“Just the sort of melody I have wanted to do all my life and have never brought off.”
(Ralph Vaughan Williams to Gerald Finzi on the central theme in Finzi’s Nocturne, op.7, 1935)
While scholars have long recognized the importance of the so-called ‘English Musical Renaissance’ (c. 1840–1940) for the resurgence of cultural nationalism in England, the role of Gerald Finzi (1901–1956) in this movement has been largely neglected. With the help of a research grant from the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, I am attempting to fill in this lacuna and examine the contributions of this putatively minor figure in the development of a distinctly ‘English sound’. As a result of my research, I have discoveredthat Finzi’s compositions bear the unique aesthetic traits desired by the English Musical Renaissance, particularly in his treatment of melody and harmony. Given the intricacies in style and the volume of unfinished works, there is still so much to be learned about Finzi’s musical mind. I would like to hope that my findings represent a new genesis in Finzi scholarship, one I hope to continue.
The histories of British music have traditionally accorded Gerald Finzi a secondary role, behindRalph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and Herbert Howells, in the establishment of an English national school of music. In July 2018, I spent three weeks in the United Kingdom where I analysedFinzi’s compositional techniques in his unpublished/unfinished works and the correspondence between Finzi and more-established contemporaries, in order to sketch adifferent picture of the twentieth-century English musical landscape. This involved examining the relationship between text and music in Finzi’s vocal works, delving into his personal relationship with the well-known British composers of the day, and, most importantly, the close study of compositional techniques of unpublished and unfinished works at library archives. At the centre of my conception of Finzi’s distinctly ‘English’ style are the influences of Tudor Renaissance polyphony and English folk song.
Composers of the twentieth century English Musical Renaissance were deeply invested in establishing a school of musical composition unique to the British Isles. The Great Wars in the first half of the twentieth century spurred a strong sense of nationalism in every country involved, and composers laboured to write music that was unique to their home country. In England, this was made manifest in two ways: the resurgence of Tudor Renaissance polyphony (as seen in the efforts of Sir Richard Runciman Terry at Westminster Cathedral) and the re-vitalization of the folk song (pioneered by Cecil Sharp and famously executed by Ralph Vaughan Williams through music). While England continued with musical output after the Elizabethan era through the likes of Purcell and Handel, music composition later stagnated in Britain while it flourished on the European mainland. Out of the great courts in the Austro-German lands came the music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, which for 200 years dominated musical composition in Europe. Beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century, however, England became restless for music of its own design and flavour. Spurred by this cultural nationalism, composers began drawing inspiration from England’s own history, finding rich soil in the largely untapped English musical landscape of Tudor polyphony and folksong. These musical idioms, unique to the island but left untilled,inspired composers of the English Musical Renaissance to focus on their own traditions,rather than emulate the sounds of their mainland neighbours.
The music of Gerald Finzi provides the sonic aesthetic so desired by this movement. Imbuing his harmony with the colour of sixteenth-century Tudor counterpoint and creating melodies of ineffable lyricism that made Vaughan Williams envious, Finzi’s writing is the quintessential English sound. While it can be argued that Finzi’s music can never be considered ‘national’ because Finzi himself did not desire to become a nationalistic composer, this does not detract from the calibre of his compositions, nor the nationalistic affect it stirs up. Robert Stradling and Merrion Hughes’ seminal work, The English Musical Renaissance, 1840-1940: Constructing A National Music, is the most thoroughly researched and authoritative text on this subject, but it is deficient on the contributions of Finzi. Within the realm of Finzi scholarship itself, there have been, to date, only two scholars who have published authoritative bodies of text on the composer: Diana McVeagh and Stephen Banfield. Both McVeagh and Banfield are to be highly commended for their contributions to Finzi scholarship; indeed, any credible work done on Finzi today, including my own, expands upon their work. Still, after reading both of these respective discourses, I believed there was more to unearth about Finzi and his work.
