Consideration of texture and timbre in what is one of Gerald Finzi’s most distinctive works, and arguably one of his most popular, cannot fail to take into account previous or contemporary works in a similar genre. One of the most immediately apparent as a similar work is Britten’s Les Illuminations. Interestingly, though, this was composed at the end of the 1930s around the time that Finzi was completing Dies Natalis. It fared better than Dies Natalis in receiving its first performance in 1940, sung by the soprano, Sophie Wyss, whereas Finzi’s work had to wait until after the war for its premiere in 1946.However, the genesis ofDies Natalis was a complex affair (outlined in Stephen Banfield’s 1997 book on Finzi ) so that it can be confidently understood that much of Finzi’s work was composed well before Britten’s. Interestingly, Banfield points out that Sophie Wyss was the original singer envisaged for Dies Natalis. (If mention of the soprano voice sparks confusion in relation to Dies Natalis, please read further!)There are, of course, significant dissimilarities with Britten’s work aside from musical language. Britten chose the very much non-religious French poems of Arthur Rimbaud to set. Finzi’s chosen text selects from the writings of the metaphysical English clergyman, Thomas Traherne. Britten’s string writing seems deliberately to eschew the ‘established’ English string-writing tradition in favour of the more atmospheric, occasionally impressionist palette of continental composers.
To find the forerunners of Dies Natalis it is sensible to look in two places. Firstly, Finzi was in no way short of exemplars for string writing in the music of early twentieth century British composers. The list is extensive: Elgar’sIntroduction and Allegro for Strings; Parry’sAn English Suite and similar works; Vaughan Williams’Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, etc; and Holst’s St Paul’s Suite. Interestingly, however, none of these composers chose to write a solo cantata of a similar nature to Finzi’s work. The second place to look is, perhaps, the early eighteenth century.
Diana McVeagh has promoted the idea that Finzi’s exposure to Bach in 1926 can be linked to the style of ‘The Salutation’, the final movement of Dies Natalis, influencing also his use of the term ‘Aria’ at the head of the movement. In terms of texture, this would certainly be at one with the wider sense of contrapuntal writing (in its broadest, non-academic, sense – see Banfield for an account of Finzi’s view of ‘academic’ counterpoint as studied under Bairstow) which characterises Dies Natalis. This is another significant link to preceding English string music, for example the fugal middle section of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and, in less serious mode, perhaps, Holst’s St Paul’s Suite. It also foreshadows Finzi’s interest in the music of earlier, eighteenth century English composers which he was to promote, such as that by Mudge and Stanley. The solo vocal cantata was a staple of the early eighteenth century, composed for both secular and sacred occasions. (Few were fortunate to have texts of such depth and sophistication as those selected by Finzi from the writings of Thomas Traherne).
The significance of this textural decision to write in a linear style is not to be underestimated and it is a hallmark of the composer’s style. Many of Finzi’s contemporaries pursued a much more homophonic approach to writing, with emphasis on rich sonorities achieved by building up complex harmony, either by adding additional thirds to the basic triad or chromatic alteration of notes. Both devices are common, for example in the songs of John Ireland, to expressive effect, and the occasional consternation of pianists faced with fistfuls of added-note chords. (A good example occurs in the third verse of the ever-popular Sea Fever.)Finzi also frequently gives cause for pianists to practice at length but the challenge more often comes from grappling with combination within the two hands of independent lines of musical thought. The final song of Earth and Air and Rain is a good example. Even the apparently innocuous chordal writing of ‘To Lizbie Browne’contains snatches of imitation within the piano accompaniment and, importantly, between the vocal line and the piano. An interesting parallel with the final movement of Dies Natalis can be found in ‘When I set out for Lyonesse’. In the outer stanzas of this setting, Finzi places the voice in counterpoint to the melodic idea in the piano – interesting to ponder which came first, in fact. Finzi’s inclination to write because he heard ideas in the text instinctively gives few clues here – it may just as easily have been the march-like tread of the accompaniment that sprang to mind first. Before leaving Finzi’s approach to texture in songs with piano accompaniment it is instructive also to note the plentiful use of rests in his accompaniment figures. The ‘space’ that these create in the musical texture is directly akin to Finzi’s technique in Dies Natalis. A good example is ‘Two Lips’ from I Said To Love. Constant quaver rests at the start of the righthand phrases in the piano set up that part’s independence, notably contrasting with the way most vocal lines begin on a crotchet; and not always an upbeat crotchet – the second phrase of the song moves the voice’s entry to the second beat of the bar. These details are typical of Finzi’s subtle inflections, which have an impact on texture as well as on the rhythmic construction of Finzi’s settings. In the rhythmic and textural freedoms Finzi achieved in his text setting, he jumped further away from the stylistic traits of preceding generations of English song writers than he is often given credit for.
