Tom Coxhead writes about his current post-graduate research into Kenneth Leighton’s mass settings.
During my second year as an undergraduate at Durham, I worked on a project trying to make the case for classifying many British composers of the early twentiethcentury as deserving of the term ‘modern’. Britain does seem to foster an unusually hostile reception towards its native composers and so often modernism is portrayed as the domain of continental Europe, a view that seems to validate the belief that British music is not worth bothering with. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this generalisation and the tide shows signs of turning, nonetheless my academic interests are still concerned with these issues. I particularly focussed on Herbert Howells for this project and during a conversation with Paul Spicer he posited the idea of Kenneth Leighton as Howells’ “natural successor”. Leighton has suffered the same fate as many English composers in receiving little attention from concert halls and festivals. Only a handful of his works are maintained by our choral foundations. This tacit relegation to a mere ‘church-music composer’ overlooks a significant output of high-quality orchestral music including three symphonies and a handful of concertos.This really has proven one of the key inspirations for studying Leighton’s music; whilst my thesis is chiefly concerned with the ten mass settings Leighton wrote, it is intended to understand them within the wider frame of all his compositions (not just choral) as well as exploring his music in the canon of English music in the twentieth century. By focusing on the ten mass settings, it allows an in-depth exploration of Leighton’s style and his response to similar texts and also appreciation of these neglected works.
The following table identifies the ten mass settings, the reason for their composition, and performance details:
||Missa Sancti Thomae
||Commissioned by Canterbury Cathedral for the 800th Anniversary of the consecration of Thomas Becket as Archbishop.
||Mass (Opus 44)
||Double SATB chorus and soloists, Org (in Credo only)
||Written for Herrick Bunney and the Edinburgh University Singers.
||Communion Service in D (Opus 45)
||Unison voices, optional SATB, Org
||Commissioned by the Church Music Society.
||Missa Brevis (Opus 50)
||Commissioned by Liverpool Cathedral
||The Sarum Mass
|BCP with two movements set from the Sarum Rite
||Commissioned by the Southern Cathedrals Festival for the 1973 Salisbury Festival.
||Mass for Ampleforth (Opus 67)
||Roman Catholic Vernacular
||Unison voices, SATB, Org
||Unpublished. Commissioned by Ampleforth Abbey.
|Missa Cornelia (Opus 81)
||Roman Catholic Vernacular
||Commissioned by St. Leonards-Mayfield School.
||Missa Sancti Petri
||Anglican Rite B
||Commissioned by Peterborough Cathedral for the 750th anniversary of the church’s foundation.
||Missa Christi (Festival Mass)
||American Episcopal Liturgy
||Commissioned by Christ Church Cathedral, Indianapolis for its 150th year.
Kenneth Leighton was one of the most distinct and original voices in the mid-twentieth century. He was also a gifted pianist and often gave performances of his own works. Leighton always described himself as a Yorkshire composer, his music embodying the regional trait of straightforwardness (or better, directness). He was also a considerable figure as a teacher, holding the Reid Professorship in Music at the University of Edinburgh from 1970 until his early death in 1988, during which time several of today’s composers studied with him including James MacMillan. He enjoyed composing in a cottage on the Isle of Arran and would frequently take his dogs for long walks in the Scottish countryside, which would give him the space to work out a tricky corner of an ongoing project. Some publications have made the mistake to assume that Leighton himself was Scottish! His love of Palestrina and Bach were well-known to his peers and pupils alike. Leighton’s friendship with Finzi, by whom he was encouraged considerably, developed after the second world war.
Born in Wakefield in 1929 to Thomas and Florence Leighton, his upbringing was unlikely for a major British composer. Leighton grew up in a modest terraced house on Denstone Street and whilst his parents appreciated music, they were not musicians themselves. Finzi visited Denstone Street in 1953 and was struck by the unassuming ‘back-to-back four roomed house in a cobbled street’. The family home was a stable and supportive environment and, if a little bemused by his genius, Leighton’s parents encouraged their young son. Leighton’s father and brother both sang in the choir at Holy Trinity as did Leighton until 1938 when he was admitted as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral. This is likely to have been when Leighton’s initial formal musical education began. The choir at Wakefield under Newell ‘Tosh’ Wallbank managed a diverse repertoire and Leighton recalled coming across not only Stanford et al but a fair amount of Elizabethan music and even carols by Peter Warlock and Benjamin Britten. It is not clear who provided Leighton with his first music lessons but he was already playing the piano in school assemblies at Holy Trinity Boys’ School, which he attended between 1937 and 1940, and it is evident that he possessed an innate musical ability. Leighton subsequently went to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School (QEGS) on a scholarship where he excelled in Latin as well as music. One of his masters at QEGS, Ronald Chapman, introduced him to much modern music including Stravinsky and Bartok. It is also where Leighton first became aware of Serialism and the Second Viennese School.
Leighton began writing down music as a means to record his improvisations but he soon became interested in the art of composition itself.Perhaps what is most impressive with the juvenilia is the evident self-discipline. Even in his teenage years, Leighton studiously works through exercises in two and three parts and hones his technical skill. Leighton kept a composition book (in fact he had three in various states of completion) and the earliest entries start at 1945. His compositions are exclusively for solo piano or songs for voice and piano accompaniment in the first few years. These early works, particularly those for the piano, do demonstrate key hallmarks of Leighton’s mature style (a rather free approach to harmony and elements of modality) but they also show the greater impression of the composers who influenced him. The early songs, which have not been published, mostly readily show the impressions of Vaughan Williams, Quilter and Parry. Some are guilty of being pastiche but it can be forgiven for a young composer still finding his voice. The songs also highlight Leighton’s interest in literature. His choice of poetry is diverse and he shows a nuanced understanding in his text-setting. So perhaps it is not completely surprising that it was Classics not Music for which Leighton was awarded a state scholarship (upgraded to a Hastings Scholarship) to The Queen’s College, Oxford in 1947.
The context of Leighton’s early life is significant considering that the Stanford-taught generation was very much at its height and that major elements of Leighton’s mature compositional style are already present in his early works, even before he arrived in Oxford. He could hardly be described as a product of the establishment, yet he was able to easily gain its respect. Leighton was by all accounts an affable man and certainly did not appear to have the chip-on-the-shoulder that Elgar had about his background. By going to Oxford, Leighton may have become part of the musical establishment, but so much of his style was formed already it would be hard to say he was necessarily a product of Oxford: the level of originality was honed rather than created by his experiences. He had already had his Sonatina No. 1 for piano published.
Leighton took full advantage of the extra-curricular musical activities at Oxford. He was an active member of the College’s Eglesfield Music Society and he continued to compose. Bernard Rose, who was Director of Music at the College, took a keen interest in Leighton’s music and convinced him to take the Music tripos. Rose was highly active in getting performances for Leighton’s music and he even performed some of Leighton’s songs himself with the composer at the piano. It was Rose who sent a score of Leighton’s Symphony for Strings (Opus 3) to Finzi in 1949. Leighton had recently discovered Finzi’s song settings and found them incredibly rewarding and inspiring. Finzi was evidently impressed enough with Symphony for Strings to invite Leighton to hear the Newbury String Players (NSP) rehearse the work. This was a watershed moment for Leighton. He had not before experienced the same quality of players perform a work of his before and he appreciated the sensitivity of Finzi’s direction and advice. Finzi would have inevitably been drawn to Leighton’s well-developed handling of contrapuntal textures and linear approach to composition. Leighton was still studying Classics when he met Finzi and their extensive knowledge and love of literature was almost certainly a bolster to their friendship. Leighton’s string-writing shares many characteristics of Finzi’s, an influence that pervades even in his later works. Leighton wrote his suite Veris Gratia (Opus 9) in 1950 and dedicated it to Finzi and the NSP. It was premiered with Jacqueline du Pre playing the solo cello part .
