There was a time, it seemed, when BBC Radio 3 broadcast nothing else but songs by Gerald Finzi. At least that’s how I remember it. When my father would turn on the radio at our family home in Barnet and shout “Composer?” round the house (a traditional family game), the rest of us were in the habit of shouting back “Finzi” and, more often than not, we were right.
I remember encountering a Finzi song at close quarters for the first time on a summer choral course when another singer brought along ‘It was a lover and his lass’ from Let Us Garlands Bring to a master-class. The jaunty, easy syncopations of the opening and the perilous metre changes as the birds sing ‘hey ding-a-ding’ were immediately seductive to this teenager and I decided to buy a copy and learn the songs myself. So it was that I gave one of my first solo performances with broken voice on a school visit to a care home for the elderly; I took to the floor and merrily declared to the on-looking, wheelchair bound inmates that I would be singing them ‘Come away, come away, death’.
These memories I recall by way of explaining that Finzi songs have been a part of my solo performance since my interest in singing began. Longer than that, in fact. Had someone predicted to me that I would make a career out of singing such music myself, or that my recordings would plague the Radio 3 schedules to the same degree, I would have been amazed. That had never been my ambition in those days. But I knew the essential sound of Finzi’s music, I was aware of the way he matched vocal line to words, and piano accompaniment to vocal line.
I suspect my introduction to Finzi’s baritone songs through Garlands is fairly common amongst singers and audiences and I would hope this starting point would lead them, as it led me, to explore other settings, arriving of course at the Hardy cycles. I struggle now to remember exactly how I came across Before and After Summer although I’m fairly confident that I performed it with Susie Allan as part of our National Federation of Music Societies award, a scheme that allowed us to perform recitals all cross the UK. Perhaps Susie recommended them to me. In any case, it was this cycle I encountered first and I have therefore a special soft spot for it, over and above Earth, Air and Rain which was always Susie’s favourite.
I think what impressed me most about Before and After Summer was the seriousness of its intent. Much of the art song I had met up until that point had churned over that familiar trope ‘Boy loves girl, girl loves boy, girl spurns boy, (repeat and fade)’, a rich seam in all its variations. But here in Hardy was poetry that appeared a whole lot more grown-up; ‘Old man looks back on his life and is filled with remorse for opportunities passed by’. How I used to relish singing the closing verse of the last song,‘He abjures love’ which begins “I speak as one who plumbs/Life’s dim profound”.
Granted, Hardy’s poetic style, his fondness for archaic words and pedantic structures can feel a little obtuse at times but, at the same time, I find Finzi’s settings of them extraordinarily direct and powerfully emotional. Both of the two cycles mentioned so far are ten songs long and take about half an hour to perform. Both are tightly constructed in terms of a vocal recital, carefully taking into account key structure between songs and pacing of tempo in a way that recalls the classic model of Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Both cycles leave the performers and audience emotionally exhausted by the end.
For me this is because Finzi’s setting of Hardy’s text illuminates the poetry and I find I can grasp the meaning of the words more clearly through the music than I do when I see them printed on the page as poetry. Incidentally, I would like to say how grateful I am that the standard Boosey& Hawkes editions of these cycles have the poetry printed out ahead of the music. It is fascinating to see the shapes of the verses as Hardy intended and to see how cleverly Finzi has absorbed the most complicated of verse structures. I’m not sure I, as a composer, would ever have the courage to attempt such strait-jacketed poems as ‘Lizbie Browne’ or ‘Amabel’ and yet Finzi manages a naturalflow in his settings that both nods to the structure and avoids its complications.
This is what makes singing in English so rewarding. I enjoy the immediate impact that singing my own language has on English speaking audiences and this is served best by those composers who knew most instinctively how to ally music and words. There is a clarity in these songs, both in the vocal and the piano part, that sets it apart from other song composers. I relish this as a singer and I admire and learn from it as a composer.
I grew up with the Hyperion recordings of the Hardy cycles by Martyn Hill, Stephen Varcoe and Clifford Benson and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s how this music goes. But I’m also grateful to have been a part of the Naxos recording project that allowed Iain Burnside and myself to record the baritone repertoire, introducing me along the way to I said to Love, To a Poet and By Footpath and Stile, all of which I was then able to programme in recital and all of which were tremendously rewarding to explore and perform. I have even been able to steal a handful of songs from the tenor volumes in transposition to fit specific programmes. My exploration of Finzi’s songs is by no means over. But my goodness, how I enjoy my Garlands and my beloved Hardy cycles!