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Finzi’s Earth and Air and Rain: a performer’s view | Finzi Friends

As I recently took my copy of Earth and Air and Rain off the shelf to revise it for a recital, I was struck by a number of things. Firstly, what a cracking section of my library the Finzi song category is! Secondly, how well-worn my copy is; it’s wonderful to revisit music that one knows so well, and to see how it continues to evolve across a lifetime. (What a magical thing music is – that, for all we notate it in a fixed way, it continues to live and breathe, and only really exists in a moment.) Thirdly, what an amazing selection of poetry this set comprises: some of Hardy’s best, which Finzi put together himself. And fourthly, as I started playing through it again, what a glorious piece of music this is, how beautifully it lies under the hands, how distinctively like Finzi it feels to play, and how evocative the harmonic language is. The meeting of minds between Hardy and Finzi is something special (albeit probably without meeting in physical terms. In the words ofTo a Poet:“Since I can never see your face,And never shake you by the hand,I send my soul through time and spaceTo greet you. You will understand.”Whilst others can and have set these poems, it will take something to beat Finzi’sunderstanding, and the music’s synergy with Hardy’s texts.Finzi wrote that ‘if I had to be cut off from everything,[Hardy’s Collected Poems] would be the one book I should choose’. He set over fifty of Hardy’s poems and, a die-hard fan, even purchased Hardy’s walking stick when the writer’s belongings were sold after his death.Many others, better qualified and more knowledgeable, have written for this publication, so it would be foolish to try to ‘out-academicise’ them. Instead, I’m going to explore this cycle from the performer’s perspective: a whistle-stop tour of what I notice, and what the challenges are in this music.

Song is unique in its confluence of poem and music, and to me it is clear that the very best songs have both excellent poetry and excellent music, each of which illumines the other. Hardy’s poems are not necessarily straightforward; in fact sometimes Finzi’s settings make the texts more clear rather than less, which is unusual in a musical setting. As a song pianist, one of the fascinations for me is how we embrace, explore and express the text. For the singer, these are questions too, but perhaps the answers are more obvious; after all, they actually sing the words.A good composer writes a vocal line that fits the text, in rhythm, shape and mood; the singer, then, just has to sing it (‘just’! With the perfectly formed vowels and consonants for the language concerned, with controlled breath, with a musician’s understanding of the music and an actor’s skill for conveying mood and meaning; I don’t underestimate the job of the singer). In my opinion, the song pianist should spend every bit as long with the text – reading it, considering it, analysing it, interpreting it, internalising it. Without a clear sense of what the poem is about, we can’t convey our thoughts coherently or meaningfully. For the pianist, there are a different set of decisions to make. Do we match the character’s thoughts with the singer?Are we, in effect, the same character, experiencing the same love or loss or searching, as one? Or are we the scenery?The context?The description? Are we an answer to the singer’s questions, almost an off-stage character, or the other half of an imagined dialogue or an internal tussle? Affirming their thoughts, or articulating those which cannot be put into words, or finding resolution where the poem doesn’t provide it? The pianist is, of course, all of these things and more. In my experience, in Finzi’s music, the pianist’s role switches particularly quickly between these functions and it is this which makes the music so constantly fresh.