The process of discovery began in earnest in the weeks preceding my trip. One of the pieces I had planned to analyse was Finzi’s arrangement of Ivor Gurney’s art song, “Sleep” , for string orchestra, which was, according to Diana McVeagh’s book, held at St Andrews University in Scotland. McVeagh’s book contains the most credible and up-to-date catalogue of Finzi’s compositions. However, after extensive inquiry, I discovered that the manuscript was not to be found. Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Reading, St Andrews, the Royal College of Music, the Finzi Trust, even the manuscript and publishing departments at Boosey& Hawkes, none of them could locate the manuscript of this arrangement or knew where it was. After much correspondence, Martin Holmes, Curator of Music at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, eventually emailed me saying that, through some exploratory work, he had managed to find the manuscript parts of this particular arrangement in Finzi’s own hand. They were tucked away inside an uncatalogued folder of performance materials belonging to the Newbury String Players, the musical ensemble Finzi had established during the dark days of World War II. Manuscript displacement is very common (and often not communicated to scholars), and active scholarship assumes the responsibility of keeping track of manuscripts lest they become lost.
At The Museum of English Rural Life affiliated to the University of Reading, I viewed over a dozen anthologies of sixteenth and seventeenth-century poetry once owned by Finzi. After some digging (and thanks to Diana McVeagh’s book), I was able to find the two anthologies, A.H. Bullen’s The Works of George Peele and Normal Ault’s A Treasury of Unfamiliar Lyrics,where Finzi had come across the poemsby George Peele and Ralph Knevetthat led to the composition of Farewell to Arms, op. 9. Finzi set these two poems in a quasi-baroque recitative-and-aria form, one poem serving as the recitative, the other the aria, more than twenty years apart. These very pages led to the composition of this work that exemplifies Finzi’s pacifist and anti-war views, drawn from his contempt, rage, and sorrowat both World Wars. The adding of the recitative in 1944 to the existing Peele aria text shows how antithetical the brutality of human nature was to Finzi’s beliefs. The veteran solider relinquishing his sword, the “helmet now an hive for bees become,” “th’ unarmed soldier”; Finzi set Knevet’s texts as prayers. War-inflicted emotional turmoil was formative for Finzi: his first composition teacher and friend, Ernest Farrar, died at the Front just weeks before the First World War Armistice, having only been there for two days. An obsessive reader of lesser-known poetry, Finzi’s discovery of these two texts must have really resonated with him, and led to perhaps his most pseudo-autobiographical work for solo voice and strings. Most notable is the introduction to the aria, a quintessential example of folk melody in a chamber music setting. Furthermore, Finzi had omitted the last stanza from bothof these poems, perhaps symbolizing that the sacrifice of the ‘glorious dead’ should have the final word.
Vital to the work on any composer is an understanding of their disposition and their compositional modus operandi. At the Bodleian Library, I came across the original manuscript of his song, “I say, ‘I’ll seek her side’”, and saw that Finzi had written “scrap” in big, red letters across the top. It is one of Finzi’s most affecting songs, with a tri-partite form that employsthe full arsenal and breadth of Finzi’s compositional prowess. Likely considered for his song cycle, By Footpath and Stile, we know from its revision history (he wrote the song in 1929 and revised it in 1955, the year before he died), that he struggled with it. Yet, within 38 measures, Finzi gives us a world. His settings of Thomas Hardy’s poetry are unparalleled, (the Schubert-song expert Susan Youens remarked to me how moving is his handling of Hardy’s texts), and what Finzi gives us musically in these four stanzas is breathtaking. The rush of indecision in the beginning showed by fleeing semiquavers; the tender regret at his lover’s distraught glance in the second stanza, over a stepwise descending melody; the folk song homage in the third with its dotted rhythms and a fourth intervallic oscillation progressing stepwise with the rustic imagery; and the text painting in the fourth verse on “the shadows are abating” with a 2-1 suspension over a second inversion tonic chord that only Finzi could achieve, complete with a Picardy third cadence at the close. All this, and Finzi, ever exacting and critical, wrote, “scrap”. This type of scathing self-evaluation was perhaps detrimental to Finzi’s career, and we know that his perfectionism stunted many projects.
