Consideration of texture and timbre in what is one of Gerald Finzi’s most distinctive works, and arguably one of his most popular, cannot fail to take into account previous or contemporary works in a similar genre. One of the most immediately apparent as a similar work is Britten’s Les Illuminations. Interestingly, though, this was composed at the end of the 1930s around the time that Finzi was completing Dies Natalis. It fared better than Dies Natalis in receiving its first performance in 1940, sung by the soprano, Sophie Wyss, whereas Finzi’s work had to wait until after the war for its premiere in 1946.However, the genesis ofDies Natalis was a complex affair (outlined in Stephen Banfield’s 1997 book on Finzi ) so that it can be confidently understood that much of Finzi’s work was composed well before Britten’s. Interestingly, Banfield points out that Sophie Wyss was the original singer envisaged for Dies Natalis. (If mention of the soprano voice sparks confusion in relation to Dies Natalis, please read further!)There are, of course, significant dissimilarities with Britten’s work aside from musical language. Britten chose the very much non-religious French poems of Arthur Rimbaud to set. Finzi’s chosen text selects from the writings of the metaphysical English clergyman, Thomas Traherne. Britten’s string writing seems deliberately to eschew the ‘established’ English string-writing tradition in favour of the more atmospheric, occasionally impressionist palette of continental composers.
To find the forerunners of Dies Natalis it is sensible to look in two places. Firstly, Finzi was in no way short of exemplars for string writing in the music of early twentieth century British composers. The list is extensive: Elgar’sIntroduction and Allegro for Strings; Parry’sAn English Suite and similar works; Vaughan Williams’Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, etc; and Holst’s St Paul’s Suite. Interestingly, however, none of these composers chose to write a solo cantata of a similar nature to Finzi’s work. The second place to look is, perhaps, the early eighteenth century.
Diana McVeagh has promoted the idea that Finzi’s exposure to Bach in 1926 can be linked to the style of ‘The Salutation’, the final movement of Dies Natalis, influencing also his use of the term ‘Aria’ at the head of the movement. In terms of texture, this would certainly be at one with the wider sense of contrapuntal writing (in its broadest, non-academic, sense – see Banfield for an account of Finzi’s view of ‘academic’ counterpoint as studied under Bairstow) which characterises Dies Natalis. This is another significant link to preceding English string music, for example the fugal middle section of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro and, in less serious mode, perhaps, Holst’s St Paul’s Suite. It also foreshadows Finzi’s interest in the music of earlier, eighteenth century English composers which he was to promote, such as that by Mudge and Stanley. The solo vocal cantata was a staple of the early eighteenth century, composed for both secular and sacred occasions. (Few were fortunate to have texts of such depth and sophistication as those selected by Finzi from the writings of Thomas Traherne).
The significance of this textural decision to write in a linear style is not to be underestimated and it is a hallmark of the composer’s style. Many of Finzi’s contemporaries pursued a much more homophonic approach to writing, with emphasis on rich sonorities achieved by building up complex harmony, either by adding additional thirds to the basic triad or chromatic alteration of notes. Both devices are common, for example in the songs of John Ireland, to expressive effect, and the occasional consternation of pianists faced with fistfuls of added-note chords. (A good example occurs in the third verse of the ever-popular Sea Fever.)Finzi also frequently gives cause for pianists to practice at length but the challenge more often comes from grappling with combination within the two hands of independent lines of musical thought. The final song of Earth and Air and Rain is a good example. Even the apparently innocuous chordal writing of ‘To Lizbie Browne’contains snatches of imitation within the piano accompaniment and, importantly, between the vocal line and the piano. An interesting parallel with the final movement of Dies Natalis can be found in ‘When I set out for Lyonesse’. In the outer stanzas of this setting, Finzi places the voice in counterpoint to the melodic idea in the piano – interesting to ponder which came first, in fact. Finzi’s inclination to write because he heard ideas in the text instinctively gives few clues here – it may just as easily have been the march-like tread of the accompaniment that sprang to mind first. Before leaving Finzi’s approach to texture in songs with piano accompaniment it is instructive also to note the plentiful use of rests in his accompaniment figures. The ‘space’ that these create in the musical texture is directly akin to Finzi’s technique in Dies Natalis. A good example is ‘Two Lips’ from I Said To Love. Constant quaver rests at the start of the righthand phrases in the piano set up that part’s independence, notably contrasting with the way most vocal lines begin on a crotchet; and not always an upbeat crotchet – the second phrase of the song moves the voice’s entry to the second beat of the bar. These details are typical of Finzi’s subtle inflections, which have an impact on texture as well as on the rhythmic construction of Finzi’s settings. In the rhythmic and textural freedoms Finzi achieved in his text setting, he jumped further away from the stylistic traits of preceding generations of English song writers than he is often given credit for.
