(An edited version of a talk given at the 2018 AGM of The Finzi Friends in Ashmansworth Church)
I was at Leighton Park School in Reading, where, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Head of Music wasJohn Russell, a very great friend of the Finzis. I was originally a cellist, but my quite excellent teacher (a former player in the Hallé) wouldn’t make me practice, so I gave it up and became the timpanist in the school orchestra instead. One day John Russell asked me if I would like a ‘gig’ (although it wasn’t called that in those days!) with the Newbury String Players [NSP], because their regular (albeit, as they were just a string band, only occasional) timpanist couldn’t manage the date of the concert. Of course, I accepted. My memories are, however, sadly very vague indeed, probably because I was scared out of my wits! I do, though, vividly remember the regular timpanist, as he supervised me in rehearsals. He was a marvellous old man who used to play, I think, in one of the big London orchestras, and he taught me how to make timp sticks; I still have them somewhere in the house, hoping for a comeback! Checking through the original programmes, it seems that I probably played in two concerts in 1949 (when I was 18) and possibly 1950, and the works, if I remember aright, were Mozart’s Serenata Notturno K.239, movements from Bach’s Cantatas Nos 34 and 190 (the latter the great ‘Singet dem Herren’), and Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of Let us now praise famous men with an orchestral accompaniment.
Happily, I was able to track down what seems to be the only commercial recording ever made of the NSP, in 1965. The Finzi’s eldest son Christopherwas conducting, and they accompanied Jacqueline du Pré in Edmund Rubbra’s Soliloquy.Unfortunately, the balance is not good, and most of the time she drowns them, but from what one can hear they certainly sound fine. They in fact made one other, private, recording, in 1957, with Christopher conducting Anna Shuttleworth, Nigel Finzi and John Russell in four of John Stanley’s String Concertos.
Gerald loved having a wide sky around him, and in early 1937, when he and Joy were looking for a house, they went to see a sixteen-acre farm on the high ground south of Newbury, with a view almost to the South Coast. There was a ruined farmhouse, with a thatched barn and other outbuildings: Church Farm. Joy wrote in her diary:
The first time we came to Ashmansworth, up the narrow climbing lane from a warm green valley, blue shadows lay with an intensity on the snow, that I have only seen in Switzerland. The ash trees made strong patterns against dark sunny sky … Quietness sounds there – and the earth has hospitality.
That visit proved propitious, for they bought the property, rebuilt the house and the other buildings, and it remained in the family until only a few years ago.
They had hardly moved in in March 1939, when the first signs of World War II loomed on the European horizon, with Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. Gerald was, of course, a Jew, and he immediately recognised the urgent need to fight and defeat Nazism; he stopped composing and readied himself for call-up. With the onset of the Phony War, as it was called (the period from September 1919 until April 1940, when nothing warlike seemed to happen),Ashmansworth became full of evacuees from London, and, as did a number of others in the village, the Finzis agreed to accept some of them, even though the work at Church Farm was unfinished. Sometimes they had 11 sleeping in the house.
Gerald joined the Home Guard, which, surprisingly, he enjoyed: he actually became a platoon sergeant, and was amused by the fact that, as a member of the Home Guard, he was in a reserved occupation;“like mole-catchers”, he said. People discovered that war takes place in the countryside, and in the autumn of 1940, ‘as the country came within an inch of its life in the battle of the air, there were dogfights overhead, a nearby village was strafed, and with the area’s strategic altitudehuge searchlights moved into the fields, and a wireless training station was built in the village … by Christmas, Southampton was a red glow on the horizon every night’ . After the invasion of France, Geraldcould onlywait until he was conscripted. He was afraid that he wouldn’t make a very good soldier; as he said, “I had never fired anything since bow and arrow days, but however pacific I am I couldn’t honestly have any conscientious objections about an affair of this sort”.
