Gerald Finzi’s early years were blighted by loss. He lost his father when he was aged seven and his three brothers in the ensuing First World War; a terrible war in which Finzi also lost an important teacher and mentor in Ernest Farrar, who died on active service. An introspective and shy personality, who was described by Farrar as being ‘full of poetry’, these personal tragedies only served to enhance the composer’s attraction to the sense of the fragility and transience of life found in the poetry of Thomas Hardy, William Wordsworth, and Thomas Traherne, in which he immersed himself throughout the 1920s. This was a time when Finzi also became involved in London’s busy city life and became part of a composers’ set that included Bliss, Rubbra and Howells. Thus, in the early 1930s it is not surprising Finzi chose to set seven of Robert Bridges’ vivid and attractive poems as part-songs; poems which appeal both to the composer’s thoughtful personality, as well as his love of the English countryside; a countryside to which he retreated for the rest of his life. It should be noted that these years marked a time of greater hope and happiness, as Finzi took up a position as a harmony teacher at the Royal Academy of Music from 1930 to 1933, and in 1933 met and married artist and sculptor Joyce (Joy) Black. This new-found love might well have attracted Finzi to the excitement found in poems such as ‘My spirit sang all day’, where the name ‘Joy’ literally inundates the poetry (Finzi’s setting said to have been written during their courtship before their marriage).
Performers always have a choice in responding to the biographical and historical context of any composer’s work. Indeed, many eminent performers fervently apply the metier that a musical work stands alone on its own two feet, without outside influence on interpretation. However, with such strong links to specific biographical events and indeed in the special case of musical settings of text, such influences surely provide greater richness for the performers, in terms of their ownership over the words that they sing. Certainly, I have found thatsingers, on discovering the ‘Joy’ personal connection in ‘My spirit sang all day’ (surely one of FInzi’s most popular short choral works), can find a new exuberance in their investment of the text, in knowing what this name meantto the composer. And of course, Finzi provides a special case, as a composer whose musical response to poetry is always so wonderfully natural; mostly syllabic, with pitch and rhythm seemingly unobtrusive to the poetic meaning, while at the same time giving the meaning of the text a unique Finzian musical flavour.
As someone, who spends the larger proportion of my professional life working as a pianist with opera and song singers, and indeed actors,I am used to working specifically onthe communicative power of texts filtered through the musical gauze of composers. Thus, I have always been fascinated by how one might bring such learning processes to my work with choirs. Is there something about that way that opera singers, and actors work with text in such a deep and detailed way that can be brought to the choir rehearsal? Choirs often work in a different way when approaching text, with focus on diction, ensemble and tuning preoccupying the rehearsal room. Ironically, I find that such a focus is often at the expense of communicative meaning, as when the breath is taken for each phrase, rarely does one glean how the performers feel about what they sing, in the way one would expect from a soloist. Perhaps, this should not matter. On speaking to conductor colleagues, some tell me that the music, through its harmony, rhythm, pitch, dynamics and articulation, does all the work. Of course, solo singers and actors have usually committed their text to memory, and have done important work on characterisation, poetic meaning and structure, language, syntaxand so on, even before working on musical aspects of a song or aria. Thus, it has become my view that such responsibilities might rest on the shoulders of the conductor, in leading groups both large and small through texted music, and especially poetic settings. The problem is perhaps more acute for choirsas the time invested in the music is often much shorter than would be the case for a solo singer who has committed a song to memory; this is certainly true of my church choir, who have to sight-read everything an hour before each performance. Finzi’s choral music provides the perfect case for such a text-led approach, as his choral vocal writing is so akin to that of his solo songs, namely largely syllabic with speech-like rhythmic shapes. In general, the textures of his Bridges part-songs are largely homophonic, allowing the ensemble to shape the text in a unified way. When Finzi employs counterpoint, the parts often mirror rhythmic shapes, the clarity of text never compromised, as one part is often held suspended as another either repeats or emphasises the same text.