It is slightly surprising considering Leighton’s cathedral training that it was only in 1948 that he wrote his first choral music. The Three Carols of that year included the now well-loved setting of the Coventry Carol, which Leighton later included in his Opus 25 set of Three Carols, the other two from 1948 (The Seven Joys of Mary and Sleep, Holy Babe) are assured but less inspired compositions. In 1949 Leighton penned a Missa Brevis (following the 1662 BCP order for Holy Communion) that seems to take Harold Darke’s Communion Service in F as its model and a Pater Noster,Again, both of these are rather unadventurous and, although displaying his ability to compose singable and interesting parts, unrelentingly homophonic. His development is much more discernible in his non-choral music. Evidently Leighton did not perceive his career as a composer to be one focussed on church music and after 1960 (with only one or two exceptions) all of his choral output is commissioned.
In 1951, as Leighton’s studies at Oxford drew to a close, Rose encouraged him to apply for the Mendelssohn scholarship which he won and it allowed him to study with GoffredoPetrassi in Rome. Lessons with Petrassi saw more Serialism enter Leighton’s music (although he never fully embraced Serialist principles) and a greater degree of vertical harmonic dissonance. Returning from Rome, Leighton had essentially obtained all the elements of his mature style. By this point, Leighton was receiving London performances of his music which Finzi continued to attend when he could, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams too.
Concerning the music itself, understanding that much of Leighton’s writing is instinctive and nominally improvisatory is significant. Leighton also worked bar by bar, his scores clearly demonstrating that his method for composing was to work through a piece, not to stitch disparate sketches together. This method of construction does bring about a much more literal meaning to the phrase ‘through-composed’. Very few works end in the same key (or even a related one) that they start in. As my work is chiefly analytical, Leighton’s music can be rather problematic to find a suitable way of explaining what is going on: quite often it can feel like the music does what it does because ‘it sounds like Leighton’! The fact that his harmony is broadly ‘non-functional’ (that is to say not of the traditional dominant-tonic kind of harmony where chords hold different ‘functions’) and that the tonal plots of his music are not conventional makes the usual prose commenting on modulations and key changes quite meaningless. What becomes apparent when trying to unpick Leighton’s harmonic style is the importance of voice-leading and that in fact the harmony is a product of it.The Neo-Riemannian school of analysis has proved the best fit for exploring Leighton’s harmonic language, particularly Richard Cohn’s treatises. It provides suitable terminology for relating tonics (and their consequent triads) that do not bear any meaningful relationship with Roman numeral analysis, i.e. beyond dominants, sub-dominants etc., to each other. It is also to say that Leighton’s music largely eschews traditional cadences.
There are two observable styles or groups into which Leighton’s works fall. The first is what I would predominantly attribute to his orchestral music and most clearly demonstrates Leighton’s place in the canon of English orchestral composers. Here there are the essential English elements of Elgar as well as Vaughan Williams; in crude terms, one might describe it as somewhere between Finzi and Britten, and it might be termed his ‘orchestral’ or ‘lyrical’ style. The second style is characterised by its polyphonic texture. This style is the one most are probably familiar with as it seems to particularly belong to the keyboard and choral music. It exhibits the spiky qualities displayed in some of Leighton’s best-known music such as Let all the world (1965) and the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (1959) written for Magdalen College, Oxford. Of course, these two particular ways of writing do not exist entirely isolated from each other and there are several examples of switching between the two. The Mass (Opus 44) for double choir constantly begins phrases in Leighton’s polyphonic style but then adopts the ‘orchestral’ once all eight of the voices have entered the texture. The nature of the polyphonic style requires there to be something of a dominant-tonic framework in order to be convincing. The fugally-necessary melodic fourth is also present, the qualities of which make life a little easier for singers as it means the music does not exhibit quite such extreme tonal plots. Nonetheless, Leighton is able to create harsh textures but not do this at the expense of a singable line. Perhaps the best example of the ‘orchestral’ style in his choral music is in the setting of Phineas Fletcher’s poem, Drop, drop slow tears that ends his cantata written for David Lumsden and the choir of New College, Oxford, Crucifixus pro nobis (Opus 38, 1961). This is one of the few works Leighton wrote in one sitting. Its tonal plot reads a like a list of keys chosen at random. The setting of the first verse is: C-sharp minor, C Lydian, A major, F Lydian, D major/minor, B-flat Lydian, E-flat major. Neo-Riemannian analysis gives us useful handles for some of the transitions, particularly when the bass moves by a third. The creation of these dramatic tonal shifts are, as always, made up by alto, tenor and bass parts that are predominantly made up of small intervals, seconds and thirds. Stepwise contrary-motion, particularly between the soprano and the bass, signals the most dramatic of these.
Modality is also a prominent feature of Leighton’s works. Whilst used less discriminatingly in Leighton’s earlier pieces, often giving rise to ‘synthetic’ or invented modes, the prominence of the Lydian (in place of the major) and the Phrygian and Locrian (in place of the minor) modes defines much of the compositional character. Within these Old Church modes, Leighton writes almost entirely diatonically. The instability of the modal scales also provides much scope for unorthodox modulations and tonal shifts and the occasional mixing of modes provides enough chromatic interest. The Lydian mode, for example, has a raised fourth scale degree, which has the effect of trapping the music in the ephemeral space of traditional harmony during a tonic to dominant modulation. This often adds to the exciting and energetic effect of Leighton’s works particular when combined with the composer’s use of dance-rhythms and ostinato.
My aims with this thesis are, of course, not merely for analysis’ sake but to instigate a critical discussion of Leighton’s compositions, the result of which would be greater interest and enthusiasm for a greater portion of his work. I hope that by engaging with the harmony in particular, it is possible to highlight the quality and originality of Leighton’s compositional voice. In choosing to focus on the ten mass settings, I have not been able to explore Leighton’s formal organisation and structure of his compositions in great detail. His strong point as a choral and vocal composer is as a responsive text-setter and in managing to preserve a strong sense of the natural speech-rhythms. I hope my work might encourage others to explore the orchestral or chamber music in similar detail and possibly elucidate areas that my research has not allowed me to focus on.
Binks, Adam (2001). The Development of Kenneth Leighton’s Musical Style 1929-1960 and a complete
catalogue of his compositions from 1929 to 1988. Doctoral thesis, University of Edinburgh
Tom Coxhead is a post-graduate researcher at Durham University currently writing an MA thesis on Kenneth Leighton’s mass settings under the supervision of Jeremy Dibble. His research interests are focused on 20th Century British music especially concerning British modernism and the influence of French music.