In terms of timbre, Dies Natalis might prompt the unwary listener to expect little in the way of variety but this would be short sighted indeed. The possibilities of a high solo voice with string orchestra are exploited to the full within the ‘standard’ techniques of Finzi’s musical background. No ‘extended’ instrumental techniques here, but a thoughtful and often imaginatively responsive range of sounds to suit the text. This includes the possibilities to be exploited in the relationship between voice and strings. These pose a significant question about the work as a whole. The title page announces the work to be a ‘Cantata for Soprano (or Tenor) Solo and String Orchestra’. Yet the association of the work with the tenor voice is so strong that there is frequent surprise (apart from amongst aficionados!) when listeners learn that the first performance was given by that leading soprano of her day, Elsie Suddaby. The main point for consideration in any survey of Finzi’s approach to texture and timbre is not ‘who got there first’ (a soprano, but the tenors have long wrestled the work to become theirs) but what difference either voice may make to the sound and texture of the work. The second movement ‘Rhapsody’ provides a clear picture of the potential differences. In many places it appears that the music is written with the soprano voice in mind so that, often, the first violin line moves at parallel pitch, for example during the passage ‘I was entertained like an angel’. In several places this approach offers nuances which are very appealing. For example, after figure 3, the soprano voice sings ‘Heaven and earth did sing’ at exactly the same pitch as the first violin, but on the word ‘sing’ the violin ascends the interval of a fourth to add almost a halo to the word. Such touches are apparent when the solo voice is a tenor, of course, but the sense of close affinity between voice and the top line of the string orchestra cannot be replicated. Indeed, performing the work with a tenor creates several issues of balance not unlike those associated with cello concertos. The tenor voice inevitable sits in the middle of the string textures and at times wrestles for due prominence, particularly when double-stopping or divisi passages increase the density of sound in the octave extending upwards from g below middle C. None of these points is insoluble but such issues are significant factors to be considered in any performance of the work. At times, of course, the use of tenor soloist adds to the sound world immeasurably. The opening of ‘The Salutation’ creates a ‘mellow’ timbre by throwing much emphasis on the sound of the viola in its lowest register. The violins imitate, and take the music to a climax in the middle of the movement, but in the outer sections, the movement belongs to the viola, as is evident when its melody closes the entire work. This pitch sits directly parallel with the range of the tenor voice, so that a lasting aural memory is of a duet-like sound between tenor and viola. The sound world created by a soprano voice, sitting high above the accompaniment for most of the movement is a very different one, though appealing and equally affecting.
For the most part, contrasts of texture within the work are created through Finzi’s imaginative and skilful writing for strings. It is here that the techniques inherent in works by his predecessors are capitalised upon and presented afresh at the service of Traherne’s imagery. Discussion of the opening instrumental movement is reserved to the end of this article so that immediate focus remains on Finzi’s textural use of both voice and strings.
