The commission from the Finzi Trust to write a Gloria[i] and Nunc dimittis[ii] to accompany Finzi’s beautiful Magnificat[iii]for The Three Choirs Festival 2016 began with a telephone call from Robert Gower. I was hugely excited, honoured, and in all honesty, rather scared by the responsibility of the commission. There followed a number of discussions with Robert and Paul Spicer, and, most extensively, with Adrian Partington; Adrian had lamented to Robert the fact that the Magnificat was not ideally suited to liturgical use, and eagerly endorsed Robert’s suggestion of me as the composer for this.
My original concern (and one Adrian shared) was that my role was absolutely NOT to be to ‘complete’ or ‘correct’ Finzi’s work. The beautiful ‘Amen’, according to Diana McVeagh written in a taxi on the way to catch the final possible postto reach rehearsals for which the work was already well overdue, forms a most fitting conclusion, and whether one speculates on Finzi’s intention to write a Gloria or not, the fact is he didn’t, and, furthermore, he subsequently orchestrated the work as it stood. The ‘Amen’ may indeed simply follow an extended silence, but it nonetheless shows Finzi’s final thoughts. However, a Gloria is a useful thing in a liturgical context, and a Nunc dimittisessential, and the hope from everyone involved was that it might make the piece more useful for choirs and thus introduce Finzi’s work to a larger audience.
Adrian and I decided over lunch against the writing of a Gloria, but about ten minutes later decided that it might be possible. I determined that in setting the Gloria I would not touch a single note of Finzi – I would attempt to write something which could simply slot in if required, leading directly into his ‘Amen’; not a single note from this Gloria would seep into the ‘Amen’. The Nunc dimittis was a much safer issue – I would write a ‘free’ work to go with Finzi’s.
I began with a month of ‘total immersion’, listening only to music by Finzi. Fortunately, he has always been one of my deeply held loves, and I have often felt his influence on my music – in this work I could allow this to come to the fore.
I could immediately hear the opening organ motif of the Magnificatlaunching the Gloria, and as Finzi repeats many ideas throughout the piece, this seemed to be the way to proceed. One early problem was the repetition required to fit the phrase ‘and to the Holy Ghost’ into the otherwise ideal material from the opening – antiphonal use of the choirs avoided a trite repetition. I heard the beautiful filigree figure accompanies ‘for he hath regarded’ providing the perfect backing for ‘As it was in the beginning’, and after much fiddling and musical discussion with friends and musical minds ‘World without end’ fitted a classic Finzi–esque melodic outline (very similar to that of ‘To Lizbie Brown’[iv]). The ‘Amen’ then followed. The ‘Gloria’ is thus essentially entirely Finzi – the opening almost a direct transposition of the opening of the Magnificat, and the remainder using material from this along with Finzi’s other trademark harmonic turns.
The Finzi style has many hugely effective and immediately distinctive thumbprints – I was thus able to harness a number of these in the Nunc dimittis, and so nod to the composer. I was keen not to attempt pastiche, yet it needed to sound like a fitting companion to the Magnificat. One of the big challenges is that Finzi almost never uses melisma, with rare exceptions including the final ‘Amen’ of both the Magnificatand ‘Lo, the full, final sacrifice’ – I followed those models here.
Finzi is also noted for his harmonic surprises – these are by default impossible to imitate! I hoped, however, that there would be enough interesting turns to avoid any feeling of predictability, whilst also using a number of his familiar turns. The organ part would also be highly colourful to match the writing in the Magnificat, and the use of the semi–chorus would be a feature as well.
In the interests of balance, the Nunc dimittisis similarly extended to the Magnificat, with plentiful repetition of words (the canonic answering phrases of ‘for mine eyes’ over a classic walking bass for example), and the return towards the end of the opening words. This was suggested to me by Stanford’s setting in A, which I had performed during a key period in the writing.
The opening is redolent of ‘Lo, the full final sacrifice’, introducing motifs which will feature throughout the movement. The first lines of the text are repeated in outlines which I hope recall something of Finzi’s song–writing. The section ‘to be a light’ took a great deal of rewriting to achieve what I felt to be the right form, as did the opening of the Gloria; I decided that this would be different to that of the Magnificatand that the work as a whole would end in gentle peace. After a setting of ‘World without end’ which is similar to that of the previous canticle but with more plentiful and tighter imitation, I had the most enjoyable and challenging time writing the final ‘Amen’ – Finzi’s own examples are amongst the finest in the repertoire and I tried to infuse this with the same rapturous melismatic ecstasy.
I included in the dedication of the work the line ‘For Adrian Partington, with grateful thanks to Robert Gower and Paul Spicer, and with the utmost love, affection, and respect for Gerald Finzi and his music’, and my hope is that it may prove useful in promoting the work of this glorious, distinctive, and most craftsman–like of composers.