‘Summer Schemes’ is an upbeat opening to a relatively thoughtful cycle. Summer arrives, and calls the birds, who flood the land with their singing; the waters spring from little chinks and cascade down the hill, enhancing all the green growth of the land. The piano writing is full of bubbling and cascading, all quavers and flurries. Immediately, Finzi sets up his irregular use of time signatures: after only two bars in triple time he shifts to quadruple, and then quickly back, thereafter constantly switching through the song. Often this shifting is to match the speech rhythms of the text; we don’t speak in a fixed metre, and Finzi’s text setting is almost entirely syllabic (I can’t find a single melisma in this cycle), so the rhythm of the melodies follows a speech pattern. This changing time pattern also lends the music a fluidity: it never sits down, but stays afloat, moving at ease like the rivers and birds of the poem. Like many others in the cycle, I recently discovered I’ve tended to perform this song more slowly than the composer’s marking suggests. It’s easy to be seduced by the beauty of Finzi’s music, by how delectable the harmonies are, and how regretful the thoughts often are. For English musicians in particular, there is a danger of wallowing in every little moment of beauty. Our continental colleagues, without the same English nostalgic associations, often bring a rigour to their performances of this music: a viola professor when I was studying at the Academy once pointed out that the most spectacularly scenic walk is ruined if you stop and hug every single tree along the way. Keeping the simplicity of the line flowing here means that when we get to ‘“We’ll go,” I sing; but who shall say What may not chance before that day!’, the composer’s shift to minims and crotchets has more impact. The music more than halves in speed, creating a pause for contemplation over our powerlessness to control fate.Here the piano and voice parts are more closely locked together; our thought is as one.

One of the joys of playing these songs is the ‘Finzi Echo’ which litters the score: the piano echoes the singer’s phrase, or the end of it, almost affirming the thought (or in some cases, perhaps questioning it). ‘Who shall say What may not chance before that day!’ is echoed by ‘…before that day….’ in the piano, reiterating the thought, hovering for consideration, before verse two begins. Interestingly, this question is left unanswered, and the music remains in the minor key, whilst the equivalent at the end of verse two, ‘but who may sing Of what another moon will bring!’ settles on the major: an acceptance, perhaps, that while we can’t control our future, we can enjoy what we have today.

‘When I set out for Lyonnesse’ sets up what looks like an assertive martial motif, but is marked pp misterioso; this is actually depicting wide-eyed youth and fairytale, rather than a heavy trudge, and again a sufficiently swift tempo is vital. Lyonnesse is a country in Arthurian legend (notably in the story of Tristan and Iseult), said to border Cornwall. As a young apprentice architect, Hardy visited the St Juliot rectory and church in Cornwall for the first time, to supervise the restoration of a church, and here met his future wife, Emma Lavinia Gifford. On his return from the parish, people noticed a glow in his eyes (and, allegedly, a crumpled piece of paper sticking out of his coat pocket, containing the draft of this poem). Just as in the first song, here the melodic rise and fall is wide: an octave and a half span in less than three bars for the singer, with most phrases following a similar sweep. This lends the music a distinctive openness and optimism. It is hard, however, to carry off well: most singers will find either the top of the phrases a struggle or the bottom of the phrases hard to project well, and the diligent accompanist must always have ears alert to balance the same piano textures differently according to the range of the voice. The ‘melting moment’ as E minor gives way to E major could be written by no-one other than Finzi, the music more wistful as the voice notes ‘what would bechance at Lyonnesse….No prophet durst declare’. Two magical modulations, from E to Eb, and then back to G major / E minor, show us the ‘magic’ in the eyes after this trip to Lyonnesse.

‘Waiting Both’ captures beautifully the spaciousness of a starry night: the distance of the stars from earth portrayed in the wide range of piano writing, using everything from the depths of the bass range right up to the top octave but one of the keyboard. Rhythmically, there is a wonderful timelessness to this song, the piano gestures mostly placed across the barline, so we feel no clear beat. Time is somehow suspended as this strange little dialogue between star and human being takes place, each agreeing that the only thing they can do in life is ‘Wait, and let Time go by.’

The first song from this cycle that I got to know well, ‘The Phantom’ is also one of the most obviously narrative of the set. It’s always a challenge to read poems in their ‘original’, free-standing form, without influencing the pacing through knowledge of a particular composer’s musical setting, but I find that particularly to be true with this poem. I can’t help thinking that it’s because Finzi so wonderfully captured Hardy’s shapes and moods here, that the two are somehow inextricable. From the outset Finzi foreshadows the character we meet at the end of the poem (‘a ghost-girl-rider’: Hardy titled the poem ‘The Phantom Horserider’), with wonderful galloping dotted rhythms and melodic sweeps. The first word, ‘queer’, interrupts the piano’s introduction in an appropriately unexpected way:

Queer are the ways of a man I know:
He comes and stands
In a careworn craze,
And looks at the sands
And the seaward haze
With moveless hands
And face and gaze,
Then turns to go…
And what does he see when he gazes so?