Tom received his initial musical education as a chorister in the choir at Chester Cathedral and learnt the organ with Roger Fisher. He studied at Durham for his undergraduate degree in music and subsequently held the posts of Organ Scholar at Ripon and Assistant Organist at Brecon cathedrals. He is currently Assistant Organist of Ampleforth College.
 Spicer, Paul (2014). Interview with author. Durham.
McVeagh, Diana (2005). Gerald Finzi His Life and Music. Boydell Press, Woodbridge. p.215
 Leighton’s ‘Memories of Finzi’ is available on the Finzi Trust website: https://www.geraldfinzi.org/memories-of-gerald-finzi—kenneth-leighton.html
 Cohn, Richard (2000). Audacious Euphony. OUP
(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]
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!
“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.
This article is based upon a talk given at a joint meeting of Finzi Friends and the Ivor Gurney Society, at St. Bartholomew’s Church, Chosen Hill, Churchdown, on 3rd June 2017.
Who is Ivor Gurney? — as an artist? Have we understood him? Indeed, how do we find and understand any creative artist? When can we say that we truly know who they are, what it was to which they were aspiring, and what drove and defined them and their art?
The perception of art is a subjective thing. We bring to it our own experiences and ideas; our own ways of reading, listening and looking. It has been said that there are as many versions of the truth of work as there are numbers of people who encounter it. But there are truths about an artist to which we might attempt to get close in our absorption and exploration of their work. To know, however, we must first be exposed to their work. But how do we get to find these works and get to know them? And how much of their work do we need to know in order to glean some essence of that truth?
The journey of a work begins with the artist. It is they who first endeavour to get their work out to an audience. As they send it out into the world, and as they talk to those who are performing, publishing, curating, or taking in that work, they may be able, in some small degree, to shape the perception of it, and of themselves. They are able to promote their work by actively seeking publishers or performers. In the case of Gerald Finzi, although his life was cut short in 1956, he was still able to spend three decades nurturing an audience for his work through active engagement with performers, promoters and commissioners, establishing his presence in the short to medium term. He was also fortuitous in finding a dedicated publisher for his works, Boosey & Hawkes. Following his death, his publisher continued to keep his work alive, keeping his music in print and in active promotion, whilst friends and family, most notably his wife, Joy, maintained the personal momentum that had been built up by Gerald. Importantly, Joy founded the Finzi Trust in 1969 to continue this work. The Trust, in collaboration with Boosey & Hawkes, has seen his work securely into this century, establishing it in the musical Canon for the long term. More interestingly and importantly, perhaps, the Trust has not only overseen the secure promotion of just his music: it has also sought to perpetuate some of the Finzis’broader values and ideas in encouraging other artists. Finzi Friends, as a daughter but independent organisation, has assisted with this, as well as allowing all those who admire Finzi’s work to come together under a mutual banner which maintains a lively and social interest in the Finzis and their work. Finzi has been fortunate indeed.
Where Finzi was able to spend those three decades in establishing himself personally amongst performers, publishers and promoters, Gurney had little more than three years in which to do so before he was cut off from the world. The biographical concerns of his life, from his discharge from Active Service in the First World War, in October 1918, to his incarceration in an asylum in 1922, left a too short time in which to be able to establish himself fully in the fraternities of poets and musicians. In that short time he did in fact make some remarkable progress: several songs and some piano works were published; and his songs began to be taken up by performers. However, upon his incarceration, this fell away. The stigma attached to the asylum was such that he was as good as dead. Indeed, in a letter to Vera Somerfield of 22 January 1923, Gerald Finzi wrote of,‘the most terrible news I have had for five years. Ivor Gurney has gone mad. He is quite unrecognised now, but in 50 years’ time his songs will have replaced Schubert’s. In his line, Gurney is supreme. I always said he [wouldn’t] live long — his work was such a consummation — & now he is in all but name, dead’. Although only confined in a hospital, Gurney was lost; his place in society and his standing as an active artist gone. His works received a little further attention, with the publication of his two Carnegie award winning song cycles, the first,Lu dlow & Teme (1923) even being broadcast on the radio in 1925; and Jack Squire published a few new poems in his literary journal, The London Mercury, in 1933-34, in an attempt to resurrect Gurney’s name and fortunes. But Gurney was otherwise almost entirely overlooked and forgotten. Not only this, but he was powerless to effect any interest in his work. He wrote many appeals for release, and asking that his music be performed and his poetry published, but to no avail. During the first five years of his incarceration he continued to write prolifically, although only a very small handful of the hundreds of poems and musical works made it out into the world.
Gurney should perhaps have sunk without a trace. With his two published poetry collections of 1917 and 1919, and his published songs and piano works, he may have been a notable footnote in the history of English poetry and music, such as is W. Denis Browne. Where Finzi’s work blossomed under the aegis of his own networking, being able to build and promote an increasing body of performed and published work, Gurney’s reputation has been borne by a trickle of acolytes; individual followers who keep the flame alive and seek to do what they can to keep his name and work in the public sphere. Indeed, it is only through the agency of these acolytes that Gurney’s work has even survived, preserved from being lost or destroyed.
The first of Gurney’s acolytes was the one who bore his flame, and the burden of his art and life, from his first formal footings as a creative artist: Marion Scott. She and Gurney met at the Royal College of Music in 1912, and it was through her encouragement that Gurney began writing poetry in earnest in 1915, serving his apprenticeship as a poet during the war. Scott oversaw the publication of these first poems, notably collating, and seeing from proposal to press, his first collections, Severn and Somme and War’s Embers. In the wake of Gurney’s incarceration, Scott resumed her ministrations, looking after both Gurney’s personal care and his business affairs. She was his connection with the outside world, overseeing the publication of the few works that did make it out. Her most notable act, however, as far as posterity is concerned, was in preserving the thousands of manuscripts produced by Gurney. She retained all of his papers, and asked that all of his work from the asylum be passed to her. Furthermore, towards the end of his life she advertised and asked Gurney’s friends and acquaintances whether they held any manuscripts, in order to preserve his work as a single collection.
Here it is that Gurney’s second acolyte enters the scene: Gerald Finzi, and, through him, his wife, Joy. Finzi discovered Gurney’s work in 1920, taking the newly published Elizabethan Songs to his lesson with Edward Bairstow in York, where Elsie Suddaby, at Bairstow’s for a singing lesson, sang ‘Sleep’. It was Finzi’s ‘Damascus’ moment; his realisation of the true power and intensity that could be achieved in song. The influence of Gurney on Finzi’s own work has not yet been examined fully, but bore fruit in two songs of 1925, Only the Wanderer’(published posthumously in the set Oh Fair to See) and Carol’, which was reworked into one of the movements of the Bagatelles for clarinet and piano. Let us Garlands Bring (1942) may also have been influenced, in the nature of the set, and perhaps more deeply, by those Five Elizabethan Songs of Gurney. It was no accident that Finzi lived for a short time on Chosen Hill and in Painswick; places beloved of Gurney, amongst others, and a locality that bore and inspired many significant musicians and poets in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
Finzi wrote to Marion Scott in early 1925, asking whether a new collection of songs might be prepared. In July and August of that year, a new set of Edward Thomas songs, Lights Out, was brought together. Finzi was amongst those who contributed financially to its publication by subscription by Stainer & Bell in 1926. At this same time in 1925 Finzi also assisted with the preparation of the scores for the 1926 Carnegie Trust publication of The Western Playland. However, Finzi’s role as one of Gurney’s key acolytes came in 1937, the final year of Gurney’s life. One of the main impetuses behind Scott’s call for material from Gurney’s friends and acquaintances was the undertaking by Finzi, with the help of Joy Finzi and Howard Ferguson, and occasional advice from Vaughan Williams, of the cataloguing of Gurney’s music manuscripts. As part of this, Finzi and Ferguson proffered a rough grading of the quality of the music: two ticks for very good; one tick for good; a tick and a cross for ‘moderate to bad’; and a cross for bad. He wrote that their system of grading ‘must seem very ridiculous — like a Baedecker [sic] Guide!!’