[i] The doxology usually sung at the end of both the traditional Evensong Canticles of the Church of England, beginning ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son…’
[ii] The second of the two Canticles
[iii]The first of the two Canticles. Finzi had composed his setting of this text in isolation in 1952, as a non-liturgical composition, without a setting of the Gloria. It was composed for a candlelit Christmas Vespers service, for the choir of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
[iv] From Earth and Air and Rain
The Record Guide used to be the record collector’s bible in the 1950s as the judgements of its editors, Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, came from the minds of two exceptionally intelligent musical writers. Originally published in 1951, the aim of the book was to help the music-loving record-buyer select from the frequent duplication of repertoire. A revised edition, running to 957 pages came out in 1955 and had its cut-off point as “towards the end of 1954”. But this turned out to be the last edition as the flood of new long-playing records overwhelmed the authors.
Its views on Gerald Finzi (in seven lines) were shrewd but there was only one record selected for discussion – Joan Cross’s recording of Dies Natalis and her singing was judged to have been “in beautiful style” but the recording “not altogether comfortable”. By contrast the mainstream Vaughan Williams had thirty-nine records reviewed, Elgar twenty-seven, Walton ten and Holst eight. Finzi continued to be under represented in both the concert hall and on record for the next decade or so but Wilfred Brown’s recording of Dies Natalis with Christopher Finzi and the English Chamber Orchestra in 1963 changed the landscape. Here was Finzi’s perfect marriage of words and music faithfully realised on LP and Wilfred Brown’s incomparable diction, the purity of his voice, his sensitivity to the text – together with the fabulous playing and recording of the ECO make this one of the most treasured of Finzi records. Also included on the CD was Holst’s Choral Fantasia and Psalm 86 conducted by Imogen Holst, so making this CD unique with son and daughter conducting their famous fathers’ works.
Surprisingly the Proms have never featured Dies Natalis, but in 1954 White Flowering Days and Let us Garlands Bring were included in the programme and since then the Clarinet Concerto (3 times), the Cello Concerto, Fall of the Leaf, and Let us Garlands Bring (twice each) and Farewell to Arms, Five Bagatelles, Grand Fantasia, Intimations of Immortality, White Flowering Days and Romance (once each) have all been played.
In 1968 Lyrita was founded and under the dedicated leadership of Richard Itter became one of the UK’s longest established and highest regarded independent classical labels. One of the earliest releases was a historic LP that included Let us Garlands Bring, in which John Carol Case, who had sung under Finzi, was partnered by Howard Ferguson and no one knew GF’s mind better than him. What’s more both Joy Finzi and Diana McVeagh were present at the recording session. This was followed in the next decade by four more LPs that ensured that Finzi’s major works were readily available to a wider public, and with sympathetic artists such as Philip Langridge, Ian Partridge Vernon Handley, Adrian Boult and Richard Hickox most major works were recorded. Particularly valued were Yo Yo Ma’s Cello Concerto, John Carol Case’s song cycles and John Denman’s Clarinet Concerto (transferred to CD in 2007). These are now all available as CDs on the Nimbus label and the company is also selling old stock of the Lyrita LPs, which are in pristine condition.
The Finzi Trust
The Finzi Trust was formed in 1969 and its far-reaching impact in furthering the music, ideals and work of Gerald Finzi has had a real impact in its relatively short life. It has assisted individuals and organisations in a variety of ways and many projects have encouraged young artists and composers. But Finzi has not been the only composer to feature in its recording projects, as Michael Berkeley, Benjamin Britten, Howard Ferguson, Ivor Gurney, Herbert Howells, Kenneth Leighton, Malcolm Lipkin, Herbert Sumsion, Elizabeth Poston, William Walton and Percy Whitlock have also been featured. The Trust’s re-publication of out-of-print scores has been a particularly valuable role.
The Hyperion label, founded by Ted Perry and now run by his son Simon, was supported by the Trust and its superb double CD made in 1989 by Stephen Varcoe, Martin Hill and Clifford Benson of the song cycles was probably the most influential and set the standard for this repertoire. The company issued many other CDs featuring artists such as Matthew Best, Lynne Dawson, James Gilchrist, Thea King, Philip Langridge, Christopher Maltman, Malcolm Martineau, John Mark Ainsley, Mark Padmore, Ian Partridge, Stephen Roberts, Anna Tilbrook, Roger Vignoles and Raphael Wallfisch which have all added to the richness of Finzi repertoire available.
Chandos Records, which was founded by Brian Couzens ten years before Hyperion, has also recorded most of the major works but issues of the Violin Concerto (Tasmin Little), Cello Concerto (Raphael Wallfisch), Requiem da Camera (City of London Sinfonia and Richard Hickox), Farewell to Arms (Martyn Hill, City of London Sinfonia and Richard Hickox), Choral Works (Finzi Singers and Paul Spicer) and the Clarinet Concerto (Michael Collins) have been particularly valued.