Just as the language builds up in pace, almost breathless in this ‘craze’, so the music is ‘hyped up’, in tessitura and in relentlessness, until it stops, catching itself, at ‘With moveless hands’; and with a shrug of the shoulders, a tempo, ‘Then turns to go’. But the galloping motif slows, ritenuto, and instead of harmonizing the A natural with an F major chord, it’s with F sharp minor, remote and searching, as we ask ‘And what does he see when he gazes so?’ Again the Finzi Echo in the piano writing – ‘when he gazes so…. gazes so……..’:we’re lost in thought.

They say he sees as an instant thing
More clear than to-day,
A sweet soft scene
That once was in play
By that briny green;
Yes, notes alway
Warm, real, and keen,
What his back years bring—
A phantom of his own figuring.

In a different key, a different time signature, and a different tempo, we’re transported to the different world which is the protagonist’s dream-land.

Of this vision of his they might say more:
Not only there
Does he see this sight,
But everywhere
In his brain–day, night,
As if on the air
It were drawn rose bright–
Yea, far from that shore
Does he carry this vision of heretofore:

Just as the character is sent crazy, unable to escape these images, so the motifs chime through the texture, inescapable, that echo employed here for a very particular effect: ‘But everywhere’ – ‘everywhere’ – ‘everywhere’. The music pauses as we discover who the vision is, and then withers chromatically, before the music it conjours up hope of some kind of resurrection, we hear:

A ghost-girl-rider. And though, toil-tried,
He withers daily,
Time touches her not,
But she still rides gaily
In his rapt thought
On that shagged and shaly
Atlantic spot,
And as when first eyed
Draws rein and sings to the swing of the tide.

Following the drama of this large-scale song, the simplicity of ‘So I have fared’ is welcome. Hardy’s subtitle ‘after reading Psalms XXXIX, XL, etc.’, and Finzi’s note that ‘This recitative should be sung with the flexibility and freedom of ordinary speech, and the crotchet should approximate to the reciting note of Anglican chant’ leave us in no doubt that this is church music. The piano’s sustained chords and simple harmonic progressions are reminiscent of plainchant accompaniment or a gentle chorale, with only small changes of pitch in the melodic writing, and the Latin phrases of this macaronic poem punctuate the cadential thoughts. This easy ritualistic writing is unsettled, however, in the last verse; the music changes, the harmony is more disturbed, the pacing new: ‘And at dead of night I call: “Though to prophets list I, Which hath understood at all? Yea: “Quemelegisti?” [whom did you choose?].’ Perhaps here, for composer and poet alike, we see an uneasy relationship with faith.

The rollicking ‘Rollicum-Rorum’ is the breath of fresh air and humour in the set. When each of an increasingly unlikely scenarios plays out (lawyers striving to heal a breach, parsons practising what they preach, justices holding equal scales, rogues only being found in jails, rich men finding their wealth a curse, filling therewith the poor man’s purse, and finally husbands with their wives agreeing and maids not wedding from modesty): ‘Then Boney he’ll come pouncing down, And march his men on London town!’ (i.e. so unlikely is it that Napoleon will invade London). The refrain ‘Rollicum-rorum, tol-lol-lorum, Rollicum-rorum, tol-lol-lay’ taps into something anciently English:almost a ‘fa-la-la-la’. The staccato articulation and cheeky cross-rhythms give this song an energy unlike any other in the set, and the very fast metronome marking provides a challenge for even the best singers (“maids won’t wed for modesty” often trips people up at speed!). Furthermore, every verse enters at a different point in the piano interlude: a trap waiting to be fallen into!