The extended ‘Rhapsody’ is a compendium of string-writing techniques which would be demeaned by simply making a list. The point is that each technique fits its text like a glove. An example is the very end of the movement where a string quartet-like texture is ideally suited to the mood, allowing space for thought in its simplicity, heightened by the absence of the double bass. (Finzi’s use of the double bass throughout the work deserves an article of its own as he employs the ’16 foot’ option, as organists would recognise it, with unerring skill and economy (possibly because he wasn’t an organist). The texture here fittingly matches the tonal uncertainty with which the movement ends, an unresolved a minor, in relation to the movement’s overall tonal centre of G. The climax of the movement, ‘I saw all’, is heightened by rich divisi writing, tonally securely based on a drone between double bass and second cello. The rising, tremolo scales in sixths between violas and first cellos are consistent with a textural idea which recurs in the movement. It is particularly telling as an accompaniment to’ strange and wonderful things’. The sixth, perhaps the archetypal consonant interval (think Donizetti) is tellingly employed to create the atmosphere of sweetness, but within a harmonic background which is by no means clichéd. Similarly, Finzi frequently doubles musical lines instruments an octave apart. Probably one of the most telling and memorable moments in the movement is the series of static chords on the words ‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat’, surely one of Traherne’s most enduring images that Finzi chose to set (see Diana McVeagh for detail on Finzi’s being ‘composer enough to be ruthless’ in his selective treatment of Traherne’s text). Here the spacing is worthy of the opening of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, and any aural link it creates is surely a beneficial one in terms of mood. Strangely, this is none of the few truly recitative-like moments in this extended movement, in the usual sense of the term. There’s little obvious recitative in terms of giving metrical licence to the singer, although rhythmic flexibility is paramount in any performance. Overall, the movement has melodic and rhythmic drive for the most part, which links the sometimes disparate and often challenging text, in terms of comprehension. Repetition of the types of texture described above adds much to the coherence of this extended movement.
The ‘danza’ in the next movement, as Finzi describes ’The Rapture’, owes much to the exuberance of the opening string trills, although these disappear fairly quickly (a pity, in some ways) with just a backward glance given to them at the close of the movement. They are, perhaps, unusually extrovert for Finzi?The potential weight of the exuberance at the beginning is offset by constant use of divisi pizzicato chords in the lower strings to accompany the melodic upper parts, which now frequently move in thirds, as opposed to the sixths of the previous movement. The pizzicato chords, though heavy-looking on the page, create a highly unusual sound world in the way they move rapidly across different octaves. This is perhaps one of the most individual moments in terms of timbre in the whole work. In some ways, the middle section is less original in its texture, although beautiful in its solo melody. The repeated accompaniment quavers maintain momentum, but one is always glad to have return of the pizzicato idea.
Movement four, ‘Wonder’ offers the most complex textures of the work. Headed ‘Arioso’, the structural flexibility this implies is put to excellent use to respond to some of the most reflective lines Finzi selected from Traherne. The recurrence of the word ‘how’ pinpoints this reflective quality. For example, the couplet:
The Skies, in their Magnificence, the lovely lively air,
Oh, how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
The absence of any ‘action’, even though the words are spoken directly by the central child-figure, could render this problematic to set. Finzi responds intuitively to the meditative possibilities of the images. Partly, these images are reflected through simple contrasts, such as between the rich textures to support the singer at the words ‘So rich and great’ and the thinning out at the quieter passage ‘A Native Health’. Technically, though, these contrasts bear closer scrutiny. The emphasis on combining individual lines within the string orchestra is amplified by dividing each group, with the exception of the double bass line. Finzi’s instinctive practicality is to the fore here: the undivided double bass line indicates the clear possibility of performing the work with one player to each part if larger forces are not available. This would involve ten players. The necessity of the tenth results from Finzi adding to the divisi demands by requiring a solo first violin line (as well as other short solo passages). This strategy inevitably leads to consideration of what is the optimum number of players. The author has very successfully performed the work with ten players. The individual lines appear very clearly aurally although inevitably, at points in the score, at the cost of weight, particularly in the lower parts. Larger forces will supply greater weight but