A unique CD was issued last year by MDG (supported by the Trust) entitled Diabelleries & Five Bagatelles in which the Cologne Chamber Soloists play Finzi’s chamber music. It includes the world premiere recording of Diabelleries, a stunning mid-twentieth century composite initiated by Vaughan Williams which features eight British composers – Lutyens, Maconchy, Bush, Rawsthorne, Grace Williams, Ferguson, Jacob and Finzi. Each was asked to write a variation on “Oh!, where’s my little basket gone?”, the theme being attributed to Alfred Scott-Gatty. Also included on the disc are Elegy, Romance for String Quartet, Introit for violin and piano, Prelude for string orchestra and Interlude for oboe and string quartet, which Tom Owen plays delightfully. Arrangements for Romance and Bagatelles were made by Christian Alexander and Introit by Howard Ferguson.
To commemorate the 60th Anniversary of Gerald Finzi’s passing, Decca Classics and the Finzi Trust have collaborated on a special album, Introit, the aim of which is to find a wider audience for Finzi’s lyrical music. Popular vocal works are re-imagined and performed by Amy Dickson on the saxophone, Thomas Gould on violin, Tom Poster on piano and Nicolas Fleury on horn. The Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon play the arrangements which have been specially commissioned by the Trust from craftsmen such as Paul Mealor. This record has received a mixed reception in the musical press, though many have felt that it is an admirable initiative which will increase the awareness of Gerald Finzi and his music.
The Clarinet Concerto
The Clarinet Concerto is a puzzling example of Finzi’s compositions being slow to become well known, as it is one of his most approachable works although its premiere was given by the eminent clarinettist Frederick Thurston in 1949. The first recording was not made until twenty-eight years later when John Denman was the soloist and he was followed by a succesion of clarintettists – the most notable being Thea King (1979), Alan Hacker (1979), Richard Stolzman (1990), Emma Johnson (1991), Robert Plane (1995), Andrew Marriner (1996), Margaret Donaghue (1997), James Campbell (1999), David Campbell (2008), Sarah Williamson (2009) and Michael Collins (2012). Michael Collins had played it in the woodwind final of the first BBC Young Musicians Competition in 1978 and in those days the coverage of this competition was wider so reached a large television audience.
Naxos – a Wider Audience
Robert Plane’s version on Naxos in 1995 – retailing at £5.00 – was very influential as it sold 10,000 copies in its first year and so encouraged the company to record other major Finzi works. The Cello Concerto (Tim Hugh) and a CD of Choral Works (Christopher Robinson and St John’s College Cambridge) followed in 2001, I said to Love, Let us Garlands Bring and Before and After Summer (Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside) in 2004, Intimations of Immortality (James Gilchrist, David Hill and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) in 2005, Earth and Air and Rain, To a Poet and By Footpath and Stile (Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside) in 2005, A Young Man’s Exhortation, Till Earth Outwears and Oh Fair to See (John Mark Ainsley and Iain Burnside) in 2006 and Dies Natalis (James Gilchrist, David Hill and BSO) in 2007. Finally to mark the sixtieth anniversary of GF’s death a handsome box set of all eight CDs has been produced to retail at £30. One of the strengths of Naxos Records is that it created its own distribution network and this has been so successful worldwide that other independent labels began to use these services also. Many of these CDs were played on Classic FM and both the Bagatelles and Eclogue have featured on its annual “Hall of Fame”.
A View from the Sales Stall
Looking at the programmes of the Finzi Trust’s Weekends in Ellesmere, Oxford and Radley one is amazed at the ambition and breadth of the programming and the same could be said for the Friends’ Ludlow Weekends of Song, an event inaugurated in 2001 to celebrate the centenary of Finzi’s birth. I had taken over the Sales Stall from Keith Parker in 1995 but apart from selling Stephen Banfield’s excellent biography (published in 1997) it was a low key affair. However with so many performances arranged in the centenary year the stock of CDs was built up and I travelled the country to fly our flag at most places where Finzi was being played. It was a tíme when people were building up their CD collection and sales were invariably good – especially when a specific work was being played by an artist who had recorded the work.
So concerts that included Raphael Wallfisch playing the Cello Concerto generated £800 in Harrogate, £1,500 in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, £381 in Newbury and £1,790 at the Three Choirs in Gloucester. Other places visited – Warwick, Reading, Lichfield, Kendal, Buxton, Wigmore Hall, the Barbican, Luton (twice), Ripon and a Making Music Workshop in Bromsgrove – generated over £5,000. There were so many at the Ludlow Weekend who had never seen the records and books on the Sales Stall before that they spent very freely and £3,943 was taken. Most of the venues were generous in letting us set up our stall in the foyer and only a few asked for 10% of the takings.=
Diana McVeagh, after establishing her credentials with a seminal biography of Elgar in 1955, has been a benign and invaluable influence during these sixty years and her friendship with Joy Finzi gave her 2005 biography, which members bought in large numbers, a special authority. In succeeding years taking the stall to the Three Choirs Finzi Friends’ lunch continued to be productive. In 2006 Howard Wong’s enterprising Finzi Festivals in Nottingham and Canterbury boosted takings further. Howard Wong himself had made a CD (A Song Outlasts a Dynasty) of all the baritone song cycles and this was a steady seller. Ashmansworth, Paul Spicer’s Choral Experience in Dore Abbey, a John Rutter Workshop, Celebrating English Song, Finzi Friends’ events at Oxford, Tardebigge, Northampton, Chester and Gloucester all kept the bandwagon rolling. The four triennial Ludlow Weekends continued to be very profitable and to date the total taken since 2001 is a staggering £65,540. We reckon to make a mark up of about 20% (dealers mostly give us 33%) so are able to sell goods at well below the average retail price.
