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