In terms of timbre, Dies Natalis might prompt the unwary listener to expect little in the way of variety but this would be short sighted indeed. The possibilities of a high solo voice with string orchestra are exploited to the full within the ‘standard’ techniques of Finzi’s musical background. No ‘extended’ instrumental techniques here, but a thoughtful and often imaginatively responsive range of sounds to suit the text. This includes the possibilities to be exploited in the relationship between voice and strings. These pose a significant question about the work as a whole. The title page announces the work to be a ‘Cantata for Soprano (or Tenor) Solo and String Orchestra’. Yet the association of the work with the tenor voice is so strong that there is frequent surprise (apart from amongst aficionados!) when listeners learn that the first performance was given by that leading soprano of her day, Elsie Suddaby. The main point for consideration in any survey of Finzi’s approach to texture and timbre is not ‘who got there first’ (a soprano, but the tenors have long wrestled the work to become theirs) but what difference either voice may make to the sound and texture of the work. The second movement ‘Rhapsody’ provides a clear picture of the potential differences. In many places it appears that the music is written with the soprano voice in mind so that, often, the first violin line moves at parallel pitch, for example during the passage ‘I was entertained like an angel’. In several places this approach offers nuances which are very appealing. For example, after figure 3, the soprano voice sings ‘Heaven and earth did sing’ at exactly the same pitch as the first violin, but on the word ‘sing’ the violin ascends the interval of a fourth to add almost a halo to the word. Such touches are apparent when the solo voice is a tenor, of course, but the sense of close affinity between voice and the top line of the string orchestra cannot be replicated. Indeed, performing the work with a tenor creates several issues of balance not unlike those associated with cello concertos. The tenor voice inevitable sits in the middle of the string textures and at times wrestles for due prominence, particularly when double-stopping or divisi passages increase the density of sound in the octave extending upwards from g below middle C. None of these points is insoluble but such issues are significant factors to be considered in any performance of the work. At times, of course, the use of tenor soloist adds to the sound world immeasurably. The opening of ‘The Salutation’ creates a ‘mellow’ timbre by throwing much emphasis on the sound of the viola in its lowest register. The violins imitate, and take the music to a climax in the middle of the movement, but in the outer sections, the movement belongs to the viola, as is evident when its melody closes the entire work. This pitch sits directly parallel with the range of the tenor voice, so that a lasting aural memory is of a duet-like sound between tenor and viola. The sound world created by a soprano voice, sitting high above the accompaniment for most of the movement is a very different one, though appealing and equally affecting.
For the most part, contrasts of texture within the work are created through Finzi’s imaginative and skilful writing for strings. It is here that the techniques inherent in works by his predecessors are capitalised upon and presented afresh at the service of Traherne’s imagery. Discussion of the opening instrumental movement is reserved to the end of this article so that immediate focus remains on Finzi’s textural use of both voice and strings.
The extended ‘Rhapsody’ is a compendium of string-writing techniques which would be demeaned by simply making a list. The point is that each technique fits its text like a glove. An example is the very end of the movement where a string quartet-like texture is ideally suited to the mood, allowing space for thought in its simplicity, heightened by the absence of the double bass. (Finzi’s use of the double bass throughout the work deserves an article of its own as he employs the ’16 foot’ buy ambien generic online option, as organists would recognise it, with unerring skill and economy (possibly because he wasn’t an organist). The texture here fittingly matches the tonal uncertainty with which the movement ends, an unresolved a minor, in relation to the movement’s overall tonal centre of G. The climax of the movement, ‘I saw all’, is heightened by rich divisi writing, tonally securely based on a drone between double bass and second cello. The rising, tremolo scales in sixths between violas and first cellos are consistent with a textural idea which recurs in the movement. It is particularly telling as an accompaniment to’ strange and wonderful things’. The sixth, perhaps the archetypal consonant interval (think Donizetti) is tellingly employed to create the atmosphere of sweetness, but within a harmonic background which is by no means clichéd. Similarly, Finzi frequently doubles musical lines instruments an octave apart. Probably one of the most telling and memorable moments in the movement is the series of static chords on the words ‘The corn was orient and immortal wheat’, surely one of Traherne’s most enduring images that Finzi chose to set (see Diana McVeagh for detail on Finzi’s being ‘composer enough to be ruthless’ in his selective treatment of Traherne’s text). Here the spacing is worthy of the opening of Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia, and any aural link it creates is surely a beneficial one in terms of mood. Strangely, this is none of the few truly recitative-like moments in this extended movement, in the usual sense of the term. There’s little obvious recitative in terms of giving metrical licence to the singer, although rhythmic flexibility is paramount in any performance. Overall, the movement has melodic and rhythmic drive for the most part, which links the sometimes disparate and often challenging text, in terms of comprehension. Repetition of the types of texture described above adds much to the coherence of this extended movement.
The ‘danza’ in the next movement, as Finzi describes ’The Rapture’, owes much to the exuberance of the opening string trills, although these disappear fairly quickly (a pity, in some ways) with just a backward glance given to them at the close of the movement. They are, perhaps, unusually extrovert for Finzi?The potential weight of the exuberance at the beginning is offset by constant use of divisi pizzicato chords in the lower strings to accompany the melodic upper parts, which now frequently move in thirds, as opposed to the sixths of the previous movement. The pizzicato chords, though heavy-looking on the page, create a highly unusual sound world in the way they move rapidly across different octaves. This is perhaps one of the most individual moments in terms of timbre in the whole work. In some ways, the middle section is less original in its texture, although beautiful in its solo melody. The repeated accompaniment quavers maintain momentum, but one is always glad to have return of the pizzicato idea.