The Bodleian contains the crown jewel of Finzi manuscripts: his unfinished/unpublished “abandoned piano concerto” (listed as such in the Bodleian Library catalogue). The abandoned piano concerto was not only left to the fates by Finzi, but also by scholars: no substantial attempt has been made since Finzi’s death to unearth the compositional treasures that lie in the manuscript sketches, bound together now in a single volume. While the second movement was posthumously published as Eclogue for Piano and Strings, op. 10, and we know that the Grand Fantasia, op.38 (to which Finzi later added a Toccata)was intended to be a part of it, the other movements remain unanalysed. When I viewed the sketches, I found musical writing of astounding complexity, breadth, and virtuosity. The harmonic language, with sensitively placed dissonances and an instrumental texture that maintains warmth despite its open texture, is distinctly Finzian, yet its pianistic writing resembles more a Rachmaninov concerto than a pastoral elegy. One immediately gets the impression while viewing the sketches that Finzi was attempting to master the art of declamation. On page 4 of the first movement, Finzi writes “pocoritard,” “ravvivando,” “strepitoso,” and “allargando”, all within three measures. This meticulous attention to performance detail may have contributed to the demise of its completion; indeed, the various sketched passages often lack coherence and are fragmentary. Still, Finzi wrote music for everymovement. Although incomplete, much can be inferred and/or pieced together from what we know today of Finzi’s idiosyncratic compositional style: a penchant for Tudor-influenced harmony, primacy of melody always vocal in nature, baroque-inspired techniques and formal structure, and tonal ambiguity flanked by diatonicism. I was given explicit permission by the Bodleian to take photographs of the manuscript, and I believe that, after careful analysis and future study, this abandoned piano concerto can eventually enjoy the due privilege of performance, in either abbreviated form or full completion by a scholar.
In my final degree recital at Notre Dame, I will be conducting Finzi’s Farewell to Arms, and at the Bodleian I was able to view, study, and photograph the original manuscript which Finzi himself used to conduct the work. Of considerable importance to me were the conducting beat patterns Finzi wrote for the several tricky metre changes in the recitative. As a conductor, it is of the greatest value to conduct a piece of music with the same precision and beat patterns as the composer. I will also be conducting Finzi’sPrelude for String Orchestra in F minor, op. 25, pairing it with ArvoPärt’sStabat Mater for SAT choir and strings. The harmonic language, melodic motifs, and texture of Finzi and Pärt are astoundingly similar, and, to my knowledge, parallels have never been drawn between the two composers. Pärt, the Estonian composer who hearkened back to early Orthodox compositions and ‘invented’ the compositional device Tintinnabuli, created a musical language by revitalizing another, just as Finzi did.