In parallel with the cataloguing, Finzi was arranging for the publication of twenty of Gurney’s songs by the Oxford University Press (OUP), which Finzi himself transcribed and prepared from the manuscript, ready for engraving. Further volumes of 10 songs appeared due to Finzi’s efforts in 1952 and 1958, the latter volume undertaken following Finzi’s death by Howard Ferguson and Finzi’s son, Kiffer. In order to flag up the new song publications, Finzi was pushing Scott to arrange for a few articles on Gurney and his work to be published in OUP’s journal Music and Letters, to coincide with the publication of the twenty songs in 1938. In devising the range of articles Finzi observed in a letter to John Haines that‘names are what are needed for drawing attention’, i.e. established poets and composers whose name would lend weight to, and in turn qualify the merit of, Gurney’s work. Finzi emphasised the balance of articles required to lift Gurney’s work out of anonymity. Some would proffer a ‘Benediction’: a laying on of hands; a seal of merit and blessing from a well-known figure. Others would balance this with a more discursive article. For the music, Vaughan Williams had offered such a ‘Benediction’, whilst Howells was suggested as the writer of an article on the songs. In respect of the poetry, Walter de la Mare gave the Benediction while Squire provided the greater substance. Although Gurney saw the proofs of the symposium, intended as a living tribute, when it was published in the January 1938 issue of Music and Letters, it had become a posthumous tribute, issued just days after his death on Boxing Day 1937.
Despite Finzi and Gurney living in Gloucestershire concurrently for a short time, and their attending the same concert at a British Music Society congress in London in May 1920, the two composers were never to meet. A meeting was planned, through their mutual friend Herbert Howells, in 1935, a mutual meeting of composers, but the tragic loss of Howells’s son, Michael, intervened, and no further opportunity for that meeting arose.
The Finzis’ work on Gurney’s behalf was not limited to his music. They persuaded Edmund Blunden to prepare a first selection of Gurney’s poetry for publication. With Blunden’s being so busy, he only managed to get round to the edition in May 1951, when the Finzis locked him in a room with Gurney’s poetry at their home in Ashmansworth. Blunden trawled through the many typescripts of the poetry that had been made across the years by Marion Scott and her typist, and by a tame typist known to the Vaughan Williamses, and brought together a collection that was published in 1954. This was the first major collection of Gurney’s poetry to be published since his second collection, War’s Embers, in 1919.
On Christmas eve in 1953 Marion Scott died. She bequeathed to Finzi the debt of monies incurred by her in the course of Gurney’s care and work. For 16 years she had held Gurney’s manuscripts as collateral against this debt. In so doing, Scott ensured the preservation of Gurney’s work by keeping the manuscripts from Gurney’s brother, Ronald. Ronald did not understand Gurney and his work, nor the efforts that others were making on his behalf, and were the manuscripts to come into his hands it was probable that he would destroy them. With the transfer of that debt, and the manuscripts, to the Finzis, perversely Ronald determined to pay the debt and reclaim the manuscripts for the family. A few years after Gerald Finzi’s death in 1956, Ronald acceded to pressure brought upon him by the Finzis and Vaughan Williams, and deposited the collection on permanent loan with Gloucester Public Library, since transferred to what is now Gloucestershire Archives. This ensured the survival of Gurney’s work for the long term.
There is, sadly, a shadow side to this wrangling with the manuscript collection, which is painful to say and painful to hear: Joy destroyed a large number of manuscripts. There is a note in the Gurney Archive written by her two years after Gerald’s death: ‘All the contents of this box were sorted from a vast collection of miscellaneous material and appeals for help — most of which followed a pattern of incoherence — the main mass of which has been destroyed. Joyce Finzi Ashmansworth. October 1958.’ Gerald, I am sure, would not have sanctioned such a destruction. While she makes mention of appeals and ‘miscellaneous material’, it is significant that a large number of music manuscripts also went missing in the midst of these wranglings. The major part of these missing musical works is the contents of a page of Finzi’s catalogue listing 26 predominantly chamber works of 1924–26, but also including a symphony. At the head of that page in the catalogue is written by Finzi, ‘Everything on this page is useless’.
Finzi admitted in a letter written to Marion Scott following the first cataloguing session in January 1937 that;
The sorting has been even more difficult than I expected, chiefly because there is comparatively little that one can be really sure is bad. Even the late 1925 asylum songs, though they get more and more involved (and at the same time more disintegrated, if you know what I mean) have a curious coherence about them somewhere, which makes it difficult to know when they really are over the border.
If these numerous late instrumental works were destroyed, as seems most likely, it was undoubtedly an act that sought to ensure that only the best of Gurney’s work was preserved, so as not to compromise his reputation by the bringing out of‘useless’ works.
Upon the deposition of the Gurney papers in Gloucester Public Library, a third significant acolyte enters the scene: the Forest of Dean poet, Leonard Clark. Clark had attended Gurney’s funeral at Twigworth on 31 December 1937, and shortly thereafter wrote a poem ‘In memoriam Ivor Gurney’; a poem recently set to music by Ian Venables in his song cycle The Pine Boughs Past Music (2010). Clark spent many hours in the library working with the papers, and in 1963 prepared a substantial new collection of Gurney’s poetry, drawing not only upon the typescripts but also the many unpublished manuscripts. However, Ronald Gurney stamped on the publication and would not, as copyright holder, give permission for the use of the poetry. Ronald’s obstruction continued to the end, and permission from the family to publish Clark’s collection was only given following Ronald’s death in 1971. It finally appeared ten years after its making, in 1973, published by Chatto and Windus. The final publication of Clark’s selection contained significant cuts, with only around a half of the poems in Clark’s typescript making it to the final book. Even now, much of that other half remains unpublished.
The death of the obstructive Ronald, and the release of Clark’s collection, gave rise to a new momentum to the efforts to bring Gurney’s work to a wider public, through a series of new acolytes. In 1978, Oxford University Press published the first biography of Gurney, written by Michael Hurd, who a year later also prepared a fifth volume of ten songs for OUP. This was followed in 1982 by a major new collection of Gurney’s poetry, again published by OUP, edited by the late P. J. Kavanagh. He was assisted greatly by Kate Kavanagh, his wife, who undertook a significant survey of the poetry in the archive. Kelsey Thornton brought the first collection of Gurney’s correspondence to publication in 1983, War Letters, followed by the Collected Letters in 1991. A new edition by Thornton of Gurney’s first poetry collections followed, and thence editions of three previously unpublished collections. One of these volumes was co-edited with George Walter, who in turn edited and published Gurney’s third intended collection, rejected by his publisher in 1923, 80 Poems or So. Between them, Thornton and Walter are responsible for bringing some hundreds of poems to public attention for the first time. In 1986, Anthony Boden published a more intimate collection, Stars in a Dark Night. As well as the work on the poetry and letters, Richard Carder was exploring the music, seeking to bring new works to life out of the archive.