Movement four, ‘Wonder’ offers the most complex textures of the work. Headed ‘Arioso’, the structural flexibility this implies is put to excellent use to respond to some of the most reflective lines Finzi selected from Traherne. The recurrence of the word ‘how’ pinpoints this reflective quality. For example, the couplet:
The Skies, in their Magnificence, the lovely lively air,
Oh, how divine, how soft, how sweet, how fair!
The absence of any ‘action’, even though the words are spoken directly by the central child-figure, could render this problematic to set. Finzi responds intuitively to the meditative possibilities of the images. Partly, these images are reflected through simple contrasts, such as between the rich textures to support the singer at the words ‘So rich and great’ and the thinning out at the quieter passage ‘A Native Health’. Technically, though, these contrasts bear closer scrutiny. The emphasis on combining individual lines within the string orchestra is amplified by dividing each group, with the exception of the double bass line. Finzi’s instinctive practicality is to the fore here: the undivided double bass line indicates the clear possibility of performing the work with one player to each part if larger forces are not available. This would involve ten players. The necessity of the tenth results from Finzi adding to the divisi demands by requiring a solo first violin line (as well as other short solo passages). This strategy inevitably leads to consideration of what is the optimum number of players. The author has very successfully performed the work with ten players. The individual lines appear very clearly aurally although inevitably, at points in the score, at the cost of weight, particularly in the lower parts. Larger forces will supply greater weight but this also begins to pose challenges of balance and clarity. There is little doubt that the string orchestra envisaged is of the ‘chamber’ variety. The passages in thirds and sixths (and octaves) employed earlier in the work recur in this movement and their position spread across the string group means that clarity is essential. The passage ‘The Stars did entertain my Sense’ illustrates this well. Over-played, these lines will become stodgy as they interweave with accompanying lines. The fact that Finzi rarely employs block chords, but keeps all the parts fluid and melodic adds much to the beauty of the whole work, and particularly this movement, but demands a fine ear from conductor and players alike to discern relative significance and how best to communicate this. The opening of ‘Wonder’ illustrates another aspect of this approach, which recurs throughout the work, imitative writing. In the hands of a weak composer this can be wearisome, as motifs are ‘copied’ from part to part. Finzi’s skill lies in making imitation entirely natural and the essential fabric of the writing. At the opening, an upward motif containing small intervallic leaps, not always presented identically in melodic terms, occurs in every half bar, presented by each instrument in turn. The masterstroke is that the voice, when it enters on the words ‘How like an Angel came I down!’ presents a descending phrase, rhythmically slower and conjunct in melody. The strings are the backdrop to this musical idea, not an illustration, and the backdrop is woven of the upwardly driving phrase (a distant relative of ‘Lizbie Browne’, it has to be noted). Yet the descending idea has already been heard, as the ending of the upward phrase and, crucially, presented in the first bar in the violas’ line, as counterpoint to the upward phrase in the first violins. Finzi’s other, melodic master-stroke, is the modal inflexion he gives the descending idea when the voice presents it. Such techniques ensure an integrity and coherence in Finzi’s writing which underpins the whole movement. The more obvious ‘richness’ at phrases such as the one to accompany ‘I within did flow With Seas of Life like Wine’ rely on such secure technique for their effect. They are every bit the to the equal of Elgar’s string-writing in the Introduction and Allegro’ in terms of technical awareness and good judgement.
Several features of the final movement, ‘The Salutation’, have already been discussed. The term not yet proposed is ‘chorale prelude’, as remarked also by Diana McVeagh . The accompaniment figures in the strings provoke comparison with Bach’s approach to the contrapuntal interweaving that surrounds the melody in Bach’s works in this style. This is emphasised in the steady crotchet tread that characterises the bass line. As with Bach’s chorale preludes, the string music is capable of existing in its own right, although it is immeasurably transformed once the vocal line is added. The vocal line acts, though, as a pendant to the other music. Phrase structures frequently overlap between voice and strings, to emphasise their independence.
Consideration of the opening movement of the work, where the voice is absent, is inevitably skewed by the recognition that it is, indeed, an introduction, hence the title, ‘Intrada’. It is much more than this, having integrity as a string piece in its own right. The composer acknowledged this by including a conclusion for occasions when the movement is performed alone. If this ending is not used, the tonal structure of the movement is interesting. Like ‘Rhapsody’, the music ends, when acting as a prelude to the rest of the work, in a minor. In this context, this key is still further distant from the opening, which has a tonal centre of G, than is the case in ‘Rhapsody’. In terms of texture and timbre, the movement is conservative when compared with some later passages in the cantata. On the page, the score is reminiscent of the style of Elgar’s early Serenade for strings in terms of texture, as remarked also by Stephen Banfield . The complexities of later movements are seldom approached, even in the mini-climax engineered after rehearsal number 10. Many later devices are presaged, including after figure 8 the crotchet bass tread of ‘The Salutation’. In terms of timbre, the use of violins in their lowest register is notable, creating the warmth often associated with the composer. Significant, too, is the way in which passages apparently textured as ‘melody and accompaniment’ to the innocent ear, such as afterfigure 2, are in fact constructed of a series of descending scalic figures in all parts, carefully interlocking and commencing at different times. These form the counterpart to the rising figure which opens the whole work, imitative treatment of which forms the music logic of the movement’s conclusion from figure 12.