In recent years the decline of interest in the CD and classical music in general, fewer special events and a less active membership have all contributed to a decline in sales but in spite of the rise of “downloading” the CD refuses to die and gloomy predictions have been confounded.
Over the years the best seller has undoubtedly been Wilfred Brown’s Dies Natalis on the EMI label and although it was deleted in 2007 it can still be bought at inflated prices on the internet. Hyperion’s best sellers have been War Embers, Earth and Air and Rain, and Songs by Finzi and Friends. Chandos most popular discs have been Raphael Wallfisch playing the Cello Concerto and Choral Works sung by the Finzi Singers under Paul Spicer. As the Naxos series were issued these took over as Finzi best sellers because of the very favourable price and excellent quality of artists and recording.
When Joy Finzi founded the Finzi Trust in 1969 (to be joined later by her young friends Robert Gower, Andrew Burn and Paul Spicer) little can they have anticipated that Gerald’s music would have been so widely played as it is today.
During his lifetime, Gerald Finzi was blessed with having his music performed by some of the finest English singers, instrumentalists, choirs and orchestras; partly, no doubt, because his music is really approachable and satisfying to play and sing, and partly because he was such a lovely man. Indeed, happily that state of affairs still exists .
The first public performance of his music was in November 1923, when the baritone and opera director Sumner Austin sang By Footpath and Stile with the Charles Woodhouse String Quartet at a British Music Society concert in London. The Times commented ‘with a good deal more grip [it] would stand as a not unworthy parallel to Wenlock Edge’, and The Daily Mail that it needed to be sung ‘with more variety and lightness’ – which was not really in the least surprising, as at that time no-one knew about the Finzi style and how to sing it.
Five years later, Finzi finished his Two Sonnets (by Milton) for tenor or soprano and orchestra, and they were originally sung (together with the early ‘Aria’ fromFarewell to Arms and ‘When I set out for Lyonesse’ from Earth and Air and Rain) by Steuart Wilson, with Iris Lemare conducting a scratch orchestra, at The Mercury Theatre in London on 6 February 1936. It has to be said that Wilson was not a popular figure in the musical world, or, indeed, by all accounts a particularly nice man. (Those interested will find some intriguing details in the long Wikipedia article about him)The Times, reviewing the concert, made no mention of Wilson’s singing, but commented that ‘Mr Finzi showed again, as he has shown before, that he possesses a genuinely lyrical gift’. Finzi was definitely beginning to be noticed as a composer.
When he was in his twenties, Finzi (GF) set some verses of the metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne, and, added to in 1939, they became his undoubted masterpiece, Dies Natalis. It is a celebration of the wonders of childhood and innocence – as Diana McVeagh has said “No-one but Finzi could have composed this radiant and tender masterpiece.” It is a heart-warming synthesis of music and poetry, one of the best examples of GF’s characteristic ‘fusing [of] the vocal line with the inflections of speech … and, as with all his songs, the accompaniment … is a commentary on the words and in no way a subservient part’. Maurice Miles conducted its first performance at the Wigmore Hall in January 1940, with Elsie Suddaby and an ad hoc string ‘orchestra’ (consisting of two violins, and one each of viola, cello and bass!) . The Times called it ‘A glowing and strong work’ and commented on its ‘vein of spontaneous melody and a sense of verbal accentuation’. The ‘real’ premiere of the work, however, was at the 1947 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, with the LSO conducted by Finzi and ‘rapturously sung’ by Suddaby; after it, in a letter to GF, Vaughan Williams (RVW) said that she had sung it “divinely”.
GF had first met Suddaby in 1920, when she was practising Gurney’s Sleep with Edward Bairstow: he was greatly taken by both the singer and the song, and that was in fact the beginning of GF’s love and respect for Gurney. Suddaby was born in 1893, a ‘Yorkshire lass’, and in a career of over 40 years she became one of the finest English lyric sopranos, with a repertoire that ran from Bach to Vaughan Williams; she was greatly respected by the finest English conductors, and between 1924 and 1951 she made recordings with Beecham, Barbirolli, Albert Coates, Lawrence Collingwood and Malcolm Sargent. Her first real success had been at the 1922 Three Choirs, when, so Musical Times reported, she “sang on five different occasions, and in all kinds of music, giving striking proof of her versatility and musical intelligence”. She was one of the four sopranos in the celebrated first performance of RVW’sSerenade to Music, one of the others beingIsobel Baillie, with whom she was often compared.