A significant moment came in 1995 with the realisation of Anthony Boden’s vision for an Ivor Gurney Society; an important focal point for the social appreciation and encouragement of interest in Gurney and his works. Boden also took on, formalised, and made active the Ivor Gurney Trust. Boden, the Trust, and the Society, have played a key role in bringing about and supporting new recordings of Gurney’s works; a critical thing in the modern reception of any composer.
Gurney could have been lost to us, being that small footnote in the annals of British poetry and music. However, through this procession of acolytes, his work has largely survived the precariousnesses of time and obstruction. The knowledge and reception of Gurney has now gathered such momentum as to ensure that his work will survive and be known by future generations. It is only through the work of this handful of acolytes, carrying Gurney’s work across the years, that biographies and studies by Pamela Blevins (2008), Eleanor Rawling (2010) and Kate Kennedy (2018) have been made possible. It is a great privilege for me to follow humbly in this line of esteemed acolytes, and to have worked, and be working, alongside Ian Venables (who has taken on Anthony Boden’s mantle in the Society and Trust) and Tim Kendall on bringing some substantial portions of Gurney’s output into the public arena, much of it for the first time.
This history of the carriage of Gurney’s work across three quarters or so of a century is all well and good, but what about that opening question: Do we know who Gurney is? To echo the inevitable question from the back seat of the car, ‘Are we there yet?’ Do we know the nature of his art and the motivations and aspirations that he sought in his work?
The short answer is No: we are not yet there. During the last 30 years, poetically, and 10, musically, we have opened many more windows onto his work; but there are many corners of the room on which we are only just shedding light. With the coming publication of the complete poetry by OUP, which I am editing with Tim Kendall, it will be possible, for the first time, to assess this key arm of his output in full for the first time, warts and all. A radical and revelatory opening up of his work. Musically, we are in a better position than ever before, with the breadth of the recorded catalogue which now takes in orchestral, choral and chamber work; but there is still work to be done. Once the work has found its way out into the world, through publication, performance or recording, it takes time for the work to settle; to be absorbed and assessed. Which pieces of his work will live and perhaps find a place in the fickle Literary and Musical Canons? This is a question of chance and opportunity.
But getting the work out into the public arena is only one part of the process. There is a need, particularly with Gurney, to reassess the received knowledge and history of the man and his work; to refresh the expectations of what it is that Gurney is; to inform performers and readers and listeners so that they might meet Gurney on his own terms. The reception of Gurney’s work has been blighted absolutely by his biography. That most media-worthy, sensational aspect of his life, that he ‘went mad’, has coloured much of what we think about his work. The perception of madness and the stigma of the asylum has led to the censorship of both his music and poetry. It has given birth to myths about Gurney which often have little foundation. The seed of some of these were planted early on. For instance, in the January 1938 Music and Letters symposium, Herbert Howells contributed an article on Gurney’s music in which he wrote of his early work and experience:
Gurney went to London in 1911, his wallet bulging with works of many kinds. There were piano preludes thick with untamed chords; violin works strewn with ecstatic crises; organ works which he tried out in the midst of Gloucester’s imperturbable Norman Pillars. There was, too, an essay for orchestra that strained a chaotic technique to breaking-point. In 1911 he had enthusiasm enough to write anything.
I have huge respect for Howells, but I can’t help but hear in this the retrospective layering and confusion of the man and music. Howells, writing in 1937, is looking through the lens of hindsight; a lens of breakdowns and of the struggles with which Gurney had to do battle. But here, in Howells’words, are the beginnings of a great Gurneian Myth: the untamed chaos of Gurney, of his music, and of his scores. This is a myth that has marred the perception of Gurney. From the manuscript evidence, Howells’s assertions cannot be substantiated. The only orchestral essay up to this point, a Coronation March (1910-11),is highly Elgarian, but there is nothing either chaotic or technically deficient in it; the ‘untamed chords’(whatever that might mean) are not in evidence; and the 1910-11 violin works seem to be devoid of‘ecstatic crises’. What might be more true is that, in Howells’s opinion, Gurney was lacking the refinement and elegant finesse which we associate with Howells’s own art. Formally, Gurney’s works are certainly more fluid in nature, and not as structurally tight as Howells would undoubtedly have prepared and preferred, but there is still form. In short, Gurney was Gurney; he was not Howells.
This label of ‘chaos’ in relation to Gurney’s scores has persisted to a remarkable degree. A reviewer of a recent CD recording of Gurney’s A Gloucestershire Rhapsody wrote of that work having ‘long [been] thought to be unplayable owing to the apparently incomplete state in which the music survived.’ That reviewer, and indeed the writer of the sleeve note, lays at mine and Ian Venables’s feet the accolade of having ‘reconstructed’ the score. This simply isn’t true. Gurney’s score was complete and coherent. It had merely been ignored for ninety years. The same has been said of the War Elegy for orchestra, which Ian and I edited for recording in 2006. There were unusual brass transpositions to be dealt with and some correcting of obvious mistakes; and a couple of bars had to be completed, where Gurney had turned a page and forgotten to complete the lines, but it was not the dissolute mess and heavy reconstructive job that writers would have you believe.
Which is not to play down the job of an editor! Editing is a time-consuming and critical job, involving a multitude of small decisions. A bad edition can ruin a work and, through that, compromise an artist’s reputation, while a good edition can help readers or performers navigate a piece and make its reading or performance easier, and therefore, we hope, more viable and regular. In editing the poetry there are regularly stances to be taken on whether a word is one thing or another; and more especially when a full stop is a full stop and not a comma or a colon a semi-colon. In a couple of poem manuscripts there are lines which are to one side of the main line of the text which might be annotations, or they might be part of the poem, needing to be inserted within the text. Musically, there are decisions about whether a note is on the line or below it; whether Gurney has omitted an accidental (a sharp or a flat: he often forgets!). There are also those slightly invasive moments, when one must make a decision about whether, as in the War Elegy, a part is incomplete and needs finishing. Tied notes or phrases can go over a page-turn but arrive into nothing . . . Then there are the decisions about what to offer as a guide to performers about how to interpret the work: tempo, dynamics (sparingly given by Gurney), style and manner.
As an example of the more extreme end of the editor’s job, in his edition of Gurney’s Hilaire Belloc setting, Tarantella, Ian Venables has constructed a version of the song from two of the five extant manuscript versions, for no single version quite gets the poem right. But this is an exception rather than a rule.
So yes: an editor is required, but Gurney’s music does not require the wholesale reconstruction of works from chaotic fragments, as has been suggested. Please put to bed any ideas that Gurney’s work is in a chaotic state! That sense of chaos likely hasn’t been helped by the until-recently-haphazard state of the archive. During my work on Gurney over the last decade I have reorganised the archive so as to bring all of the literary work into chronological order, making it easier to assess the state of, and the relationships within, this vast body of work. This has made realistic that task of editing the complete poetry; a task currently reaching its apogee on mine and Tim Kendall’s desks.