He was expecting to be called up in August 1941, but Arthur Bliss (who had recently been appointed the BBC’s Director of Overseas Music) got him an offer of a job there; though,as Gerald said in a letter to a fellow-composer William Busch, ‘one would have been involved with a little music and much muck, office work, concert agency & all the BBC schimozzle!’ .However, someone else put his name forward for the Ministry of War Transport, sohe turned Bliss’s offer down and went up to London for his interview at the Ministry in his only suit, bought off the peg in a Harrods’ sale in 1928. He was accepted, and appointed Temporary or Assistant Principal in the Foreign Shipping Relations Division, in charge of South American shipping. A less suitable job would be hard to imagine: he described it as a sort of ‘HerrOberprofessortrinkendanzenshniffelpopper’! and Finzi realised that he would find it very tiring. As he wrote to the composer William Busch:
It’s going to be a hard job, with responsibilities, & means (horror of horrors) working in Berkeley Square daily from 9.0 am till 6.30 pm, with only Sundays off to get down to Joy and the children, & to look into my own affairs. I have been lucky in getting rooms in Frognal Lane, which is not too far out, thanks to some friends who have evacuated to the country, but left their furnished house in charge of an old housekeeper who won’t budge. It remains to be seen whether I shall haveenough energy left in my evenings for music, especially when the blitzes start again. However, the war won’t last forever, andI would rather be doing something totally unrelated to music than that sort of half & half BBC job. And I ought to be very grateful to have a chance of using brains instead of brawn, for I shall at least be of more use than doing sentry work on Dartmoor.
Clothes are my chief difficulty, as I really will have to get a suit, andJoy, presuming that I would be called up, used all my coupons on underwear (for me)!
That winter, there was a Great Frost, when there was little power, light or telephone, and everywhere the weight of the snow brought trees down. Then, during the following summer, the war situation got worse, and, although the country’s spirits generally remained remarkably high, life for the entire population became very restricted. Gerald became increasingly depressed and isolated from music, but one day Joy noticed that Ashmansworth Church had extremely good acoustics and the idea of the NSP was born. They both realised that to attract anything more than passing interest, the standard of the music-making had to be good (or better), so Joy, who played in the Newbury Amateur Orchestral Union, as it was called, recruited some of its better players, and Gerald offered to conduct. Before the first concert, he wrote to his greatest friend Howard Ferguson:
We’ve got a little body of twelve strings together – people like Mrs Neate, Mrs Turner, Mrs Finzi etc & are doing Boyce Symphony No. 4 (a delightful work, which Robin [Milford – another lifelong friend] put me on to, rather like a procession of fat aldermen), the Sinfonia from Bach’s Cantata No 156, ‘Pastorale’ from the Corelli Christmas concerto, Bach Concerto in E, played by Rosie Roth & Holst’s St Paul’s Suite.
Gerald called the players his ‘twenty-five old ladies’ but Vaughan Williams rebuked him, writing that his ‘excellent orchestra… includes several young and lovely women (including your own wife)’ . Rosie Roth was a local refugee, and actually the leader: ‘not unproblematic’, Banfield called her. When rehearsals for the concert began, Gerald discovered that she had never played the Bach concerto before, and she suggested that she played what she thought was another concerto, the Tartini Devil’s TrillSonata, instead. Gerald’s comment afterwards was ‘What must the Budapest Conservatoire have been like?’
To avoid the blackout, and the hazards of driving with very limited lights, the first concert took place in Ashmansworth Church on the afternoon of 28 December 1940, then, of course, unheated and unlit by electricity. The Finzis were delighted with the result. In spite of petrol rationing and the cold, there was a very good audience, and the players really enjoyed themselves: there was no question but that they wanted to play together again. In Banfield’s words:
With one stroke, it concentrated the genius loci [the protected spirit of a place] of his new, chosen home and hallowed his secular yet transcendent vision of music in the community … [35/2]
Please insert pic NSP 28 Dec 40 somewhere around here, with caption “The programme for the first concert on 28 December 1940”. Hope you can make it bit easier to read.
Although it may well not have seemed like one at the time, it turned out to have been a very ‘special occasion’, becausethe NSP and what it stood for in those dark days became something very sacred indeed to the Finzis. It was almost an extended family, for both them and the players. The young cellist Anna Shuttleworth (just out of the Royal College of Music), like many others, often stayed with the Finzis, and in her autobiography she wrote:
I felt at once that somehow I belonged there, musically, spiritually, artistically and intellectually. In every way their way of living was so rich, not with money but with warmth and friendship based on similar ideals about music and life. I do not know that they felt that especially about me, but they seemed happy that I should come down whenever possible to play at Newbury String Players concerts and stay with them over many memorable Sundays …Some of the charm of these concerts was the magical settings, the meeting of old friends and the love of music generated by everyone involved.