On my visit to the UK I also analysed a great treasury of unpublished songs and choral music that, while seeming immature at first glance, display Finzi’s compositional influences, notably that of Tudor Renaissance polyphony. “How shall a young man,” which setsa text from Psalm CXIX as set in William Byrd’s Psalms, Sonnets, and Songs, presents as a motet from sixteenth-century England. For the purposes of my research in establishing that Finzi’s compositions synthesized Tudor polyphony and folk melodies in such a way to develop a wholly new musical language, analysing this neglected early composition was exciting and revelatory. With its canonic entries at the fifth, melodic lines laden with thirds, and frequent harmonic use of a sixth between the soprano and bass, this four-page piece bears all the signature characteristics of the composer who inspired it. Further analysis showed, however, that even in his early stages of composition Finzi’s own style was bursting forth. The piece begins in F major starting on the fifth scale degree, yet in measure 10, Finzi introduces an E-flat simultaneously in both the alto and tenor, which both resolve to D. While later expanded upon so that it could be suggested that Finzi was writing in C minor, it seems more likely, given no modulatory sequence, that Finzi was suggesting a Phrygian scale beginning on D. This sudden shift to modality, while not uncommon in Renaissance-era compositions, seems suggestive of folk melodies, which so often are based on modal scales. My hypothesis was then given further credibility on the penultimate page, where Finzi introduces a new motif in the bass, following a sonorous A-major cadence. The new thematic material is disjunct, even jaunty, resembling Stravinskyanmelodic primitivism rather than a melody in a Tudor motet. Teachers of counterpoint would likely criticize such writing and dismiss it as bad counterpoint, but this conjoining of the sacred and the secular (i.e. a jaunty, boisterous folk song) may have been exactlywhat Finzi was intending. If so, English nationalists and musical erudites in the first half of the twentieth century need not have looked any further for a proponent of nationalism. It is also likely that this composition pays homage to another non-prolific English composer: Edward Bairstow. Bairstow’sCounterpoint and Harmony (1937) adheres to harmonizing modal tunes within a modality and without accidental pitches. This approach gave composers the impetus to distance their writing from Common-Practice Period rules of counterpoint while simultaneously recreating the language of Tudor polyphony. Finzi’s later compositions indicate that he did not take Bairstow’s views on counterpoint as doctrine, but we can nonetheless attribute Finzi’s distinct harmonic language in part to Bairstow’s influence.
Lastly at the Bodleian, I viewed Finzi’s arrangement of Ivor Gurney’s song “Sleep” for strings already mentioned, and his arrangement of the popular hymn tune, “When I survey the wondrous Cross” by Hubert Parry. I was able to conclude decisively that even in his arrangements Finzi’s musical language embodies the ‘English pastoral’, with what English music critic Frank Howes described as, “the gentle, undramatic but strong and persistent musical equivalent of the English countryside.” The instrumental texture has breath and vastness, without sacrificing melodic integrity and the prominence of harmony. What I encountered next in the Special Collections at St Andrews University was perhaps a more fruitful form of research for establishing a nationalistic composer: hundreds of hand-written letters between Finzi and Cedric Thorpe Davie, a close friend to the Finzis and Master of Music (later Full Professor) at St Andrews. These letters were micro-treatises into Finzi’s compositional style: his unconventional view on key relationships and modulations, fiery rants about musical form and structure and the importance of redefining them, and mention of key sources of artistic inspiration, running the gamut from folk song and poetry to Brahms’s c-minor string quartet and Beethoven symphonies. A frequent criticism of Finzi’s music is his unconventional way of modulating, which can sometimes seem jarring and unpredictable. In a 1933 letter to “Ceddie”, GF writes, “…you’re quite right in saying that I don’t care a damn what the key is (always supporting that it’s satisfactorily done and provides the contrast).” Rather than try to fit into a mould, Finzi’s entire oeuvre seems to be in protest against conventional systems of composition. One would expect no less from a pacifist, and certainly from a composer creating, without realizing it, a sound devoid of mainland, namely Teutonic, influence.