Conductor Paul Spicer is clearly a musician that takes such matters seriously, and in his excellent article on recording these part-songs with his Finzi singers (The Clock of the Years ed. Rolf Jordan), he points out that ‘it is crucially important to think oneself into the world of the touchingly naïve words. The simple text, if taken seriously, can regain its almost childlike innocence’. Such an approach to text is something I hear frequently taught in institutions where I work, such as the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, always in an effort to avoid sentimentality at all costs, ensuring the language of the poetry is taken seriously as part of the music. So, how might one allow the singers of an ensemble to engage more deeply with Finzi’s settings of Robert Bridges’ poetry, bearing in mind the approach needs to be efficient and practicable within a tight rehearsal schedule? To take Finzi’s ‘I praise the tender flower’ as an initial example, one might allocate time to speaking text as a group, to glean the sense of the three contrasting stanzas. As Finzi’s rhythm, pitches and other markings become incorporated into the learning process (noting Finzi’s peculiarly English way of setting strong-weak syllables on long-short rhythms, such as in ‘flower’ in the poem’s first line), this exercise might include techniques I have witnessed actors practising, such as the ‘embodiment of text’, where the speakers literally try to ‘be’ each word as they speak. Other methods to engage with text on a local level are to allow the meaning of the ‘doing’ words (mainly verbs and adjectives) to influence the colour of the voice, as well as allow the nouns to ‘land’ firmly. Finzi’s markings are always a great help in this regard. What emotive qualities can be inferred from the tenuto marking on ‘And made the winter gay’ and the marcatoat the top of a long crescendo on ‘Its loveliness contented’ Of course, this is all part of a learning process, and musicians are renowned for wanting to set the way they will sing the performance in the rehearsal room. Once it becomes clear that these techniques are merely a learning process to embed the meaning poetry and music in the body on a local word-focussed level, one can ‘zoom out’ more easily to reflect on more general issues of how to contrast the three stanzas as an emotional journey. The role of the conductor can start to be less of a metronome and more a theatre director who influences the way the breath is taken in relation to the emotive qualities of the music. It is my experience that this can allow musical issues of diction, tempo, tuning, ensemble etc. to fall into place; for without communication, these are all literally meaningless. In the end, the composer’s music is the flesh on the poem which he initially read and discovered, and if one keeps looking closely enough in the score, one can find everything one needs to know!
‘I praise the tender flower’ throws up many other issues also pertinent to the whole set, and indeed ensemble singing in general. The firstfour lines of Bridges’ firsttwo stanzas areone long sentence, and indeed Finzi, who appears to be always attentive to exact note durations, writes not a single rest (except for the altos after ‘garden bower’). Even if a choir decides to breathe at some point during these sentences, Finzi’s and Bridges’ mutual desire to see the sensethrough as one thought can influence the collective direction a choir takes. Incidentally, another fine example of such a‘breathing gauntlet’ being thrown to the choir is in ‘My spirit sang all day’ which is often heard with the note lengths of each phrase shortened, often by as much as a crotchet taken out of Finzi’s final note lengths. This most popular of Finzi’s part-songs, I first came to know as a listener, so I was intrigued to discover that on the pageFinzi’s excitement seems more breathless and excited than I had been used to hearing. Indeed, he never appears to allow a moment’s pause between each thought. I have tried this with choirs almost as an endless stream of consciousness, almost as if without a breath from start to finish (excepting the few moments where Finzi writes a rest!). Indeed, with larger groups, it can be fun to experiment with ‘staggering’ where gaps between the phrases can be papered over. Again, the context and rehearsal schedule of the group can dictate how much such parameters need to be ‘nailed down’ by the conductor, and how much experimentation can exist in the rehearsal room. Certainly, actors learn never to say the same phrase exactly the same way in subsequent readings, so musicians giving themselves permission to be flexible in the same way, within the more restricted parameters (or I should say the inspiring direction of a composer) of the musical score is surely worth trying, especially when the composer seems to be trying to tell us something throughthat score.