Banfield commented that the first concert ‘trod on toes in a way scarcely imaginable today’: Milford had written to Gerald wishing that the programme had included a non-sacred piece, at which Gerald was pretty upset, for he replied:
Here we are, once again, at the roots of this intolerance, which all beliefs (as opposed to ‘ideas & feelings’) seem to beget. Thus Mrs S— of our village, was horrified that Mrs W— a confessed unbeliever, should come into the church to hear the music & went as far as to say that she should not have been allowed in. Mrs W—, on the other hand, was appalled at the Vicar’s prayers, which she thought quite out of place. Mr A – the churchwarden – thought the collection of £11.1.6 very remarkable.[The font spacing has suddenly increased here, and I don’t know how to correct it!]Oh, how much bigger music is than all this & why should it be tied down to earth by a Communist rope, or a Fascist rope, or a Church rope or a Chapel rope or a pagan rope or any bloody rope.
It issufficient in itself. Incidentally, if it has to be the handmaid of religion, which religion? And why was the Bach E major concerto any more religious that the Holst, & was that lovely Sinfonia necessarily suitable for a church just because it prefaces a church cantata? It happens to be also used as the slow movement of a secular concerto & so on. I should have been just as happy doing that music in a village hall as in the church, but I admit that the setting was marvellous & that in itself was part of the art. I didn’t rejoice that only 4 people go to Church on a Sunday & 100 came to hear music on a weekday. It doesn’t matter to me whether 4 or 40 go to Church, as I have never yet found anyone better or worse for going or not going. [149/9]
and then he came to the crux of his feelings:
But I did rejoice to think that, perhaps for the first time in history, most of the Chapel attended the church, andthat agnostics, RC’s, Anglo C’s, Jews, Chapel &C of E were all gathered together, seeing a beautiful sight, listening to decent music & with all their ridiculous differences dropped for at least an hour. [57/4]
The next concert was on 5th April 1941at Burghclere Church, with sixteen players. The programme was partly a repeat of the December concert, but also included Purcell’s Set of Tunes, and the Elgar Serenade for Strings. The soloist was a neighbour of the Finzi’s, the Swiss soprano Sophie Wyss, who had settled in England, and she sang ‘The Salutation’ (“These little Limbs, These Eyes and Hands”) from Dies Natalis, together withPurcell’s ‘When I am laid in earth’, a Byrd Lullaby and Vaughan Williams’Evening Hymn. On the back of a copy of the single sheet programme (price twopence, and doing nothing more than just listthe pieces played!), Joy wrote: ‘This is the sort of thing we are doing until Gerald is called up. We have wonderfully overcrowded churches’ – and that after only the second concert!’ The Burghclere concert was followed by two more in the same month, at East Woodhay, and in the Newbury Musical Festival ‘War-Time Concert’, where the NSP accompanied 14 massed choirs in Parry’s Jerusalem.
The custom began of having a collection for a local good cause. At Burghclere it was for the Bishop of Winchester’s Church Fund for Air Raid Distress in Southampton, at two others the proceeds were ‘for free entertainment of members of HM Forces stationed in Berkshire’ and, in Kingsclere,‘Wings for Victory Week’, perhaps the equivalent of today’s ‘Help the Heroes’. In that context it was the sort of tiny, but nevertheless significant, thing that helped to keep communities and local organisations intact in the face of hardship on a scale that we cannot now imagine: the deaths of family members on active service, and even fear of a German invasion. The first six concerts raised £100 or so, the equivalent of around an astonishing £5,000 today.
Joy Finzi was once described as “a 20th century Renaissance woman who possessed extraordinary vision, and a remarkable gift for anticipating new trends before they began”. She was an artist, a sculptor, a poet, a musician and an organiser who made things happen. Added to that, the management of the band was in her hands: and what a business it would have been.
