The Reception of Gerald Finzi’s For St Cecilia (1947)

Introduction

The case for Gerald Finzi’s For St Cecilia: Ceremonial Ode for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra, op.30 is succinctly stated by George Dannatt in the 1948 edition of the Penguin Music Magazine VII. He explains that the Daily Herald sponsored a Festival in aid of the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund. ‘The most important new work was Gerald Finzi’s [For St Cecilia]to words by Edmund Blunden. It is a beautiful and distinguished conception containing some masterly choral writing.’

In the past twenty years, two major analyses of Gerald Finzi’s For St Cecilia have been included in studies of the composer’s life and works: Stephen Banfield’s Gerald Finzi: An English Composer (1997) and Diana McVeagh’s Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music (2005). On the academic front, John Henry French made a study of The Choral Odes of Gerald Finzi(1995) as part of his submission for a Doctor of Musical Arts at the University of Cincinnati. In 2012 Robert Andrew Weeden produced his thesis at Durham University, Why do I go on doing these things?: The Continuity and Context of Gerald Finzi’s Extended Choral Works. Both feature a detailed discussion of the Ode.

The present essay is not an attempt at replicating this scholarship. It will concentrate on the premiere of the work, the publication of the score and therecordings. The paper will conclude with a discography of the work supplemented by a brief bibliography. References are indicated in the text.

Context

In 2016, Gerald Finzi is best remembered for his songs. These were written over much of his career and include many settings of poems by Thomas Hardy. Since the advent of Classic FM, a number of Finzi’s orchestral works have gained considerable popularity:there are regular performances of the Clarinet Concerto, the Five Bagatelles for clarinet and orchestra (or piano) and the Eclogue for piano and string orchestra. Occasionally, the Romance for string orchestra is heard.

Even the briefest of glances at Finzi’s catalogue of choral music discloses that he composed a significant amount for chorus and orchestra, piano or organ and unaccompanied voices. His magnum opus is Intimations of Immortality, op.29 (late 1930s, 1949-50) which was a setting of William Wordsworth’s fine Platonic poem. One previous work for chorus and orchestra was the Requiem da Camera which was written in 1924 but not heard until 1990. The same year that Finzi began work on For St Cecilia he had completed one of his most popular choral works,‘Lo, the full, final sacrifice’, op.26. As a result of the success of For St Cecilia he wrote ‘God is Gone Up’, op, 27, no.2. These have remained in the repertoire of Anglican cathedral and church choirs in subsequent years.

If there is any doubt about the conservative nature of Finzi’s For St Cecilia, a comparison with other major works written at this time points up the contrast. Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), just 7 years younger than Finzi was composing his orchestral masterpiece, the Turangalîla Symphony. Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) was working on an early version ofLe soleil des eaux, for voices and orchestra, and Benjamin Britten (1913-76)premiered his ‘comic opera’ Albert Herring at Glyndebourne(20 June 1947).On a more traditional level the Master of the King’s Musick, Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)was completing his thoughtful choral work, Epithalamium.

Performance

The St Cecilia’s Day Festival, 1947, had been arranged by a group of prominent musicians, under the presidency of Ralph Vaughan Williams and was sponsored by the Daily Herald. The proceeds of the event were donated to the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund.

The details of the work’s genesis and the discussions between Finzi and Blunden are expounded in McVeigh (2005) and Banfield (1997)

The premiere of Finzi’s For St. Cecilia was part of the revived St. Cecilia’ Day celebrations on Saturday 22 November 1947. The first event was a service of dedication at St Sepulchre’s Church, Holborn Viaduct, London. The officiant was the Reverend G.H. Salter and the sermon was preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. The sermon pointed out that ‘On St Cecilia’s day they remembered what the Church had given to music by its doctrine, its faith, its liturgy, its sacred writings and hymns, and what, in return, music had done, and now did for the Church and for its Lord.’ (The Times 24 November 1947)
During this service the first performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Voice out of the Whirlwind’ was given.Other anthems were by Thomas Weelkes, Henry Purcell, Samuel Sebastian Wesley and Charles Wood. The choir comprised members of the Chapel Royal, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral choirs. Dr Dykes Bower conducted and the organ was played by George Thalben-Ball and Dr (later Sir) William McKie.

Musical Opinion (December 1947) gave a detailed review of this part of the celebrations: ‘A great congregation assembled…to take part in the St. Cecilia Festival. A new anthem, ‘The Voice out of the Whirlwind’ composed for the occasion by Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams excited a great deal of interest.’ The review noted that the ‘distinguished congregation included the Lord Mayor, with the Lady Mayoress who were welcomed by fanfares…and Mayors of the London Boroughs in their civic regalia.’