In terms of musical language, considering melody and harmony, many would charge Finzi’s style with being conservative for a piece composed in the late 1930s. In terms of texture and timbre it is both inventive, and also effective in renewing existing traditions of string writing. When combined with Finzi’s unsurpassed sensitivity to text and instinctive vocal responsiveness, these elements create a highly expressive and intense work which can be justifiably termed unique.
The case for Gerald Finzi’s For St Cecilia: Ceremonial Ode for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra, op.30 is succinctly stated by George Dannatt in the 1948 edition of the Penguin Music Magazine VII. He explains that the Daily Herald sponsored a Festival in aid of the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund. ‘The most important new work was Gerald Finzi’s [For St Cecilia]to words by Edmund Blunden. It is a beautiful and distinguished conception containing some masterly choral writing.’
In the past twenty years, two major analyses of Gerald Finzi’s For St Cecilia have been included in studies of the composer’s life and works: Stephen Banfield’s Gerald Finzi: An English Composer (1997) and Diana McVeagh’s Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music (2005). On the academic front, John Henry French made a study of The Choral Odes of Gerald Finzi(1995) as part of his submission for a Doctor of Musical Arts at the University of Cincinnati. In 2012 Robert Andrew Weeden produced his thesis at Durham University, Why do I go on doing these things?: The Continuity and Context of Gerald Finzi’s Extended Choral Works. Both feature a detailed discussion of the Ode.
The present essay is not an attempt at replicating this scholarship. It will concentrate on the premiere of the work, the publication of the score and therecordings. The paper will conclude with a discography of the work supplemented by a brief bibliography. References are indicated in the text.
In 2016, Gerald Finzi is best remembered for his songs. These were written over much of his career and include many settings of poems by Thomas Hardy. Since the advent of Classic FM, a number of Finzi’s orchestral works have gained considerable popularity:there are regular performances of the Clarinet Concerto, the Five Bagatelles for clarinet and orchestra (or piano) and the Eclogue for piano and string orchestra. Occasionally, the Romance for string orchestra is heard.
Even the briefest of glances at Finzi’s catalogue of choral music discloses that he composed a significant amount for chorus and orchestra, piano or organ and unaccompanied voices. His magnum opus is Intimations of Immortality, op.29 (late 1930s, 1949-50) which was a setting of William Wordsworth’s fine Platonic poem. One previous work for chorus and orchestra was the Requiem da Camera which was written in 1924 but not heard until 1990. The same year that Finzi began work on For St Cecilia he had completed one of his most popular choral works,‘Lo, the full, final sacrifice’, op.26. As a result of the success of For St Cecilia he wrote ‘God is Gone Up’, op, 27, no.2. These have remained in the repertoire of Anglican cathedral and church choirs in subsequent years.
If there is any doubt about the conservative nature of Finzi’s For St Cecilia, a comparison with other major works written at this time points up the contrast. Olivier Messiaen (1908-92), just 7 years younger than Finzi was composing his orchestral masterpiece, the Turangalîla Symphony. Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) was working on an early version ofLe soleil des eaux, for voices and orchestra, and Benjamin Britten (1913-76)premiered his ‘comic opera’ Albert Herring at Glyndebourne(20 June 1947).On a more traditional level the Master of the King’s Musick, Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)was completing his thoughtful choral work, Epithalamium.
The St Cecilia’s Day Festival, 1947, had been arranged by a group of prominent musicians, under the presidency of Ralph Vaughan Williams and was sponsored by the Daily Herald. The proceeds of the event were donated to the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund.
The details of the work’s genesis and the discussions between Finzi and Blunden are expounded in McVeigh (2005) and Banfield (1997)
The premiere of Finzi’s For St. Cecilia was part of the revived St. Cecilia’ Day celebrations on Saturday 22 November 1947. The first event was a service of dedication at St Sepulchre’s Church, Holborn Viaduct, London. The officiant was the Reverend G.H. Salter and the sermon was preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. The sermon pointed out that ‘On St Cecilia’s day they remembered what the Church had given to music by its doctrine, its faith, its liturgy, its sacred writings and hymns, and what, in return, music had done, and now did for the Church and for its Lord.’ (The Times 24 November 1947)
During this service the first performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Voice out of the Whirlwind’ was given.Other anthems were by Thomas Weelkes, Henry Purcell, Samuel Sebastian Wesley and Charles Wood. The choir comprised members of the Chapel Royal, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral choirs. Dr Dykes Bower conducted and the organ was played by George Thalben-Ball and Dr (later Sir) William McKie.
Musical Opinion (December 1947) gave a detailed review of this part of the celebrations: ‘A great congregation assembled…to take part in the St. Cecilia Festival. A new anthem, ‘The Voice out of the Whirlwind’ composed for the occasion by Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams excited a great deal of interest.’ The review noted that the ‘distinguished congregation included the Lord Mayor, with the Lady Mayoress who were welcomed by fanfares…and Mayors of the London Boroughs in their civic regalia.’