Finzi’s largely syllabic and homophonic style is often punctuated by light counterpoint, where one part echoes the text of another; something which can often be exploited by the ensemble to accentuate these repetitions in the poem. Incidentally, Finzi never repeats a word within a single voice part, so these moments are suitable for discovering a dialogue between the parts. The final exquisite phrase of ‘I praise the tender flower’(‘So in my song I bind them’) is one which often causes difficulties for singers in sustaining a crescendo and maintaining the full length of notes which squeeze out Finzi’s searing dissonances; the sopranos and tenors working in a team versus the altos and basses. Careful practice of this dialogue in these separate parts should help the ensemble surmount this challenge:it’s well worth it! Clarity of text in moments of busier counterpoint can also be challenging. In ‘I have loved flowers that fade’ the phrases ‘Notes, with that pulse of fire proclaim the spirit’s delight’ and‘fly with delight, fly hence’ may need careful rehearsal of dialogue between the parts to ensure the sentence is still gleanable within the texture. Contrastingly in ‘Haste on, my joys’ the unusually expansive and polyphonic texture at ‘Were but your rare gifts longer mine, / Ye scarce would win my love’ is typical of the kind of choral texture where singers must work hard as a team to get the sense of the whole sentence across; meaning can get lost in the enthusiasm to let vocal tone triumph over text, especially in a large acoustic. Finzi marks all five parts at mezzo forte, yet some kind of profiling between the parts based on the important words of the text ‘landing’ effectively might influence the way it is sung. Of course, listening to each other as a group is crucial here.
The second poem ‘I have loved flowers that fade’ dispenses with the basses, meaning it is less often performed. However, when performed as a complete set of part-songs, it is all too easy to slip back into the same tempo as the first poem. Finzi’s music nearly always includes metronome marks, and the increase from crotchet = c.58 to c.72 is apt for this more vivid paean to life before the tranquilloat ‘Then die, and are nowhere’, which might need a relaxing of tempo to enable time for the expressive rising and falling intervals, carefully marked with ‘hairpins’ like as if sighing through the poetry. Having said that, Finzi’s metronome marks for ‘Clear and gentle stream’ and ‘Nightingales’ are identical (crotchet=c.63); both settings are also largely soft, excepting the latter’s exuberant depiction of the dawn at the end. Here, both Finzi and the poetry are of great help in avoiding musical monotony. Traversing from the comfortable flowing liquid lines of the former to the hushed, dreamlike excitement of the latter, Finzi points us in the direction of a new, more excited world. Although at the same tempo, a real and deep inhabiting of the text at the moment the breath is taken can allow both performer and listener to experience this new world. Soft singing takes even greater energy and focus than loud singing; the ‘ppp’ at ‘where are those starry woods?’ to be seized as a rare opportunity to deliver an important question rather than an inhibiting instruction.
‘Nightingales’ and ‘Wherefore tonight so full of care’ are two of the most difficult settings for a group to bring off in a unified way. Both largely homophonic and soft (although both with a loud ending), with great detail in Finzi’s rhythm and dynamics, they remind me of a ‘penny drop’ moment I had as a student at the Guildhall Schoolin a coaching session with the ever-inspiring mezzo-soprano Sarah Walker, who pointed out that composers can only ever write a rhythm as close to the words as they deem possible. Words by their very nature are all different shapes and sizes; some with plenty of tasty consonants, and some being less important in the structure of the sentence, yet all important to be heard! This is especially worth remembering when composers write equal length notes in quick succession; the shape of the text might be thought of as fitting into the jacket of the composer’s rhythms, but with room for manoeuvre on a local level, rather like different shaped people making room for each other on a row of identically shaped seats on a tube train! Take ‘barren are those mountains’ from the second stanza of ‘Nightingales’ written as a string of semiquavers, which if sung precisely and robotically will actually lose clarity of text. As with his regular use of triplets (in various guises) within simple meters (examples can be found throughout these part-songs), Finzi seems to treat such rhythms as lilting propellers to the next important part of the sentence. Sadly, the opposite effect can easily occur in the rehearsal room as the reading of more difficult rhythms can actually cause a labouring of the text instead.
I have worked on these part-songs (as a whole group or on selections), with smaller groups of amateurs, as well as professionals, one recent memorable experience being with a Chamber Choir the 2018 Dartington Summer School, where various members professed to having become Robert Bridges enthusiasts during the week of work we undertook. Indeed, there seems something suitably domestic about unaccompanied part-songs that lends itself to smaller groups (although I have heard plenty of successful renditions of ‘My spirit sang all day’ from large choirs). Needless to say, thanks to Finzi’s unique poetic approach, these part-songs are a wonderful vehicle for any group, large or small, to learn to engage with poetry through the music, in that order, for without the former the latter would never have existed!