For St Cecilia was heard during the Musician’s Benevolent Fund’s annual concert at the Royal Albert Hall on that Saturday evening. Other works in the programme comprisedthe Overture to Henry Purcell’s St Cecilia’s Day Ode, specially orchestrated by Alan Rawsthorne (1946), Part II of George Frideric Handel’s Alexander’s Feast: An Ode, Charles Villiers Stanford’s Songs of the Fleet and fanfares by Arthur Bliss and Sir Arnold Bax. The major orchestral work was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.5 in D major. Sir Adrian Boult conducted the Luton Choral Society, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the Trumpeters from the Royal Military School of Music. The soloists were the tenor Rene Soames, the baritone Harold Williams and the organist Dr G.D. Cunningham.

In a letter (106 Wildwood Road, N.W.11; 23 November [1947]) to the composer, Howard Ferguson wrote that the performance ‘…was such a very special occasion that it cannot pass without another ‘hats off to our G [erald Finzi].’ Ferguson thought that For St. Cecilia was ‘a real beauty…[and] opens out… such endless possibilities.’ He wondered if Finzi was too close to the work ‘to notice that anything has happened: but to me it seems much larger in musical scope and intention than anything you have yet written!’ He felt that ‘beauty and sensitivity were always there…but now you’ve added real size to them without, moreover, spoiling the one or the other. It’s a very great achievement.’ Ferguson ended by saying that ‘I do feel so proud that my name should be at the head of it.’ The score was dedicated to Ferguson.

Frank Howes, assessing the concert in The Times (24 November 1947),pointed out that Edmund Blunden had ‘accepted the traditional manner, invoking the “Delightful Goddess…resourceful Legend” in true seventeenth-century style.’ However, the poem was not simply ‘pastiche’; ‘it embodies a true love of England and is aptly adorned with musical metaphors and happy allusions to some of our [English] composers.’ These include Merbecke, Byrd, Dowland, Purcell and Handel. Howes believed that it makes ‘an excellent basis’ for a musical ode and ‘Finzi has not failed to seizehis opportunity.’
From a musical perspective, Howes considered the composer had ‘held together’ the work with firmly moving basses [bass lines, orchestral and choral]. He did not think the opening fanfares ‘came off’ in spite of the fact they seemed to be a prelude of ‘all kinds of musick.’This section was scored ‘crudely’ and was ‘too repetitive.’ It is when the chorus enters that ‘the music begins to glow with beauty…’ and when the fanfare reappears it displays ‘real splendour.’ The moment that most impressed Frank Howes was ‘the entry of the tenor’s still small voiceof Mr. Rene Soames’ who entered with a melody that might be ‘set beside the fourth and fifth songs [‘Wonder’ and ‘The Salutation’]ofDies Natalis as one of the loveliest things in contemporary music.’

Howes thought that the choir ‘sang in the new work well enough to present it faithfully and better than they did in Handel.’

Frank Howes, also writing in the Musical Times (December 1947), further noted that the ‘specially commissioned ode…restore[d] another feature of the seventeenth-century celebration of St. Cecilia’s day.’ He considered that Finzi ‘…had made a setting at once dignified, festal and melodious in his characteristically lyrical vein of an appropriate piece of ceremonial verse from the pen of Edmund Blunden.’

Publication

After the first performance, Howard Ferguson looked over the manuscript before publication. He wrote to the composer: ‘Here is ‘Cecily’, cleaned, polished and corrected.’ (106 Wildwood Road, N.W.11; 13 June [1948]). He had discovered some ‘obvious mistakes’ which he corrected ‘without further comment.’ Once again Ferguson expressed pride in having the work inscribed to him.

In 1948, the score of Gerald Finzi’s For St Cecilia was published by Boosey and Hawkes of London, priced 4/6d [about £7.50 at 2016 prices] The unsigned review in Music & Letters (April 1949) was suitably impressed:
‘Here are all the ingredients of English festal song. We have a majestically pompous introduction, broad choral declamatory passages over a stately tread, picturesque allusions to St. George, St Dunstan with his tongs, St Swithin and St Cecilia herself, who is hymned with that noble kind of diatonic tune that springs from Parry.’
The reviewends by admitting that the score is ‘perhaps a trifle dull, but Cecilia is no experimenter; she is to quote her poet Blunden:

‘Sure of her dream that bears the world along
Blest in the life of universal song,’
and introspection, which we have grown to love in Finzi, was clearly not required.’

Musical Opinion (March 1949) suggested that ‘the choral writing is strong and solid, harmonically rather than contrapuntally conceived, but the music achieves a fine and vigorous flow which is undefinably but undeniably English in feeling.’ The reviewer stated that Finzi’s ‘style has not always been of the kind to gain immediate appreciation, but the present work has the massive architecture, broad melody and grand climaxes which distinguish so many of the best and popular English choral works.’