For St Cecilia was heard during the Musician’s Benevolent Fund’s annual concert at the Royal Albert Hall on that Saturday evening. Other works in the programme comprisedthe Overture to Henry Purcell’s St Cecilia’s Day Ode, specially orchestrated by Alan Rawsthorne (1946), Part II of George Frideric Handel’s Alexander’s Feast: An Ode, Charles Villiers Stanford’s Songs of the Fleet and fanfares by Arthur Bliss and Sir Arnold Bax. The major orchestral work was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.5 in D major. Sir Adrian Boult conducted the Luton Choral Society, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the Trumpeters from the Royal Military School of Music. The soloists were the tenor Rene Soames, the baritone Harold Williams and the organist Dr G.D. Cunningham.
In a letter (106 Wildwood Road, N.W.11; 23 November ) to the composer, Howard Ferguson wrote that the performance ‘…was such a very special occasion that it cannot pass without another ‘hats off to our G [erald Finzi].’ Ferguson thought that For St. Cecilia was ‘a real beauty…[and] opens out… such endless possibilities.’ He wondered if Finzi was too close to the work ‘to notice that anything has happened: but to me it seems much larger in musical scope and intention than anything you have yet written!’ He felt that ‘beauty and sensitivity were always there…but now you’ve added real size to them without, moreover, spoiling the one or the other. It’s a very great achievement.’ Ferguson ended by saying that ‘I do feel so proud that my name should be at the head of it.’ The score was dedicated to Ferguson.
Frank Howes, assessing the concert in The Times (24 November 1947),pointed out that Edmund Blunden had ‘accepted the traditional manner, invoking the “Delightful Goddess…resourceful Legend” in true seventeenth-century style.’ However, the poem was not simply ‘pastiche’; ‘it embodies a true love of England and is aptly adorned with musical metaphors and happy allusions to some of our [English] composers.’ These include Merbecke, Byrd, Dowland, Purcell and Handel. Howes believed that it makes ‘an excellent basis’ for a musical ode and ‘Finzi has not failed to seizehis opportunity.’
From a musical perspective, Howes considered the composer had ‘held together’ the work with firmly moving basses [bass lines, orchestral and choral]. He did not think the opening fanfares ‘came off’ in spite of the fact they seemed to be a prelude of ‘all kinds of musick.’This section was scored ‘crudely’ and was ‘too repetitive.’ It is when the chorus enters that ‘the music begins to glow with beauty…’ and when the fanfare reappears it displays ‘real splendour.’ The moment that most impressed Frank Howes was ‘the entry of the tenor’s still small voiceof Mr. Rene Soames’ who entered with a melody that might be ‘set beside the fourth and fifth songs [‘Wonder’ and ‘The Salutation’]ofDies Natalis as one of the loveliest things in contemporary music.’
Howes thought that the choir ‘sang in the new work well enough to present it faithfully and better than they did in Handel.’
Frank Howes, also writing in the Musical Times (December 1947), further noted that the ‘specially commissioned ode…restore[d] another feature of the seventeenth-century celebration of St. Cecilia’s day.’ He considered that Finzi ‘…had made a setting at once dignified, festal and melodious in his characteristically lyrical vein of an appropriate piece of ceremonial verse from the pen of Edmund Blunden.’
After the first performance, Howard Ferguson looked over the manuscript before publication. He wrote to the composer: ‘Here is ‘Cecily’, cleaned, polished and corrected.’ (106 Wildwood Road, N.W.11; 13 June ). He had discovered some ‘obvious mistakes’ which he corrected ‘without further comment.’ Once again Ferguson expressed pride in having the work inscribed to him.
In 1948, the score of Gerald Finzi’s For St Cecilia was published by Boosey and Hawkes of London, priced 4/6d [about £7.50 at 2016 prices] The unsigned review in Music & Letters (April 1949) was suitably impressed:
‘Here are all the ingredients of English festal song. We have a majestically pompous introduction, broad choral declamatory passages over a stately tread, picturesque allusions to St. George, St Dunstan with his tongs, St Swithin and St Cecilia herself, who is hymned with that noble kind of diatonic tune that springs from Parry.’
The reviewends by admitting that the score is ‘perhaps a trifle dull, but Cecilia is no experimenter; she is to quote her poet Blunden:
‘Sure of her dream that bears the world along
Blest in the life of universal song,’
and introspection, which we have grown to love in Finzi, was clearly not required.’
Musical Opinion (March 1949) suggested that ‘the choral writing is strong and solid, harmonically rather than contrapuntally conceived, but the music achieves a fine and vigorous flow which is undefinably but undeniably English in feeling.’ The reviewer stated that Finzi’s ‘style has not always been of the kind to gain immediate appreciation, but the present work has the massive architecture, broad melody and grand climaxes which distinguish so many of the best and popular English choral works.’
Interestingly, a critique of the score ofFor St Cecilia appeared in the sometimes wayward journal Music Survey (No.6 1949). ‘H.N.’ clearly stated that ‘Finzi like Gibbs (he had just reviewed the score of Cecil Armstrong Gibbs’ Four Unaccompanied Settings of Elizabethan poets) is essentially a composer for the voice and this fine setting of words by Edmund Blunden is further testimony to his restrained yet powerful art.’ Clearly he had forgotten Gibbs’s two excellent orchestral symphonies (No.s 1 and 3. The second was his choral symphony Odysseus). I think the words ‘restrained yet powerful’ sum up Finzi’s For St Cecilia, better than almost any other critic did.
