musicians and composers. I think because he spent so much of his life trying to help them that his own productivity and inspiration suffered as a result. Composing took him a long time and so he simply didn’t have that sort of philanthropic time to spare.”

“No, strangely, even after being diagnosed with what he knew was a terminal illness, the last years of his life were by no means sad; in fact, I’d say they were almost some of his happiest. I remember the close family being sworn to secrecy over it but, again, it almost didn’t seem an issue in the first place – Christopher and I were still relatively young; our father was there with us and we simply assumed he would carry on being there. In fact, in retrospect one could say that he was remarkably lucky or strong-willed enough to get five more very full years of life after the onset of the disease. At the same time it is sad if for no other reason than I believe he had a great deal more music in him. I feel sure he would have gone on and on writing: he was definitely not the Sibelius type who would have retired and rested on his laurels.”

“Still, we must be grateful for what there is, and for the fact that so many of his pieces have something valid to offer, and have attracted a faithful following. Plus, I believe now, that his reputation is as strong as ever. In fact, even I was faintly surprised as to just how much is going on this summer – he’s being played all over Britain, at the Lichfield Festival, at the Newbury Festival – near our old home of course – and a Blue Plaque will be unveiled there on his 100th-birthday (14 July). The Finzi Trust is going strong and continues to draw in supporters and fans; and there are plans for a major biography – already an excellent book about him exists, though more towards the musicologist than the layman, so I hope this projected ’second view’ will come about. And then there are these two splendid high-profile concerts in the Barbican, one now and the other in the autumn, from the LSO conducted by Richard Hickox, another tireless advocate of my father’s work. So I relish the thought that Gerald Finzi would have been both delighted and appreciative of what’s being done on his behalf this year.”

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