Like any amateur orchestra, there were always additional players to be recruited for a particular concert; non-attenders at rehearsals to be chased-up;music to be found and borrowed (there was, of course, no photocopying then);venues (once even as far away as somewhere in Bedfordshire) to be fixed; auditions to be arranged; even getting petrol coupons; and in due course, applying for funding. Joy not only played with the second violins in almost every concert, but also managed to keep the house running, and look after the lively Christopher and his brother Nigel.
The little orchestra obviously needed a while to settle down. The players had to get accustomed to GF’s beat and mannerisms, and learn to listen to each other, but the standard of the playing steadily got more assured, to the point at which Milford could say, early 1942, that they had ‘improved out of all recognition – honestly, if I had been behind a curtain I don’t think I would have known that it was the same band as when I first heard them in Ashmansworth Church!’ . Not everyone, though, thought the same: also in 1942, after going to a NSP concert at Bradfield College, Benjamin Britten, who happened to be staying the weekend with Sophie Wyss, thought that it was ‘amateur (and how!)’ and that Finzi’s evident enjoyment at what they were doing, was the ‘I prefer this to those horrible professionals sort of thing – ugh!’
To begin with, Finzi did not much enjoy conducting. He had first stood in front of an orchestra in 1935, with a section of the BBC Orchestra (the only one it had in those days) playing the New Year Music, and after first NSP concert he wrote to Ferguson saying:
Well, I shall never make much of a conductor – but I’m glad the players want to carry on, as it’s something to fill the terrible hollow feeling that the absence of music and music-making gives me. Curiously enough, I find conducting a sort of watertight compartment, and it seems to bear no relation to the creative side of one’s mind. Perhaps not with a Toscanini, but I can now better understand why conductors, for all their experience, are not necessarily intelligent musicians, and are so often incompetent scorers.
Anna Shuttleworth said that Finzi’s conducting: ‘like his music, was not predominantly rhythmical. He waved his arms about in an imaginative style, and we all did our best to follow him.’ Someone else said that he had a way of holding his baton from underneath, which lost him authority, until the viola player Jean Stewart demonstrated during a meal with a carving knife to show him how it should be held. Rubbra once told him that he had a habit of ‘leaning to the right always, whatever you are doing’, and that he (Rubbra) often felt he had to copy him in his seat; while the baritone John Carol Case thought that ‘he wasn’t as bad as VW’. However, working week after week with NSP, Finzi grew more confident, and by 1946 he felt assured enough to agree to conduct Dies Natalis at a Three Choirs concert.
Finzi did, however, enjoy introducing the music at concerts, although sometimes he could be quite blunt. At one NSP concert, before the Bach Double Concerto (with Kiffer and Nigel as the soloists), he said that:
the slow movement is perhaps the most beautiful piece of music ever written. If this means nothing to you, you can go out, there is nothing else for it.
The repertoire expanded rapidly:there is a full list of everything the NSP played at the back of Diana McVeagh’s biography. To the works played in the first two concerts, during 1941 they added music by 15 different composers, including Grieg’s Holberg Suite; Bach’s A minorViolin Concerto, played by Sybil Eaton, a well-known violinist of the time, who was Gerald’s first love when he was studying with Edward Bairstow, the organist of York Minster, towards the end of the Great War; the Bach Double Concerto (originally with Edmund Rubbra and his wife as soloists); Robin Milford’s Suite for oboe and strings; a Handel Organ Concerto; Arensky’s Variations on a theme by Tchaikovsky (by no means an easy piece for amateur players), Bach’s Giant Fugue (BWV 680)arranged by VaughaN Williams and Elgar’s Elegy (played in memory of a member of the orchestra who had died).
In a talk that he gave to the Friends here in 1996, Christopher Finzi explained how his father’s search for new repertoire for the NSP was the path that led to his discovery of unknown eighteenth-century music, particularly because at that time it was possible to buy original editions very cheaply. Finzi spent many hours in second-hand music shops looking for works that, when edited, would be within the band’s technical capacity. His first ‘find’ was the blind organist John Stanley who lived between 1712 and 1786; in 1947 Gerald produced a version of his Trumpet Tune, and the following year editions of two of his concerti for strings and continuo. His favourite composers, apart from Stanley, were all nearly exact Stanley-contemporaries: William Boyce, Thomas Arne, Charles Avison, John Garth and Richard Mudge. After the first performance of his reconstruction of one of Garth’s Cello Concertos, Joy wrote in her Journal:
He gradually found that by eliminating nearly everything that was added by editors, keeping to the notes that were written in the first place, trying to adhere and understand the intentions of the age and the composer, (including the necessity for a continuo) quite a different picture of the eighteenth-century school appeared.