Unbelievably, there have only been two commercial recordings of Gerald Finzi’s For St Cecilia issued. The first was released on an ARGO LP in 1979, coupled with Dies Natalis. Richard Hickox conducts the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra. The tenor soloist is Philip Langridge. It has subsequently been repackaged on a number of CD reissues. In 2006, NAXOS issuedFor St Cecilia coupled with Intimations of Immortality. David Hill conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra with the tenor James Gilchrist.
Commenting on the Hickox recording in The Gramophone (May 1979) T.H. (Trevor Harvey) reminds the listener that Gerald Finzi was not a composer of large-scale works. He seems to have forgotten about the Cello Concerto and Intimations of Immortality, however the point is taken. Finzi’s penchant was for words and their setting. His songs are probably his major contribution to English music. In spite of this caveat, Finzi did rise to the occasion with For St Cecilia which met the criteria of a large auditorium and a major festive occasion. T.H.rightly believes that something more than the composer’s ‘usual contemplative style’ was demanded of the work and that the ‘expansion’ of his musical style to cope with the demands of the occasion was successful. Furthermore, ‘there is plenty of quiet, thoughtful writing, but there are also brilliant fanfare-like brass passages’ largely untypical of Finzi’s style. T.H. concludes his review of the LP by noting that the ‘performance does both poet and composer proud, with fine singing and playing, recorded in a spacious acoustic.’
Richard D.C. Noble (Records and Recording May 1979) states that ‘right from the start, with its opening fanfares, we realise that this is…uplifting and majestic yet at the same time having many quieter passages in which Finzi’s characteristic world of deep enchantment is clearly evident.’ He adds a ‘special word of praise’ for ‘the informed and sympathetic analysis’ provided by Diana McVeagh’s sleeve notes.
Jonathan Woolf reviewing the Naxos CD (Bournemouth SO/Hill) for MusicWeb International (6 July 2006) writes that:
‘The choral and orchestral forces certainly catch the Parry-burnished nobility and masculine Englishness of the final section, ‘Wherefore we bid’ with impressive sonority – they seem to be a touch better balanced here [than Hickox] as well. [David Hill’s version is] a stirring, chest swelling interpretation, with crisp brass and alert percussion to the fore. Gilchrist’s honesty and clarity of diction are most attractive features of this performance.’
(http://www.musicweb-international.com/classRev/2006/July06/Finzi_immortality_8557863.htm, accessed 30/08/2016)
In The Gramophone (August 2006) John Steane, also exploring the Naxos disc, writes that the ‘ode incorporates some of Finzi’s most deeply felt writing.’ He understands that it ‘integrates more fully with each hearing’ nevertheless he is unable to ‘reconcile the more characteristic musical idiom with the Waltonian percussion and the rhythmic insistence of the third section.’ Interestingly, Steane suggests that Edmund Blunden ‘imposes a co-existence of rejoicing and regret, of stark recognition and stoical resolution, though Finzi often seems more attuned to the misgivings.’
Finally, he writes that the music is a perfect match for the text, in spite of the composer ‘rather self-consciously wearing Elgarian garb in the opening, [but] appearing as his unmistakable self in the lovely fourth section, ‘How smilingly the saint among her friends sits.’’
• London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/Richard Hickox, For St Cecilia, Dies Natalis (ARGO ZRG-896) 1979, LP; (DECCA The British Music Collection 425 660-2) 1991, CD; (DECCA The British Music Collection 468 807-2), 2004 CD.
• Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Orchestra/David Hill, James Gilchrist, tenor, Finzi, Gerald, Intimations of Immortality, For St Cecilia, (NAXOS 8.557863) 2006, CD
• Banfield, Stephen,Gerald Finzi: An English Composer (London, Faber & Faber Limited, 1997)
• Dressler, John C.,Gerald Finzi: A Bio-bibliography (Westport, Greenwood Press, 1997)
• Ed. Ferguson, Howard and Hurd, Michael, The Letters of Gerald Finzi and Howard Ferguson (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2001)
• French, John Henry, The Choral Odes of Gerald Finzi (University of Cincinnati, 1995)
• McVeagh, Diana,Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music (Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2005)
• Weeden, Robert Alexander, Why do I go on doing these things?: The Continuity and Context of Gerald Finzi’s Extended Choral Works(Durham University, 2012)
• The files of The Times, The Guardian, The Gramophone, Music Survey, Musical Opinion, Music and Letters, MusicWeb International, Records and Recording, Penguin Music Magazine etc.
John France August 2016
The commission from the Finzi Trust to write a Gloria[i] and Nunc dimittis[ii] to accompany Finzi’s beautiful Magnificat[iii]for The Three Choirs Festival 2016 began with a telephone call from Robert Gower. I was hugely excited, honoured, and in all honesty, rather scared by the responsibility of the commission. There followed a number of discussions with Robert and Paul Spicer, and, most extensively, with Adrian Partington; Adrian had lamented to Robert the fact that the Magnificat was not ideally suited to liturgical use, and eagerly endorsed Robert’s suggestion of me as the composer for this.