Interestingly, a critique of the score ofFor St Cecilia appeared in the sometimes wayward journal Music Survey (No.6 1949). ‘H.N.’ clearly stated that ‘Finzi like Gibbs (he had just reviewed the score of Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’ Four Unaccompanied Settings of Elizabethan poets) is essentially a composer for the voice and this fine setting of words by Edmund Blunden is further testimony to his restrained yet powerful art.’ Clearly he had forgotten Gibbs’s two excellent orchestral symphonies (No.s 1 and 3. The second was his choral symphony Odysseus). I think the words ‘restrained yet powerful’ sum up Finzi’s For St Cecilia, better than almost any other critic did.

Discography

Unbelievably, there have only been two commercial recordings of Gerald Finzi’s For St Cecilia issued. The first was released on an ARGO LP in 1979, coupled with Dies Natalis. Richard Hickox conducts the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra. The tenor soloist is Philip Langridge. It has subsequently been repackaged on a number of CD reissues. In 2006, NAXOS issuedFor St Cecilia coupled with Intimations of Immortality. David Hill conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra with the tenor James Gilchrist.

Commenting on the Hickox recording in The Gramophone (May 1979) T.H. (Trevor Harvey) reminds the listener that Gerald Finzi was not a composer of large-scale works. He seems to have forgotten about the Cello Concerto and Intimations of Immortality, however the point is taken. Finzi’s penchant was for words and their setting. His songs are probably his major contribution to English music. In spite of this caveat, Finzi did rise to the occasion with For St Cecilia which met the criteria of a large auditorium and a major festive occasion. T.H.rightly believes that something more than the composer’s ‘usual contemplative style’ was demanded of the work and that the ‘expansion’ of his musical style to cope with the demands of the occasion was successful. Furthermore, ‘there is plenty of quiet, thoughtful writing, but there are also brilliant fanfare-like brass passages’ largely untypical of Finzi’s style. T.H. concludes his review of the LP by noting that the ‘performance does both poet and composer proud, with fine singing and playing, recorded in a spacious acoustic.’

Richard D.C. Noble (Records and Recording May 1979) states that ‘right from the start, with its opening fanfares, we realise that this is…uplifting and majestic yet at the same time having many quieter passages in which Finzi’s characteristic world of deep enchantment is clearly evident.’ He adds a ‘special word of praise’ for ‘the informed and sympathetic analysis’ provided by Diana McVeagh’s sleeve notes.

Jonathan Woolf reviewing the Naxos CD (Bournemouth SO/Hill) for MusicWeb International (6 July 2006) writes that:

‘The choral and orchestral forces certainly catch the Parry-burnished nobility and masculine Englishness of the final section, ‘Wherefore we bid’ with impressive sonority – they seem to be a touch better balanced here [than Hickox] as well. [David Hill’s version is] a stirring, chest swelling interpretation, with crisp brass and alert percussion to the fore. Gilchrist’s honesty and clarity of diction are most attractive features of this performance.’
(http://www.musicweb-international.com/classRev/2006/July06/Finzi_immortality_8557863.htm, accessed 30/08/2016)

In The Gramophone (August 2006) John Steane, also exploring the Naxos disc, writes that the ‘ode incorporates some of Finzi’s most deeply felt writing.’ He understands that it ‘integrates more fully with each hearing’ nevertheless he is unable to ‘reconcile the more characteristic musical idiom with the Waltonian percussion and the rhythmic insistence of the third section.’ Interestingly, Steane suggests that Edmund Blunden ‘imposes a co-existence of rejoicing and regret, of stark recognition and stoical resolution, though Finzi often seems more attuned to the misgivings.’

Finally, he writes that the music is a perfect match for the text, in spite of the composer ‘rather self-consciously wearing Elgarian garb in the opening, [but] appearing as his unmistakable self in the lovely fourth section, ‘How smilingly the saint among her friends sits.’’

Select Discography:

• London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Richard Hickox, For St Cecilia, Dies Natalis (ARGO ZRG-896) 1979, LP; (DECCA The British Music Collection 425 660-2) 1991, CD; (DECCA The British Music Collection 468 807-2), 2004 CD.
• Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/David Hill, James Gilchrist, tenor, Finzi, Gerald, Intimations of Immortality, For St Cecilia, (NAXOS 8.557863) 2006, CD

Select Bibliography:

• Banfield, Stephen,Gerald Finzi: An English Composer (London, Faber & Faber Limited, 1997)
• Dressler, John C.,Gerald Finzi: A Bio-bibliography (Westport, Greenwood Press, 1997)
• Ed. Ferguson, Howard and Hurd, Michael, The Letters of Gerald Finzi and Howard Ferguson (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2001)
• French, John Henry, The Choral Odes of Gerald Finzi (University of Cincinnati, 1995)
• McVeagh, Diana,Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2005)
• Weeden, Robert Alexander, Why do I go on doing these things?: The Continuity and Context of Gerald Finzi’s Extended Choral Works(Durham University, 2012)
• The files of The Times, The Guardian, The Gramophone, Music Survey, Musical Opinion, Music and Letters, MusicWeb International, Records and Recording, Penguin Music Magazine etc.

John France August 2016