As an editor, one does have to tread a careful line. Whilst wishing to make sense of the music and correcting obvious errors, it is important to present the work as closely as possible to the way in which the author or composer intended. In his letter to Scott of January 1937, after the first cataloguing session, Finzi made a remarkably prescient observation:
I think the eventual difficulty of ‘editing’ the later Gurney may be great: a neat mind could smooth away the queerness — like Rimsky-Korsakov with Mussorgsky — yet time and familiarity will probably show something not so mistaken, after all, about the queer and odd things.
In this Post-Modern era, things are more fluid. Expectations and styles are less formally rigid than once they were and the measure of good’music has become more flexible. Where once a particular parallel interval or harmonic progression might have been seen as categorically wrong, in a Classical sense, musical opinion is now much more open and accepting. What might have been seen as a weakness or curiosity can now be accepted as an expressive nuance, of which Gurney’s are his fingerprint as a composer and as a poet. In an article in the Ivor Gurney Society Journal, Michael Hurd once demonstrated the difficulty of editing some of Gurney’s songs. He ‘smooth[ed] away the queerness’, making them more Classically acceptable, and in so doing removed those fingerprints that made it Gurney. The same could be said of the poetry. It is the ‘queerness’ of the language that makes it Gurney. It is notable that, just as Gurney’s poetic language was becoming more unique, just as it was becoming interesting, his conservative publisher turned down his work. The easy lyricism that sold well was making way for a unique music of a far greater originality.
The pinnacle of Gurney’s poetry, in my opinion, comes in 1925–26. It was a hugely prolific period for Gurney, in poetry and music, yet, owing to the stigma of the asylum and the seeming presumption that this late asylum work was somehow incoherent and useless, it has been largely overlooked. Of the extraordinary body of some 380 poems written in 1926, only just over 30 have been published to date. By 1926 Gurney has worked through his immediate situation; he has worked through his memories of experience; and he has emerged out of the other side with a new universality and language joyous in its music; poetry of an energy and generosity that is genuinely remarkable. It is a far cry from the juvenilia of his poetic apprenticeship, served whilst on Active Service during the war; that body of early work that forms the primary back-bone of what we know of Gurney’s poetry. Gurney was a true Modernist, although this fact has been diluted in an identification of madness and chaos in his work rather than true modernism.
Such perceptions can be born of expectation; what we expect to find there: What do we bring to Gurney that makes us think we know what he and his work should be? What do we perceive him to be from the few works we know? And how do we take on the mantle of those acolytes and‘find him’for ourselves in such a way as to discover the truth of his work?
Gurney defies boundaries, not least in the fact that he is a composer and a poet. As a culture, we have an apparent need to pigeon-hole people; to put them neatly into a shoebox that defines them. Poetically, Gurney is variously a War Poet; a Gloucestershire Poet or poet of landscape and nature; perhaps a‘mad’poet. In the unpublished poetry there are many works that defy these labels, and we should be wary of bringing such labels and expectations to Gurney, even if Gurney himself used the first about himself (albeit for the sake of seeking respect than in definition of himself). Siegfried Sassoon resented the fact that he was labelled a War Poet, a label that afflicted him for the five decades of writing that followed the war. In Gurney’s output of some 1,800 poems, just over 300 might be counted as ‘War poems’, a relatively small proportion.
Musically, Gurney is known almost exclusively as a song composer and a miniaturist. Indeed, Gurney did have a particular penchant for setting words, but he was not only this. Furthermore, while he is allied stylistically with Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, with Elgar and Parry (not without reason), there is something more in his work: an impressionism that comes to the fore in his most intense songs and in instrumental works such as A Gloucestershire Rhapsody for orchestra, which only received its premiere in 2010. I heard some rumblings amongst Gurnites that the work should not have been brought out of the archive, and that, having been heard once, it should be returned post-haste. Finzi, in his 1937 catalogue, gave the Rhapsody an X, adding, ‘[Vaughan Williams] knows this work, and doesn’t think it any good.’ However, when Robert Matthew-Walker reviewed the commercial CD release of the work, he singled out the Rhapsody as ‘a most individual score […] a uniquely expressive work’. We are able to experience the piece as Finzi and Vaughan Williams never could, in performance, and can assess it for ourselves. In order to do so properly, we must forget Brahms and those other inheritances, and listen for Gurney. We must accept the piece on its own terms. Fundamentally, the music should be heard; it should be allowed to live. A similar open-mindedness must be used in his work in other genres that have recently started to open up: the recent premiere and recording of Gurney’s 1925 motet for double choir, Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty has revealed an extraordinary work in which the choirs occasionally shift against each other like tectonic plates with remarkable effect; and his chamber music is now represented on disc by a violin sonata, cello sonata and a beautiful late string quartet movement. This latter, by a fluke of survival, is a movement from one of those chamber works likely destroyed by Joy Finzi. As Finzi wrote, time has shown ‘something not so mistaken, after all’. Not every work is a masterpiece, but the more we are able to read and hear, the closer we can get to the truth of who Gurney is.
Gurney was unable establish his own name and work. It is only through the efforts of his acolytes, keeping what was often just a lonely candle alight, that he has now established a momentum sufficient to carry his work into the future. However, his reputation, and the regard for and opinion of his work, has been marred by his biography; mired in myths that have accumulated around him. His works have been suppressed, and his manner and modes lost in labelled pigeon holes. We must accept artists on their own terms, through their works alone, without any expectation or preconception. Only then can we genuinely know the measure and truth of an artist.
Philip Lancaster is a composer, singer, scholar, lecturer and occasional poet. A leading authority on the works of Ivor Gurney, Philip has edited and realised numerous works for performance, recording and publication, and is co-editing with Prof. Tim Kendall Gurney’s complete poetry for publication. Philip is also writing a major study of Gurney’s music and poetry. He was lately British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Exeter, where he taught poetry, and was the recipient of a Finzi Trust Scholarship in 2014.
As I recently took my copy of Earth and Air and Rain off the shelf to revise it for a recital, I was struck by a number of things. Firstly, what a cracking section of my library the Finzi song category is! Secondly, how well-worn my copy is; it’s wonderful to revisit music that one knows so well, and to see how it continues to evolve across a lifetime. (What a magical thing music is – that, for all we notate it in a fixed way, it continues to live and breathe, and only really exists in a moment.) Thirdly, what an amazing selection of poetry this set comprises: some of Hardy’s best, which Finzi put together himself. And fourthly, as I started playing through it again, what a glorious piece of music this is, how beautifully it lies under the hands, how distinctively like Finzi it feels to play, and how evocative the harmonic language is. The meeting of minds between Hardy and Finzi is something special (albeit probably without meeting in physical terms. In the words ofTo a Poet:“Since I can never see your face,And never shake you by the hand,I send my soul through time and spaceTo greet you. You will understand.”Whilst others can and have set these poems, it will take something to beat Finzi’sunderstanding, and the music’s synergy with Hardy’s texts.Finzi wrote that ‘if I had to be cut off from everything,[Hardy’s Collected Poems] would be the one book I should choose’. He set over fifty of Hardy’s poems and, a die-hard fan, even purchased Hardy’s walking stick when the writer’s belongings were sold after his death.Many others, better qualified and more knowledgeable, have written for this publication, so it would be foolish to try to ‘out-academicise’ them. Instead, I’m going to explore this cycle from the performer’s perspective: a whistle-stop tour of what I notice, and what the challenges are in this music.