My original concern (and one Adrian shared) was that my role was absolutely NOT to be to ‘complete’ or ‘correct’ Finzi’s work. The beautiful ‘Amen’, according to Diana McVeagh written in a taxi on the way to catch the final possible postto reach rehearsals for which the work was already well overdue, forms a most fitting conclusion, and whether one speculates on Finzi’s intention to write a Gloria or not, the fact is he didn’t, and, furthermore, he subsequently orchestrated the work as it stood. The ‘Amen’ may indeed simply follow an extended silence, but it nonetheless shows Finzi’s final thoughts. However, a Gloria is a useful thing in a liturgical context, and a Nunc dimittisessential, and the hope from everyone involved was that it might make the piece more useful for choirs and thus introduce Finzi’s work to a larger audience.
Adrian and I decided over lunch against the writing of a Gloria, but about ten minutes later decided that it might be possible. I determined that in setting the Gloria I would not touch a single note of Finzi – I would attempt to write something which could simply slot in if required, leading directly into his ‘Amen’; not a single note from this Gloria would seep into the ‘Amen’. The Nunc dimittis was a much safer issue – I would write a ‘free’ work to go with Finzi’s.
I began with a month of ‘total immersion’, listening only to music by Finzi. Fortunately, he has always been one of my deeply held loves, and I have often felt his influence on my music – in this work I could allow this to come to the fore.
I could immediately hear the opening organ motif of the Magnificatlaunching the Gloria, and as Finzi repeats many ideas throughout the piece, this seemed to be the way to proceed. One early problem was the repetition required to fit the phrase ‘and to the Holy Ghost’ into the otherwise ideal material from the opening – antiphonal use of the choirs avoided a trite repetition. I heard the beautiful filigree figure accompanies ‘for he hath regarded’ providing the perfect backing for ‘As it was in the beginning’, and after much fiddling and musical discussion with friends and musical minds ‘World without end’ fitted a classic Finzi–esque melodic outline (very similar to that of ‘To Lizbie Brown’[iv]). The ‘Amen’ then followed. The ‘Gloria’ is thus essentially entirely Finzi – the opening almost a direct transposition of the opening of the Magnificat, and the remainder using anyone buy ambien online material from this along with Finzi’s other trademark harmonic turns.
The Finzi style has many hugely effective and immediately distinctive thumbprints – I was thus able to harness a number of these in the Nunc dimittis, and so nod to the composer. I was keen not to attempt pastiche, yet it needed to sound like a fitting companion to the Magnificat. One of the big challenges is that Finzi almost never uses melisma, with rare exceptions including the final ‘Amen’ of both the Magnificatand ‘Lo, the full, final sacrifice’ – I followed those models here.
Finzi is also noted for his harmonic surprises – these are by default impossible to imitate! I hoped, however, that there would be enough interesting turns to avoid any feeling of predictability, whilst also using a number of his familiar turns. The organ part would also be highly colourful to match the writing in the Magnificat, and the use of the semi–chorus would be a feature as well.
In the interests of balance, the Nunc dimittisis similarly extended to the Magnificat, with plentiful repetition of words (the canonic answering phrases of ‘for mine eyes’ over a classic walking bass for example), and the return towards the end of the opening words. This was suggested to me by Stanford’s setting in A, which I had performed during a key period in the writing.
The opening is redolent of ‘Lo, the full final sacrifice’, introducing motifs which will feature throughout the movement. The first lines of the text are repeated in outlines which I hope recall something of Finzi’s song–writing. The section ‘to be a light’ took a great deal of rewriting to achieve what I felt to be the right form, as did the opening of the Gloria; I decided that this would be different to that of the Magnificatand that the work as a whole would end in gentle peace. After a setting of ‘World without end’ which is similar to that of the previous canticle but with more plentiful and tighter imitation, I had the most enjoyable and challenging time writing the final ‘Amen’ – Finzi’s own examples are amongst the finest in the repertoire and I tried to infuse this with the same rapturous melismatic ecstasy.
I included in the dedication of the work the line ‘For Adrian Partington, with grateful thanks to Robert Gower and Paul Spicer, and with the utmost love, affection, and respect for Gerald Finzi and his music’, and my hope is that it may prove useful in promoting the work of this glorious, distinctive, and most craftsman–like of composers.
[i] The doxology usually sung at the end of both the traditional Evensong Canticles of the Church of England, beginning ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son…’
[ii] The second of the two Canticles
[iii]The first of the two Canticles. Finzi had composed his setting of this text in isolation in 1952, as a non-liturgical composition, without a setting of the Gloria. It was composed for a candlelit Christmas Vespers service, for the choir of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
[iv] From Earth and Air and Rain
The Record Guide used to be the record collector’s bible in the 1950s as the judgements of its editors, Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, came from the minds of two exceptionally intelligent musical writers. Originally published in 1951, the aim of the book was to help the music-loving record-buyer select from the frequent duplication of repertoire. A revised edition, running to 957 pages came out in 1955 and had its cut-off point as “towards the end of 1954”. But this turned out to be the last edition as the flood of new long-playing records overwhelmed the authors.