‘To Lizbie Browne’ is my personal favourite of the cycle, a beautifully-paced, devastatingly simple tale of what might have been. (Finzi is reputed to have named it as one of the worst of the set, but I cannot agree!) Like so many Finzi melodies, this sweeps upwards, and then falters and falls. Always the first half is what might have been, and the second how it failed to materialise. Given the preponderance of tempo indications in much of Finzi’s writing, his footnote here is reassuring to the performer: ‘The beat should be flexible and wayward…. Such suppleness cannot, of course, be determined by directions on paper, and the modifications of speed which are given should only be considered as an outline.’ It’s so easy to get bogged down in trying to obey every marking a composer puts on paper, and important to remember that it’s most important that they are in the service of communicating text and mood, and as such need to be generated by the text and music, rather than being executed out of diligence!

The immediate question for performers in ‘The Clock of the Years’ is whether or not the singer should speak the printed line “A spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up.” This line, from the Biblical book of Job (4:15), is quoted by Hardy at the top of his poem, and by Finzi at the top of his song. To me, the rest of the song makes little sense without it, and so the singer should declaim it, setting up rush of demisemiquavers in the piano which launch ‘And the Spirit said, “I can make the clock of the years go backward, But am loth to stop it where you will.” Doing a deal with the devil, our character answers, “Agreed To that. Proceed: It’s better than dead!”. Out of this recitative-style opening unfolds the tragedy of seeing the beloved’s life played backwards, until ‘she was nought at all…. It was as if She had never been.’Scrunching through painful clashing sevenths and haunting piano echos (…’never been’… ‘never been’…) we are lulled into a horrid dream-like siciliana: can it really be happening? In a horror of unrelenting minor chords, in the depths of the piano’s bass range, we hear it was our poor protagonist’s own fault: ‘It was your choice To mar the ordained.’

‘In a Churchyard’is somehow easily forgotten in this cycle, but unjustly so. The poem in fact is one of the most strange and most philosophical, and the music matches it. Perhaps here, more than anywhere else in the set we hear the impact of Finzi’s church music, descriptively moving from the creeping yew roots, buried underground, to the timeless long line of ‘Each day-span’s sum of hours’, and to the bold fanfares of ‘That no God trumpet us to rise We truly hope’. Every bit of imagery in the poem is matched with a musical texture and a harmonic colour. It is immaculately painted, and enormously satisfying to play.

The final song, ‘Proud Songsters’, is more about the piano than the voice (I realise I am heavily biased… but I think I’m right!) It feels in this way that it fits in a tradition derived from Schumann (and most obviously Dichterliebe, with its great summing-up piano postlude), of final songs being somehow handed over to the piano. A lengthy introduction, full of suspensions, added seconds, false relations, and with driving Finzi rhythms under the spun melodic lines, presents challenges to the pianist. With so many layers of texture, we have to work hard to ‘orchestrate’ the music, picking out the different layers, to really show all the detail, without it feeling cluttered. The voice’s entry, when it happens, is unexpected; just a comment on what has been heard from the piano:

The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales in bushes
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
As if all Time were theirs.

And so the birds’ chorus really takes off, the piano writing launching into an almost symphonic sweep, and then, through a twist of harmony with a crucial A natural taking us away from B minor towards D major, it starts to wind down. The rhythm stills, and the driving ceases. The point of the poem is in the second stanzaand, really, the point of the cycle too. For both Hardy and Finzi, themes of the passing of time, the transience of life, and our role in a bigger universe, return time and again. Earth and Air and Rain was published in 1936, having taken several years before that to write, but was not premiered until 1945. Given the events of the intervening years, these themes must have been horribly poignant but also profoundly understood. So, framed musically with what is almost a chorale of peace and reconciliation, Finzi leaves us with the thought:

These are brand new birds of twelvemonths’ growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales, nor thrushes,
But only particles of grain,
And earth, and air, and rain.

I always feel a real satisfaction if singer and pianist manage to generate a lengthy silence at the end of this song; we and the audience are lost in thought. Yet, somehow, the music here also feels that it could segue quite naturally into ‘Summer Schemes’, and we could begin the whole journey again. How cyclical life is, and how beautifully Finzi captures that in this piece.

 

Libby Burgess