Song is unique in its confluence of poem and music, and to me it is clear that the very best songs have both excellent poetry and excellent music, each of which illumines the other. Hardy’s poems are not necessarily straightforward; in fact sometimes Finzi’s settings make the texts more clear rather than less, which is unusual in a musical setting. As a song pianist, one of the fascinations for me is how we embrace, explore and express the text. For the singer, these are questions too, but perhaps the answers are more obvious; after all, they actually sing the words.A good composer writes a vocal line that fits the text, in rhythm, shape and mood; the singer, then, just has to sing it (‘just’! With the perfectly formed vowels and consonants for the language concerned, with controlled breath, with a musician’s understanding of the music and an actor’s skill for conveying mood and meaning; I don’t underestimate the job of the singer). In my opinion, the song pianist should spend every bit as long with the text – reading it, considering it, analysing it, interpreting it, internalising it. Without a clear sense of what the poem is about, we can’t convey our thoughts coherently or meaningfully. For the pianist, there are a different set of decisions to make. Do we match the character’s thoughts with the singer?Are we, in effect, the same character, experiencing the same love or loss or searching, as one? Or are we the scenery?The context?The description? Are we an answer to the singer’s questions, almost an off-stage character, or the other half of an imagined dialogue or an internal tussle? Affirming their thoughts, or articulating those which cannot be put into words, or finding resolution where the poem doesn’t provide it? The pianist is, of course, all of these things and more. In my experience, in Finzi’s music, the pianist’s role switches particularly quickly between these functions and it is this which makes the music so constantly fresh.
‘Summer Schemes’ is an upbeat opening to a relatively thoughtful cycle. Summer arrives, and calls the birds, who flood the land with their singing; the waters spring from little chinks and cascade down the hill, enhancing all the green growth of the land. The piano writing is full of bubbling and cascading, all quavers and flurries. Immediately, Finzi sets up his irregular use of time signatures: after only two bars in triple time he shifts to quadruple, and then quickly back, thereafter constantly switching through the song. Often this shifting is to match the speech rhythms of the text; we don’t speak in a fixed metre, and Finzi’s text setting is almost entirely syllabic (I can’t find a single melisma in this cycle), so the rhythm of the melodies follows a speech pattern. This changing time pattern also lends the music a fluidity: it never sits down, but stays afloat, moving at ease like the rivers and birds of the poem. Like many others in the cycle, I recently discovered I’ve tended to perform this song more slowly than the composer’s marking suggests. It’s easy to be seduced by the beauty of Finzi’s music, by how delectable the harmonies are, and how regretful the thoughts often are. For English musicians in particular, there is a danger of wallowing in every little moment of beauty. Our continental colleagues, without the same English nostalgic associations, often bring a rigour to their performances of this music: a viola professor when I was studying at the Academy once pointed out that the most spectacularly scenic walk is ruined if you stop and hug every single tree along the way. Keeping the simplicity of the line flowing here means that when we get to ‘“We’ll go,” I sing; but who shall say What may not chance before that day!’, the composer’s shift to minims and crotchets has more impact. The music more than halves in speed, creating a pause for contemplation over our powerlessness to control fate.Here the piano and voice parts are more closely locked together; our thought is as one.
One of the joys of playing these songs is the ‘Finzi Echo’ which litters the score: the piano echoes the singer’s phrase, or the end of it, almost affirming the thought (or in some cases, perhaps questioning it). ‘Who shall say What may not chance before that day!’ is echoed by ‘…before that day….’ in the piano, reiterating the thought, hovering for consideration, before verse two begins. Interestingly, this question is left unanswered, and the music remains in the minor key, whilst the equivalent at the end of verse two, ‘but who may sing Of what another moon will bring!’ settles on the major: an acceptance, perhaps, that while we can’t control our future, we can enjoy what we have today.
‘When I set out for Lyonnesse’ sets up what looks like an assertive martial motif, but is marked pp misterioso; this is actually depicting wide-eyed youth and fairytale, rather than a heavy trudge, and again a sufficiently swift tempo is vital. Lyonnesse is a country in Arthurian legend (notably in the story of Tristan and Iseult), said to border Cornwall. As a young apprentice architect, Hardy visited the St Juliot rectory and church in Cornwall for the first time, to supervise the restoration of a church, and here met his future wife, Emma Lavinia Gifford. On his return from the parish, people noticed a glow in his eyes (and, allegedly, a crumpled piece of paper sticking out of his coat pocket, containing the draft of this poem). Just as in the first song, here the melodic rise and fall is wide: an octave and a half span in less than three bars for the singer, with most phrases following a similar sweep. This lends the music a distinctive openness and optimism. It is hard, however, to carry off well: most singers will find either the top of the phrases a struggle or the bottom of the phrases hard to project well, and the diligent accompanist must always have ears alert to balance the same piano textures differently according to the range of the voice. The ‘melting moment’ as E minor gives way to E major could be written by no-one other than Finzi, the music more wistful as the voice notes ‘what would bechance at Lyonnesse….No prophet durst declare’. Two magical modulations, from E to Eb, and then back to G major / E minor, show us the ‘magic’ in the eyes after this trip to Lyonnesse.
‘Waiting Both’ captures beautifully the spaciousness of a starry night: the distance of the stars from earth portrayed in the wide range of piano writing, using everything from the depths of the bass range right up to the top octave but one of the keyboard. Rhythmically, there is a wonderful timelessness to this song, the piano gestures mostly placed across the barline, so we feel no clear beat. Time is somehow suspended as this strange little dialogue between star and human being takes place, each agreeing that the only thing they can do in life is ‘Wait, and let Time go by.’
The first song from this cycle that I got to know well, ‘The Phantom’ is also one of the most obviously narrative of the set. It’s always a challenge to read poems in their ‘original’, free-standing form, without influencing the pacing through knowledge of a particular composer’s musical setting, but I find that particularly to be true with this poem. I can’t help thinking that it’s because Finzi so wonderfully captured Hardy’s shapes and moods here, that the two are somehow inextricable. From the outset Finzi foreshadows the character we meet at the end of the poem (‘a ghost-girl-rider’: Hardy titled the poem ‘The Phantom Horserider’), with wonderful galloping dotted rhythms and melodic sweeps. The first word, ‘queer’, interrupts the piano’s introduction in an appropriately unexpected way:
Queer are the ways of a man I know:
He comes and stands
In a careworn craze,
And looks at the sands
And the seaward haze
With moveless hands
And face and gaze,
Then turns to go…
And what does he see when he gazes so?
Just as the language builds up in pace, almost breathless in this ‘craze’, so the music is ‘hyped up’, in tessitura and in relentlessness, until it stops, catching itself, at ‘With moveless hands’; and with a shrug of the shoulders, a tempo, ‘Then turns to go’. But the galloping motif slows, ritenuto, and instead of harmonizing the A natural with an F major chord, it’s with F sharp minor, remote and searching, as we ask ‘And what does he see when he gazes so?’ Again the Finzi Echo in the piano writing – ‘when he gazes so…. gazes so……..’:we’re lost in thought.