Although written for soprano or tenor, Dies is more often sung by a tenor – and few composers have been as lucky to have such a number of superb singers who took it into their repertoire.The palm undoubtedly goes to Wilfred Brown, who first sang it with GF and the Newbury String Players (at their 115th concert) in High Wycombe in 1952 and, having recorded it with Christopher Finzi in 1964, it was in fact the last thing he sang before his death in 1971. In their review of the recording, The Gramophone said ‘Wilfred Brown gives the most sympathetic account imaginable’, and The Times ‘the performance brings a reminder of the exemplary diction of Wilfred Brown’.
Brown was a lovely man. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital and Cambridge, and as a conscientious objector during World War 2 he joined the Friends [Quakers’] War Relief Service, becoming an upholsterer and furniture repairer working in evacuation hostels and shelters during the blitz, and after the War in France and Germany. Of great humility and humanity, with no pretentions, he was a perfectionist in every aspect of his life; often appearing very serious and reflective, with no time for small talk, a marvellous father to his six children – and he was an exceptionally knowledgeable ornithologist. A long-time member of the mainly early music Deller Consort (acting as their unpaid travel agent), he also gave talks for the BBC’s Religious Affairs programmes. As might be expected, he was a superb recitalist – he gave the first performance of Till Earth Outwears, with Finzi’s lifelong friend, Howard Ferguson, two years after Finzi’s death – and an Evangelist as fine as any. It was at the 1956 Gloucester Festival, with GF in the audience, only three weeks before his death, that Brown sang the tenor solo in Herbert Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi. At that same festival,Bruce Boyce – a lovely singer not normally associated with GF – was the baritone in Interra pax.
One of Wilfred Brown’s own greatest friends was the baritone John Carol Case, by happy chance equally celebrated for his performances as Christus in the St. Matthew Passion, and in fact a greater exponent of 20th century English oratorio and song than Brown.He had a very special sense of humour: when Sir Adrian Boult recorded Elgar’sThe Apostles in the 1970s, he insisted on Case for the role of Jesus. In one session things had ‘ground to a halt’ during a rehearsal. ‘I’m afraid we weren’t together, Mr Case,’ Boult said, to which Case replied, ‘But Sir Adrian, I was trying to follow your beat.’ His riposte was, ‘Mr Case, you have been working with me for long enough to know that I follow you, you don’t follow me!’
John Carol Case was a distinguished and popular singing teacher – and, by a curious coincidence, the week after I began writing this piece, I met a (now retired) professional soprano who had been one of his pupils; she said that she could not possibly have had a more encouraging or inspiring teacher, and she held him in the highest regard, both as that and as a person .He held many masterclasses and adjudications, and his main concerns were ‘with the singers’ diction and with their understanding (or, distressingly often, their lack of it) of the text. ‘Words! Words! Words!’ and ‘Far too much in love with the sound of his/her own voice!’ were [not infrequent] comments on the mark sheets.’ As for the prize-winners, another yardstick was: ‘Would you pay money to hear this person sing again?’ He gave the premières of I Said to Love in 1957, andTo a Poetin 1959(and recorded those and all the other cycles, again with Howard Ferguson). After the former, The Times wrote:
A concert of works by Gerald Finzi was given at the Victoria and Albert Museum not as a memorial, perhaps not even as a statement of faith, yet serving both purposes and giving an opportunity eagerly seized on by a large audience, to come to grips with his mind and art in a more comprehensive way than is possible from scattered contacts with him. […..] Finzi left many songs still unpublished which he would have, according to his custom, gathered together in anthologies, not cycles like his Dies Natalis, which was also sung (by Mr Eric Greene), but collected in an order that would be effective in their presentation. Mr John Carol Case, whose skill in singing English poetry is equal to Finzi’s in setting it, gave, with Mr Howard Ferguson at the piano, the first performance of his new set, in which were two songs composed not long before he died that showed an extension beyond his purely lyrical style, notably a new dramatic note in ‘I Said to Love’.
The predilection of Bach singers for Finzi’s music (or visa versa) was continued with yet another celebrated Christus (and writer on English song), the baritone, Stephen Varcoe; he sang in the 1990 première of the orchestral version of Requiem da camera with the lamented Richard Hickox, and in 1984 made a wonderful recording, with Martyn Hill and Clifford Benson, of five of the cycles. As a review of his recording of Stanford songs said ‘his warm natural baritone, finely judged legato and sensitivity to words are a joy’. Hickox, too, was a most sympathetic conductor of Finzi’s music, and in 1999, with Tasmin Little, he gave the first performance of the Violin Concerto since that of the revised version in 1928.
