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?