Gerald strongly disagreed with those who thought that these composers’ works were simply pale imitations of Handel. In her biography, Diana McVeagh makes a nice connection between music and Gerald’s amazing work in his beloved apple orchards:
His attitude to Cox’s Orange came to be like his attitude to Handel: both were good but overpowering: Cox had overshadowed [a similar variety] Golden Harvey, as Handel had overshadowed John Stanley.
An earlier discovery, in the mid-1920s, was Ivor Gurney’s poetry and music. They never actually met, but after Gurney’s death in 1937 Gerald began sorting and editing his songs, and over the years he, Joy, Vaughan Williams and Ferguson worked selflessly in the cataloguing some of Gurney’s poetry and music, including arranging the publication of over forty of his songs, and orchestrating a few of them, including a magical version of Sleep.
By the time he died in 1956, Gerald had a collection of largely English eighteenth century music and books on music that Diana McVeagh said was ‘considered the finest of its period assembled privately in England’. Uniquely among researchers and editors, with the NSP, he was actually able to perform the music he was resuscitating. As Joy wrote in her journal:
G’s test is always one of performance and without that it is never really possible to say whether a work is dead or alive. So NSP was not only his instrument, but his research tool as well.
Gerald began work at the Ministry of War Transport in July 1941. The night before he left home, he wrote in his diary ‘To think that I, who wrote Proud Songsters, Dies Natalis, Farewell to Arms, am about to become a Principal in the Foreign Shipping Relations Department in the Ministry of War Transport. How fantastic – how unbelievably fantastic.’ After a few weeks, somewhat to his surprise, he discovered that he could in fact keep the NSP going: he wrote to a friend that ‘they’re getting quite a good ensemble (for amateurs, most of whom taken singly are pretty poor players), and the regular weekly rehearsal does wonders’.
So by 1942, there was no stopping the achievement.Many of NSP’s concerts were in local churches such as Chievely, East Woodhay, Inkpen, Kintbury and Ramsbury, but they also played further away, in village and town halls, colleges, schools and corn exchanges, bringing, as Stephen Banfield wrote, ‘the classical string repertoire to obscure venues … that had never heard it before, but also helping to revitalise many a local festival’s and school’s music-making after wartime dispersals of teachers, choirs, parents, pupils and classes had depressed their community or competitive gatherings’. [Insert around here, please, Pic 13 NSP @Hungerford, with caption “The NSP in Hungerford Town Hall, c. 1942”]
That year, 1942, in addition to two churches, NSP played again for the Newbury Music Festival (now with 17 choirs, and a marvellous young pianist, Denis Matthews, who joined them in the Bach D minor Concerto), at Reading University, in Abingdon’s Corn Exchange and The Abbey School in Reading (with the Reading Madrigal Society, who sang Finzi’s Seven Bridges Partsongs). The soloists that year included Howard Ferguson and Harold Fairhurst, who at that time was the leader of the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra (to become the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra after the War), of which my uncle Richard Austin had been the conductor until 1940. The concerts became very special: in 1944 among the soloists were the wonderful tenor Eric Greene and the oboist Leon Goossens; in 1945, Vaughan Williams conducted them, and in 1951 the Newbury Festival programme began with the massed choirs singing my grandfather Frederic Austin’s A Cycle of Traditional Songs.