Sir DanGodfrey founded the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra (as it was originally called) in 1893 – and during his 41 years with them he became a tireless champion of English music, both established and new, gradually overcoming Bournemouth’s ‘provincial narrowness, parochial snobbery, prejudices and the apathy born of that heavy, pine-laden air, to say nothing of spiralling costs.’ He was one of a line of musicians: his father Lieutenant Dan(iel) Godfrey LVO, FRAM, was the bandmaster of the Grenadier Guards for forty years from 1856 (and achieved notoriety in 1899 by being arrested in Boston, Mass. for ‘permitting his band to play secular music on a Sunday’), while his son became the first full-time conductor of the BBC Wireless Orchestra in 1924. He gave the premières of GF’s first two orchestral works: A Severn Rhapsody (which had won a Carnegie Award) in 1924 and New Year Music:Nocturne eight years later. A Severn Rhapsody was well received, and after the concertVaughan Williams told GF that the big tune was ‘just the sort of melody I have wanted to do all my life …’
One tends to forget that the Violin Concerto was a very early work, dating from 1925. Just the second and third movements were played in Queen’s Hall on 4 May 1927 by Sybil Eaton and the British Women’s Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Malcolm Sargent(who, in one of his wasp-like moments called it amateurish), and she then played the complete work in Queen’s Hall the following February, with VW conducting the LSO –not often has there been a first performance conducted by the composer’s mentor! GF was in fact infatuated with Eaton, although she seems not to have noticed it! Eaton told a lovely story of how, when GF and Joy Black became engaged in 1933, she asked him about her, and he replied ‘Well, I’ll tell you who she’s notlike, and that’s Harriet Cohen.’
Although most the songs in the earliest of Finzi’s sets, Earth and Air and Rain were written between 1928 and 1932, it was not until March 1943 that it was heard complete, when Robert Irwin and Howard Ferguson gave it at as part of one of Myra Hess’s celebrated and vast series of wartime concerts at the National Gallery. GF had a great admiration for Irwin – an Irishman, primarily a lieder singer, who began his career at music festivals in Dublin, and received help from the celebrated John McCormack. He frequently sang for the BBC – and after he included the cycle in a broadcast, also from the National Gallery, four years later, GF wrote to him saying that it was ‘as lovely a performance as I have ever heard’. At another National Gallery concert, in October 1942, Irwin and Ferguson also gave the first performance of the complete Let Us Garlands Bring – GF’s most memorable and immediately attractive cycle, composed ‘for Raph Vaughan Williams on his [70th] birthday’, and The Times reported that both the songs and Irwin’s singing were ‘greatly enjoyed and the composer was warmly received by the large audience’ . Then, six days later, he sang the orchestrated version with Clarence Raybould and the BBC Orchestra (as it was in those days):
Mr. Irwin’s merits as a singer, his agreeably reedy voice, and excellent articulation were shown to better effect in Finzi’s recent Shakespeare cycle, ” LetUs Garlands Bring,” since here his tendency to dryness of tone was checked by the lyrical sweep of the songs. Finzi, unembarrassed by previous settings, has produced something that even now gives new force and point to familiar words—he is a natural song¬writer who hardly ever seems to miss his mark and certainly not in this cycle.
After a Wigmore Hall recital in 1947, The Times critic wrote that Irwin:
is most skilful in the management of his voice and has the art of floating his words upon the music, so that he can shape a long phrase – the beautiful melody, for instance, of Finzi’s setting of the dirge in Cymbeline – with perfect control and clarity of diction.
Irwin was also a natural Baroque singer, and invariably received notices such as ‘Mr Robert Irwin know[s] the right way to sing Bach’; ‘[his] grave vocal bearing and rich baritone lent dignity and conviction to Jesus’s music.’; and that he was a ‘master of Purcell’s declamatory style’.
At the 1947 Gloucester Three Choirs, GF meta young man, John Russell, and they became great friends. I was lucky enough to be taught by Russell at Leighton Park School in Reading in the very early 1950s, and he was a magic man. My previous teacher was a highly respected academic, and I learnt almost all there was to be learned, for Higher School Certificate and A-level purposes, about the ‘mechanics’ of music and the way it was composed, but I knew very little repertoire; his successor, John Russell, changed all that, for my lessons were spent in a cloud of cigarette smoke and a whirlwind of ‘D’ye know this?’ immediately followed by bits of Bach, Brahms, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Dvorak and almost every other romantic composer except Wagner, Mahler and Bruckner. Russell was an excellent all-round musician: the conductor of the Reading Choral Society from 1948 until 1973; in 1953, with GF conducting, he gave the first performance of the Grand Fantasia and Toccata in Newbury, and in 1957 he conducted the first performance of theEclogue, with (perhaps surprisingly) Kathleen Long as the soloist, at a chamber concert in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The soloist in the première of GF’s largest work, Intimations of Immortality, first heard at the 1950 Gloucester Festival, was Eric Greene, with the LSO and the Festival Chorus conducted by Herbert Sumsion, the cathedral organist who was one of GF’s greatest friends.Greene started his singing career in 1927, and became one of England’s foremost oratorio tenors. Gerontius was one of his celebrated roles, and he became the Evangelist in the St. Matthew Passion of the period. Twenty-something years later his ringing, but by then forced, tenor sounded unfashionable –- although, as with everything he sang, his delivery of Wordsworth’s words was exemplary and his understanding of the part was complete. The Times thought that he ‘gave the extensive solo music all its eloquence.’