this also begins to pose challenges of balance and clarity. There is little doubt that the string orchestra envisaged is of the ‘chamber’ variety. The passages in thirds and sixths (and octaves) employed earlier in the work recur in this movement and their position spread across the string group means that clarity is essential. The passage ‘The Stars did entertain my Sense’ illustrates this well. Over-played, these lines will become stodgy as they interweave with accompanying lines. The fact that Finzi rarely employs block chords, but keeps all the parts fluid and melodic adds much to the beauty of the whole work, and particularly this movement, but demands a fine ear from conductor and players alike to discern relative significance and how best to communicate this. The opening of ‘Wonder’ illustrates another aspect of this approach, which recurs throughout the work, imitative writing. In the hands of a weak composer this can be wearisome, as motifs are ‘copied’ from part to part. Finzi’s skill lies in making imitation entirely natural and the essential fabric of the writing. At the opening, an upward motif containing small intervallic leaps, not always presented identically in melodic terms, occurs in every half bar, presented by each instrument in turn. The masterstroke is that the voice, when it enters on the words ‘How like an Angel came I down!’ presents a descending phrase, rhythmically slower and conjunct in melody. The strings are the backdrop to this musical idea, not an illustration, and the backdrop is woven of the upwardly driving phrase (a distant relative of ‘Lizbie Browne’, it has to be noted). Yet the descending idea has already been heard, as the ending of the upward phrase and, crucially, presented in the first bar in the violas’ line, as counterpoint to the upward phrase in the first violins. Finzi’s other, melodic master-stroke, is the modal inflexion he gives the descending idea when the voice presents it. Such techniques ensure an integrity and coherence in Finzi’s writing which underpins the whole movement. The more obvious ‘richness’ at phrases such as the one to accompany ‘I within did flow With Seas of Life like Wine’ rely on such secure technique for their effect. They are every bit the to the equal of Elgar’s string-writing in the Introduction and Allegro’ in terms of technical awareness and good judgement.
Several features of the final movement, ‘The Salutation’, have already been discussed. The term not yet proposed is ‘chorale prelude’, as remarked also by Diana McVeagh . The accompaniment figures in the strings provoke comparison with Bach’s approach to the contrapuntal interweaving that surrounds the melody in Bach’s works in this style. This is emphasised in the steady crotchet tread that characterises the bass line. As with Bach’s chorale preludes, the string music is capable of existing in its own right, although it is immeasurably transformed once the vocal line is added. The vocal line acts, though, as a pendant to the other music. Phrase structures frequently overlap between voice and strings, to emphasise their independence.
Consideration of the opening movement of the work, where the voice is absent, is inevitably skewed by the recognition that it is, indeed, an introduction, hence the title, ‘Intrada’. It is much more than this, having integrity as a string piece in its own right. The composer acknowledged this by including a conclusion for occasions when the movement is performed alone. If this ending is not used, the tonal structure of the movement is interesting. Like ‘Rhapsody’, the music ends, when acting as a prelude to the rest of the work, in a minor. In this context, this key is still further distant from the opening, which has a tonal centre of G, than is the case in ‘Rhapsody’. In terms of texture and timbre, the movement is conservative when compared with some later passages in the cantata. On the page, the score is reminiscent of the style of Elgar’s early Serenade for strings in terms of texture, as remarked also by Stephen Banfield . The complexities of later movements are seldom approached, even in the mini-climax engineered after rehearsal number 10. Many later devices are presaged, including after figure 8 the crotchet bass tread of ‘The Salutation’. In terms of timbre, the use of violins in their lowest register is notable, creating the warmth often associated with the composer. Significant, too, is the way in which passages apparently textured as ‘melody and accompaniment’ to the innocent ear, such as afterfigure 2, are in fact constructed of a series of descending scalic figures in all parts, carefully interlocking and commencing at different times. These form the counterpart to the rising figure which opens the whole work, imitative treatment of which forms the music logic of the movement’s conclusion from figure 12.
In terms of musical language, considering melody and harmony, many would charge Finzi’s style with being conservative for a piece composed in the late 1930s. In terms of texture and timbre it is both inventive, and also effective in renewing existing traditions of string writing. When combined with Finzi’s unsurpassed sensitivity to text and instinctive vocal responsiveness, these elements create a highly expressive and intense work which can be justifiably termed unique.