The list of soloists who played or sang with the NSP during Gerald’s lifetime is astonishing. Among others (and in addition to those already mentioned)were Isobel Baillie; Julian Bream; the incomparable Wilfred Brown (who, incidentally, taught both the Finzi sons when they were schoolboys at Bedales);John Carol Case; the pianist John Constable (who was one of my contemporaries at Leighton Park); Colin Davis (in those days a clarinetist); the violinists Frederick Grinke and Henry Holst; Philip Jones (of the brass ensemble) and Anna Shuttleworth (who played many 18th century cello concertos). Then there was the organist Richard Latham; Kathleen Long; the violinist Yfrah Neaman; the cellist William Pleeth; Bernard Rose (then an organist and later for many years the Director of the Magdalen College Choir at Oxford); my mentor John Russell; Julian Smith (the Winchester schoolmaster who was one of the founders of the St Endellion Festival); Stephen Varcoe; Herbert Sumsion; another cellist,Augustus John’s daughter Amaryllis Fleming (who in fact introduced Anna Shuttleworth to the Finzis); David Willcocks (no doubt at the organ), and the Dutch flautist and musicologist Johannes Feltkamp, who said that he greatly enjoyed performing with ‘people who arrange, organise and play just for love of art and the fun of playing . . . even if not everything was done with the technical perfection a professional orchestra may command.’ Gerald’s preferred tenor was Wilfred Brown, and they did Dies Natalis togetherfor the first time at NSP’s 115th concert, in High Wycombe, in 1952. Then, in 1963, Brown recorded it with Christopher conducting the English Chamber Orchestra.
As Diana McVeagh wrote, ‘NSP was now attracting young professionals from outside its area. Students leaving the colleges who needed experience and a little money (threeguineas and expenses) loved playing with them.’ The flautist Alex Murray, the clarinettist Stephen Trier, James Brown the oboist and the bassoonist William Waterhouse all in their late teens or early twenties and just out of the Royal College – were the chief wind players at the end of the 1940s and early in the 1950s. At the other end of the scale, so to speak, the rank-and-file players often included non-musicians who were eminent in other professions – surgeons, authors, Oxford professors and the like.
Diana McVeagh went on:
The adolescence of these young people had been dulled anddarkened bythe war. Ashmansworth came as a revelation to them. From the moment ofarrival, to be greeted by “What’s the news? What’s been exciting you recently?”, the visitor felt the most important person in the world – gathered in, swept up, madea part of whatever was going on. Everyone was welcomed with warmthand encouragement for whatever individual offering he could bring. Gerald and Joy had great sympathy and respect for the half formed ideas of young people, especially if they were misfits in their own home; and were always keen to lend moral support if families were opposed to a life in the arts ……….. One of the young players remembered his first night there when the Finzis got out Meet yourself as you really are, a book of questions designed to reveal personality, which everyone answered with such frankness that he was amazed. Anything and everybody was discussed and at great length. Nobody ever took umbrage. Arguments begun late at night spread over until the next morning’s breakfast, always with good humour…….To many of the young players, Gerald became a confidant and a father-figure. Sensitive, shy adults grew deeply attached to him. But there was also a quality about him that could be discomforting: his penetrating X-ray eyes saw through to everyone’s core. People could be dismissed for lack of artistic integrity, and a non-creative person was of no consequence. Such purity was hard to face.
After Gerald’s death in 1956, Joy wrote to Anna Shuttleworth to explain his illness:
One of his anxieties in these last years was the future of Newbury String Players. He felt so strongly that this sort of music making should and could exist everywhere, and that Newbury String Players, with fifteen years of existence and experience, should continue, even under new influences and conditions.Christopher wants to try and conduct these next three concerts, and I think with his and your musicianship we could maintain our standard of musical vitality despite his technical immaturity.In this way, by continuing, we can best create a living memorial to the faith in the importance of Newbury String Players to the community.
Gerald had conducted 164 concerts, and Christopher, who did indeed take over, would give another 215: an amazing total of 379 concerts over 39 years.
The story of NSP must be unique. No other orchestra can have been founded for such unusual reasons(the onset of a war), and in its early days, when everyone in the country was, in one way or another, worried about how their lives would be affected by the War, it gave infinite spiritual comfort and joy in music-making to both the Finzis and those who played with them, and huge enjoyment to its audiences. I feel very privileged to have had just the slightest possible connection with it.
[I must pay a warm tribute to Gerald Finzi’s biographers, Diana McVeagh and Stephen Banfield. I did no original research for my talk, but merely collected material from their books and various othersources and put it together. Much of that material comes from their splendid biographies, for which I am very grateful.ML-B]