The first performance of any of GF’s music considered perhaps the least effective was that of the Cello Concertoat the 1955 Cheltenham Festival, by Christopher Bunting, with John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé Orchestra. Bunting was an excellent cellist, but perhaps happier teaching than on the platform, and, although GF was very pleased with his performance, that is borne out by The Times’ review of the concert :
Its spaciousness and energy would have been more apparent if it had been more positively handled by the soloist. Mr Christopher Bunting is an accomplished player so far as clean execution and pure tone is concerned, but he seemed unaware that he was playing the solo in a big concerto, and that it was for him to present the work with some sense of leadership. But his reticence could not conceal the fact that this is a rich score, stamped with Finzi’s individuality in all three movements ….
As most of the foregoing account shows, GF realised very early on that, for him at least, the ideal voices for songs are tenor or baritone, for their ranges best allow the singer to project the words without sacrificing tone. As a very general rule, sopranos can find it difficult to enunciate vowels properly above the stave, and their flexibility (as in Baroque music or bel canto opera) is not appropriate for poetry.Altos find words on high notes easier, but they(the words, not the singers) tend to get lost around the A below middle C –whilst basses are inclined to sing gruffly and their high notes above D can sound very strained.None of GF’s songs were written specifically for the female voice; only Two Sonnets, Oh Fair to See,Till Earth Outwears and Dies Natalis were for ‘tenor or soprano’ (in that order) or ‘high voice’; and ‘alto’ does not appear in the catalogue of his works at all; furthermore, Dies Natalis is the only vocal work to have been premièred by a soprano.
It is almost as if English poetry was written for the marvellous tenors and baritones who have sung GF’s vocal music: Eric Greene, Wilfred Brown, John Carol Case, Stephen Varcoe and Robert Irwin . Was any other composer ever blessed with such affection and musicality?
Some may be surprised to find a review of Peter Parker’s Housman Country on this site. Finzi devotees will correctly assert that there are no extant settings of Housman by Finzi. I am grateful to Jim Page for passing on the results of Stephen Banfield’s work here, which identified 10 fragments (some very small) of beginnings of Housman settings, yet none of these came to fruition, as this book mentions. Indeed, there are but three references to Finzi in the index to Housman Country, compared with over 30 for Vaughan Williams and, as might be anticipated, slightly more for Butterworth. Jim also points out that, when Church Farm was built at Ashmansworth, and the Finzis placed a sealed glass bottle containing poetry, the selection included poetry by Housman.
Yet this book is far more than a book just about Housman or, indeed, just about A Shropshire Lad. It is a compendium of the hinterland, foreground and distant horizons of Housman country. In this, it resounds with ideas and information that any Finzi lover will devour eagerly as the highways and byways of twentieth-century Englishness intertwine.
Peter Parker’s outstanding achievement is in taking such a broad view without losing its core focus. Very occasionally the book does tread some byways upon which a nervous reader might pause to ask ‘What are we doing here?’ Gertrude Jekyll’s garden, and a perhaps over-lengthy exploration of the English folk song revival in ‘The Tunes of England’, as a preface to consideration of Butterworth, might serve as examples. Yet Peter Parker’s byways are always fascinating in themselves and, crucially, the writer’s immense knowledge across a variety of cultural genres is never presented in such a way that could prompt the charge of ‘showing off’. He is a writer who is bursting to share the latest paradox, bon mot and, often touching piece of information uncovered in relation to Housman. In this respect, Parker triumphs particularly in a field where many others come unstuck. He writes about music with a sure footing which never slips. Where technical points are appropriate, he eschews an overly academic approach but the points he makes are relevant and accurate. At the same time, his musical sensitivity is always apparent and his awareness of developments in musical taste, acute. It is pleasing to see Somervell’s initial contribution to setting Housman fairly recognised and, by taking his survey of musical settings to the present day, including via YouTube, Parker brings an immediacy to the later pages.
It is not for this writer to make a detailed critique of the literary criticism within the book. Suffice to say that commentary on the poems themselves is both detailed and stimulating for the non-specialist. My own reaction, as someone who has set Housman, to the chapter on the poems, was to vow to return to read that section again with detailed attention to each reference, to see what I may have missed. The literary references are many and fascinating. The comparison of Arthur Symons’ London-inspired Silhouettes with A Shropshire Lad is another avenue to be followed up as a potentially inspiring stimulus to musical ideas.