At the Royal College of Music in London, I read three decades of correspondence between Finzi and Herbert Howells, a vital figure in English music and the largest contributor to the Anglican church music canon in the twentieth century. Not only did Howells find Finzi to be a peer of remarkable depth and beauty, it was clear from several letters how much Howells admired Finzi’s compositions, especially his settings of English texts and his knack for writing melodies. One such example is a letter to Finzi dated 18th November 1951in which Howells expressed his discontent with an Ivor Gurney song he was arranging, to which Finzi replied with a list of emendations that Howells eventually incorporated. This was just one of several instances where this junior composer was called upon by Howells to offer clarity, insight, and advice. Furthermore, Howells believed in Finzi’s personal and artistic integrity, remarking in aletter of 11th August 1953 to GF, “I would be greatly touched if anyone, especially a musician of your quality, would really acknowledge and write about the better and more worthwhile of the music I’ve tried to get done.” This discredits Banfield’s assertion that “we shall never really know what Howells thought of Finzi’s music.” Howells’s request of Finzi’s musical criticism is indicative of the esteem in which he heldFinzi’s compositions. I also analysed the autograph manuscript of the piece Howells wrote in homage to Finzi the day after he died, and came across an interesting ‘discovery’. Upon requesting to look at the manuscript for “Finzi’s Rest”, I was handed a manuscript that read “Finzi: His Rest”. Thinking it was merely a mistake in title transmission, I went along with my analysis, only to very quickly realize that this was a significantlydifferent piece than the one with which I was familiar. I turned to the autograph, to discover that it was dated the day after Finzi’s death. Howells seemed to have written two different piecesin homage to Finzi the day after he died, the second of which, “Finzi’s Rest”, was published and circulated. While “Finzi’s Rest” is a beautiful tribute to Finzi, paying direct homage to Finzi’s deeply elegiac and melancholic writing, “Finzi: His Rest” offers a different perspective on Finzi: the writing is more dissonant, introspective, unconventional, even rebellious. The work is unpublished and untouched, and I believe it is the emotional and cathartic product of a grieving Howells, in memory of this man we are only beginning to understand fully.
I believe my findings will contribute to the existing scholarship on Finzi, in addition to challenging both the existing critical reception of Finzi’s work and his place in the history of English national music. It was through my efforts that an uncataloged folder of orchestra parts in Finzi’s hand were discovered, which will now be added to the Finzi catalogue at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Additionally, my analysis of Finzi’s abandoned piano concerto will serve as a rebuke to the criticisms against the harmonic and compositional ingenuity of both the Grand Fantasia and the Eclogue. Hector Bellman wrote that the Fantasia is “probably the least interesting among the instrumental works of Finzi”. Bellman’s statement is a product of the ignorance that many have about the composition of the abandoned piano concerto, for which the Fantasia was intended,unaware of the depth and complexity of the work and the painstaking detail Finzi took in its composition. The analysis of the William Byrd-inspired setting of “How shall a young man” directly proves my hypothesis correct that Finzi hearkened to the language of Tudor polyphony to form his own compositional style. The correspondence between Finzi and Cedric Thorpe Davie and Herbert Howells remains unpublished: I believe careful analysis of the letters, of which I have personal digital copies of for self-study via permission from the archive curators, and of which little has been presented here, will prove essential in establishing Finzi’s place amongst the compositional giants of the English sound. Lastly, in addition to the hagiographic nature in which his contemporaries wrote about him, I believe my research and study of “Finzi: His Rest”will result in a changed perception of Finzi, both the man and his music, by both musical scholars and the general public alike.
University of Notre Dame
Banfield, Stephen. Gerald Finzi: An English Composer. London: Faber and Faber, 1998.
Bellman, Hector.“Grand Fantasia and Toccata for piano & orchestra in D minor, Op 38; Description by Hector Bellman.” www.allmusic.com; Accessed July 2018.
Finzi, Gerald. Letter to Cedric Thorpe Davie. 1933. Special Collections, St Andrews University, Scotland. Accessed July 2018.
Howells, Herbert. Letter to Gerald Finzi. 11 August 1953. Howells Collection, Royal College of Music Library. Accessed July 2018.
Hughes, Meirion, and Robert Stradling. The English musical renaissance, 1840-1940: constructing a national music. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001.
McVeagh, Diana. Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2005.
Onderdonk, Julian. “Folk-song arrangements, hymn tunes and church music.” The Cambridge Companion to Vaughan Williams, ed. Alain Frogley& Aidan J. Thomson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Vaughan Williams, Ralph. Letter to Gerald Finzi, 5 July 1935. Accessed in Diana McVeagh’s book, Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music, 39.