I enjoy reading Gramophone Magazine, a British periodical devoted to articles and CD reviews of classical music. It’s an easy and informative way of learning about this type of music and discovering new pieces. For instance, an issue last winter (Dec. 2011, pp. 114-119) contained an article about Gerald Finzi’s cantata Dies Natalis. During a season when even my favorite Advent and Christmas music wasn’t “moving” me amid an unusually hectic month and down mood, I appreciated a (to me) new work by a favorite composer.
Finzi was an English composer of Italian and Jewish background. Born in 1901, he began to be known for his works during the 1920s and 1930s. He set his favorite poet Thomas hardy’s words to music with By Footpath and Stile (1921-1922), A Young Man’s Exhortation (1926-1929), and Earth and Air and Rain (1928-1932). His other words included Dies Natalis from the 1920s and 30s, the anthem Lo, The Full, Final Sacrifice (1946), his setting of Woodsworth’s poem “Ode: Intimation of Immortality” (1950), as well as the Clarinet Concerto (1948-1949), and Cello Concerto (1951-1952, 1954-1955). His other works include the melancholy Eclogue from 1929 (a slow movement of an unfinished piano concerto).
Andrew Burn, in the notes for the Naxos CD “Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice and other choral works,” writes that “Finzi’s music is rooted in the tradition of Elgar and his lifelong friend Vaughan Williams. It was his response to words, however, that gave his music is particular individuality, resulting in music that seems inevitably to mirror the essence of the poet’s thoughts. As in … Thomas Hardy, a sense of urgency can be felt in the music reflecting his keen awareness of life’s frailty. A further preoccupation wash is believe that adult experience tarnishes the innocent wonder of childhood. Both these concerns may be traced to Finzi’s own early experience when the deaths of his father, three brothers and his teacher [Ernst] Farrar made an indelible impression on him.” Burns reiterates these influences in his notes for another Naxos CD, Finzi’s setting of “Intimations.” He also points out that Finzi had numerous and admirable interests: he revived and championed works of neglected composers, he built an orchard and saved several varieties of English apples from extinction, and he collected over 3000 editions of English poetry and literature.
In that Gramophone article, Jeremy Dibble writes about Finzi’s music generally: “Stylistically, Finzi undoubtedly owed much to that English Romanic yearning established by Parry in Blest Pair of Sirens in the latter part of the 19th century. The falling melodic seventh of Milton’s moving epode, ‘O may we soon renew that song’, finds countless resonances in Finzi’s own voice.” Also, writes Dibble, Finzi was influenced by the counterpoint and contrapuntal textures of Bach, Boyce, Stanley, Avison, Garth, and other 18th century Baroque composers. But English poetry and prose and the rhythms of the English language inspired Finzi’s compositions, so many of them for voice.
I haven’t read the two recent biographies by Diana M. McVeagh and Stephen Banfield, which a Gramophone reviewer a few years ago found complementary. Finzi died in 1956 at the age of 55, which is the age I am this year. He died of complications related to the Hodgkin’s Disease which had been diagnosed five years before. As a Vaughan Williams devotee I had read about him in RVW literature, then I liked his Clarinet Concerto in a CD collection of English concertos (“My England,” on the ASV Living Era label). Later, I found his Requiem da Camera and several other pieces I already named, including the Woodsworth setting, with words I’ve loved for years because they remind me of my hometown:
But for those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never…
(For the whole poem, see http://www.bartleby.com/101/536.html)
I also love Finzi’s setting of the poem, “God Has Gone Up,” a wonderful anthem. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFaJjeXCTjU
God is gone up with a triumphant shout:
The Lord with sounding Trumpets’ melodies:
Sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praises out,
Unto our King sing praise seraphic wise!
Lift up your Heads, ye lasting Doors, they sing,
And let the King of Glory enter in.
Methinks I see Heaven’s sparkling courtiers fly,
In flakes of Glory down him to attend,
And hear the Heart-cramping notes of Melody
Surround his Chariot as it did ascend;
Mixing their music, making every string
More to enravish as they this tune sing.