They say he sees as an instant thing
More clear than to-day,
A sweet soft scene
That once was in play
By that briny green;
Yes, notes alway
Warm, real, and keen,
What his back years bring—
A phantom of his own figuring.
In a different key, a different time signature, and a different tempo, we’re transported to the different world which is the protagonist’s dream-land.
Of this vision of his they might say more:
Not only there
Does he see this sight,
In his brain–day, night,
As if on the air
It were drawn rose bright–
Yea, far from that shore
Does he carry this vision of heretofore:
Just as the character is sent crazy, unable to escape these images, so the motifs chime through the texture, inescapable, that echo employed here for a very particular effect: ‘But everywhere’ – ‘everywhere’ – ‘everywhere’. The music pauses as we discover who the vision is, and then withers chromatically, before the music it conjours up hope of some kind of resurrection, we hear:
A ghost-girl-rider. And though, toil-tried,
He withers daily,
Time touches her not,
But she still rides gaily
In his rapt thought
On that shagged and shaly
And as when first eyed
Draws rein and sings to the swing of the tide.
Following the drama of this large-scale song, the simplicity of ‘So I have fared’ is welcome. Hardy’s subtitle ‘after reading Psalms XXXIX, XL, etc.’, and Finzi’s note that ‘This recitative should be sung with the flexibility and freedom of ordinary speech, and the crotchet should approximate to the reciting note of Anglican chant’ leave us in no doubt that this is church music. The piano’s sustained chords and simple harmonic progressions are reminiscent of plainchant accompaniment or a gentle chorale, with only small changes of pitch in the melodic writing, and the Latin phrases of this macaronic poem punctuate the cadential thoughts. This easy ritualistic writing is unsettled, however, in the last verse; the music changes, the harmony is more disturbed, the pacing new: ‘And at dead of night I call: “Though to prophets list I, Which hath understood at all? Yea: “Quemelegisti?” [whom did you choose?].’ Perhaps here, for composer and poet alike, we see an uneasy relationship with faith.
The rollicking ‘Rollicum-Rorum’ is the breath of fresh air and humour in the set. When each of an increasingly unlikely scenarios plays out (lawyers striving to heal a breach, parsons practising what they preach, justices holding equal scales, rogues only being found in jails, rich men finding their wealth a curse, filling therewith the poor man’s purse, and finally husbands with their wives agreeing and maids not wedding from modesty): ‘Then Boney he’ll come pouncing down, And march his men on London town!’ (i.e. so unlikely is it that Napoleon will invade London). The refrain ‘Rollicum-rorum, tol-lol-lorum, Rollicum-rorum, tol-lol-lay’ taps into something anciently English:almost a ‘fa-la-la-la’. The staccato articulation and cheeky cross-rhythms give this song an energy unlike any other in the set, and the very fast metronome marking provides a challenge for even the best singers (“maids won’t wed for modesty” often trips people up at speed!). Furthermore, every verse enters at a different point in the piano interlude: a trap waiting to be fallen into!
‘To Lizbie Browne’ is my personal favourite of the cycle, a beautifully-paced, devastatingly simple tale of what might have been. (Finzi is reputed to have named it as one of the worst of the set, but I cannot agree!) Like so many Finzi melodies, this sweeps upwards, and then falters and falls. Always the first half is what might have been, and the second how it failed to materialise. Given the preponderance of tempo indications in much of Finzi’s writing, his footnote here is reassuring to the performer: ‘The beat should be flexible and wayward…. Such suppleness cannot, of course, be determined by directions on paper, and the modifications of speed which are given should only be considered as an outline.’ It’s so easy to get bogged down in trying to obey every marking a composer puts on paper, and important to remember that it’s most important that they are in the service of communicating text and mood, and as such need to be generated by the text and music, rather than being executed out of diligence!
The immediate question for performers in ‘The Clock of the Years’ is whether or not the singer should speak the printed line “A spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up.” This line, from the Biblical book of Job (4:15), is quoted by Hardy at the top of his poem, and by Finzi at the top of his song. To me, the rest of the song makes little sense without it, and so the singer should declaim it, setting up rush of demisemiquavers in the piano which launch ‘And the Spirit said, “I can make the clock of the years go backward, But am loth to stop it where you will.” Doing a deal with the devil, our character answers, “Agreed To that. Proceed: It’s better than dead!”. Out of this recitative-style opening unfolds the tragedy of seeing the beloved’s life played backwards, until ‘she was nought at all…. It was as if She had never been.’Scrunching through painful clashing sevenths and haunting piano echos (…’never been’… ‘never been’…) we are lulled into a horrid dream-like siciliana: can it really be happening? In a horror of unrelenting minor chords, in the depths of the piano’s bass range, we hear it was our poor protagonist’s own fault: ‘It was your choice To mar the ordained.’
‘In a Churchyard’is somehow easily forgotten in this cycle, but unjustly so. The poem in fact is one of the most strange and most philosophical, and the music matches it. Perhaps here, more than anywhere else in the set we hear the impact of Finzi’s church music, descriptively moving from the creeping yew roots, buried underground, to the timeless long line of ‘Each day-span’s sum of hours’, and to the bold fanfares of ‘That no God trumpet us to rise We truly hope’. Every bit of imagery in the poem is matched with a musical texture and a harmonic colour. It is immaculately painted, and enormously satisfying to play.
The final song, ‘Proud Songsters’, is more about the piano than the voice (I realise I am heavily biased… but I think I’m right!) It feels in this way that it fits in a tradition derived from Schumann (and most obviously Dichterliebe, with its great summing-up piano postlude), of final songs being somehow handed over to the piano. A lengthy introduction, full of suspensions, added seconds, false relations, and with driving Finzi rhythms under the spun melodic lines, presents challenges to the pianist. With so many layers of texture, we have to work hard to ‘orchestrate’ the music, picking out the different layers, to really show all the detail, without it feeling cluttered. The voice’s entry, when it happens, is unexpected; just a comment on what has been heard from the piano:
The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales in bushes
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
As if all Time were theirs.
And so the birds’ chorus really takes off, the piano writing launching into an almost symphonic sweep, and then, through a twist of harmony with a crucial A natural taking us away from B minor towards D major, it starts to wind down. The rhythm stills, and the driving ceases. The point of the poem is in the second stanzaand, really, the point of the cycle too. For both Hardy and Finzi, themes of the passing of time, the transience of life, and our role in a bigger universe, return time and again. Earth and Air and Rain was published in 1936, having taken several years before that to write, but was not premiered until 1945. Given the events of the intervening years, these themes must have been horribly poignant but also profoundly understood. So, framed musically with what is almost a chorale of peace and reconciliation, Finzi leaves us with the thought:
These are brand new birds of twelvemonths’ growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales, nor thrushes,
But only particles of grain,
And earth, and air, and rain.
I always feel a real satisfaction if singer and pianist manage to generate a lengthy silence at the end of this song; we and the audience are lost in thought. Yet, somehow, the music here also feels that it could segue quite naturally into ‘Summer Schemes’, and we could begin the whole journey again. How cyclical life is, and how beautifully Finzi captures that in this piece.