Perhaps two overarching themes typify the success of the book. Firstly, the convincing explanation of how, because of the way the myriad, diverse threads shown in the book became intricately and dynamically intertwined, a work focused initially on the Boer War became so indelibly associated with World War 1. Secondly, and importantly, the exposition of Englishness that is at the heart of the book. Maybe aided by the author’s impish reminders that Housman Country was not really in a sense the poet’s own (and maybe that physical detachment keeps mawkishness at bay), but primarily because of the author’s integrity, the book celebrates Englishness without a hint of crass nationalism. The book’s cast of literary, musical, political and artistic figures are mostly linked by exploration, in their own way, of Englishness, which Peter Parker plausibly proposes as established deep in, and characterised by, Housman country.
There was a time, it seemed, when BBC Radio 3 broadcast nothing else but songs by Gerald Finzi. At least that’s how I remember it. When my father would turn on the radio at our family home in Barnet and shout “Composer?” round the house (a traditional family game), the rest of us were in the habit of shouting back “Finzi” and, more often than not, we were right.
I remember encountering a Finzi song at close quarters for the first time on a summer choral course when another singer brought along ‘It was a lover and his lass’ from Let Us Garlands Bring to a master-class. The jaunty, easy syncopations of the opening and the perilous metre changes as the birds sing ‘hey ding-a-ding’ were immediately seductive to this teenager and I decided to buy a copy and learn the songs myself. So it was that I gave one of my first solo performances with broken voice on a school visit to a care home for the elderly; I took to the floor and merrily declared to the on-looking, wheelchair bound inmates that I would be singing them ‘Come away, come away, death’.
These memories I recall by way of explaining that Finzi songs have been a part of my solo performance since my interest in singing began. Longer than that, in fact. Had someone predicted to me that I would make a career out of singing such music myself, or that my recordings would plague the Radio 3 schedules to the same degree, I would have been amazed. That had never been my ambition in those days. But I knew the essential sound of Finzi’s music, I was aware of the way he matched vocal line to words, and piano accompaniment to vocal line.
I suspect my introduction to Finzi’s baritone songs through Garlands is fairly common amongst singers and audiences and I would hope this starting point would lead them, as it led me, to explore other settings, arriving of course at the Hardy cycles. I struggle now to remember exactly how I came across Before and After Summer although I’m fairly confident that I performed it with Susie Allan as part of our National Federation of Music Societies award, a scheme that allowed us to perform recitals all cross the UK. Perhaps Susie recommended them to me. In any case, it was this cycle I encountered first and I have therefore a special soft spot for it, over and above Earth, Air and Rain which was always Susie’s favourite.
I think what impressed me most about Before and After Summer was the seriousness of its intent. Much of the art song I had met up until that point had churned over that familiar trope ‘Boy loves girl, girl loves boy, girl spurns boy, (repeat and fade)’, a rich seam in all its variations. But here in Hardy was poetry that appeared a whole lot more grown-up; ‘Old man looks back on his life and is filled with remorse for opportunities passed by’. How I used to relish singing the closing verse of the last song,‘He abjures love’ which begins “I speak as one who plumbs/Life’s dim profound”.
Granted, Hardy’s poetic style, his fondness for archaic words and pedantic structures can feel a little obtuse at times but, at the same time, I find Finzi’s settings of them extraordinarily direct and powerfully emotional. Both of the two cycles mentioned so far are ten songs long and take about half an hour to perform. Both are tightly constructed in terms of a vocal recital, carefully taking into account key structure between songs and pacing of tempo in a way that recalls the classic model of Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Both cycles leave the performers and audience emotionally exhausted by the end.
For me this is because Finzi’s setting of Hardy’s text illuminates the poetry and I find I can grasp the meaning of the words more clearly through the music than I do when I see them printed on the page as poetry. Incidentally, I would like to say how grateful I am that the standard Boosey& Hawkes editions of these cycles have the poetry printed out ahead of the music. It is fascinating to see the shapes of the verses as Hardy intended and to see how cleverly Finzi has absorbed the most complicated of verse structures. I’m not sure I, as a composer, would ever have the courage to attempt such strait-jacketed poems as ‘Lizbie Browne’ or ‘Amabel’ and yet Finzi manages a naturalflow in his settings that both nods to the structure and avoids its complications.
This is what makes singing in English so rewarding. I enjoy the immediate impact that singing my own language has on English speaking audiences and this is served best by those composers who knew most instinctively how to ally music and words. There is a clarity in these songs, both in the vocal and the piano part, that sets it apart from other song composers. I relish this as a singer and I admire and learn from it as a composer.
I grew up with the Hyperion recordings of the Hardy cycles by Martyn Hill, Stephen Varcoe and Clifford Benson and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s how this music goes. But I’m also grateful to have been a part of the Naxos recording project that allowed Iain Burnside and myself to record the baritone repertoire, introducing me along the way to I said to Love, To a Poet and By Footpath and Stile, all of which I was then able to programme in recital and all of which were tremendously rewarding to explore and perform. I have even been able to steal a handful of songs from the tenor volumes in transposition to fit specific programmes. My exploration of Finzi’s songs is by no means over. But my goodness, how I enjoy my Garlands and my beloved Hardy cycles!