Its views on Gerald Finzi (in seven lines) were shrewd but there was only one record selected for discussion – Joan Cross’s recording of Dies Natalis and her singing was judged to have been “in beautiful style” but the recording “not altogether comfortable”. By contrast the mainstream Vaughan Williams had thirty-nine records reviewed, Elgar twenty-seven, Walton ten and Holst eight. Finzi continued to be under represented in both the concert hall and on record for the next decade or so but Wilfred Brown’s recording of Dies Natalis with Christopher Finzi and the English Chamber Orchestra in 1963 changed the landscape. Here was Finzi’s perfect marriage of words and music faithfully realised on LP and Wilfred Brown’s incomparable diction, the purity of his voice, his sensitivity to the text – together with the fabulous playing and recording of the ECO make this one of the most treasured of Finzi records. Also included on the CD was Holst’s Choral Fantasia and Psalm 86 conducted by Imogen Holst, so making this CD unique with son and daughter conducting their famous fathers’ works.
Surprisingly the Proms have never featured Dies Natalis, but in 1954 White Flowering Days and Let us Garlands Bring were included in the programme and since then the Clarinet Concerto (3 times), the Cello Concerto, Fall of the Leaf, and Let us Garlands Bring (twice each) and Farewell to Arms, Five Bagatelles, Grand Fantasia, Intimations of Immortality, White Flowering Days and Romance (once each) have all been played.
In 1968 Lyrita was founded and under the dedicated leadership of Richard Itter became one of the UK’s longest established and highest regarded independent classical labels. One of the earliest releases was a historic LP that included Let us Garlands Bring, in which John Carol Case, who had sung under Finzi, was partnered by Howard Ferguson and no one knew GF’s mind better than him. What’s more both Joy Finzi and Diana McVeagh were present at the recording session. This was followed in the next decade by four more LPs that ensured that Finzi’s major works were readily available to a wider public, and with sympathetic artists such as Philip Langridge, Ian Partridge Vernon Handley, Adrian Boult and Richard Hickox most major works were recorded. Particularly valued were Yo Yo Ma’s Cello Concerto, John Carol Case’s song cycles and John Denman’s Clarinet Concerto (transferred to CD in 2007). These are now all available as CDs on the Nimbus label and the company is also selling old stock of the Lyrita LPs, which are in pristine condition.
The Finzi Trust
The Finzi Trust was formed in 1969 and its far-reaching impact in furthering the music, ideals and work of Gerald Finzi has had a real impact in its relatively short life. It has assisted individuals and organisations in a variety of ways and many projects have encouraged young artists and composers. But Finzi has not been the only composer to feature in its recording projects, as Michael Berkeley, Benjamin Britten, Howard Ferguson, Ivor Gurney, Herbert Howells, Kenneth Leighton, Malcolm Lipkin, Herbert Sumsion, Elizabeth Poston, William Walton and Percy Whitlock have also been featured. The Trust’s re-publication of out-of-print scores has been a particularly valuable role.
The Hyperion label, founded by Ted Perry and now run by his son Simon, was supported by the Trust and its superb double CD made in 1989 by Stephen Varcoe, Martin Hill and Clifford Benson of the song cycles was probably the most influential and set the standard for this repertoire. The company issued many other CDs featuring artists such as Matthew Best, Lynne Dawson, James Gilchrist, Thea King, Philip Langridge, Christopher Maltman, Malcolm Martineau, John Mark Ainsley, Mark Padmore, Ian Partridge, Stephen Roberts, Anna Tilbrook, Roger Vignoles and Raphael Wallfisch which have all added to the richness of Finzi repertoire available.
Chandos Records, which was founded by Brian Couzens ten years before Hyperion, has also recorded most of the major works but issues of the Violin Concerto (Tasmin Little), Cello Concerto (Raphael Wallfisch), Requiem da Camera (City of London Sinfonia and Richard Hickox), Farewell to Arms (Martyn Hill, City of London Sinfonia and Richard Hickox), Choral Works (Finzi Singers and Paul Spicer) and the Clarinet Concerto (Michael Collins) have been particularly valued.
A unique CD was issued last year by MDG (supported by the Trust) entitled Diabelleries & Five Bagatelles in which the Cologne Chamber Soloists play Finzi’s chamber music. It includes the world premiere recording of Diabelleries, a stunning mid-twentieth century composite initiated by Vaughan Williams which features eight British composers – Lutyens, Maconchy, Bush, Rawsthorne, Grace Williams, Ferguson, Jacob and Finzi. Each was asked to write a variation on “Oh!, where’s my little basket gone?”, the theme being attributed to Alfred Scott-Gatty. Also included on the disc are Elegy, Romance for String Quartet, Introit for violin and piano, Prelude for string orchestra and Interlude for oboe and string quartet, which Tom Owen plays delightfully. Arrangements for Romance and Bagatelles were made by Christian Alexander and Introit by Howard Ferguson.
To commemorate the 60th Anniversary of Gerald Finzi’s passing, Decca Classics and the Finzi Trust have collaborated on a special album, Introit, the aim of which is to find a wider audience for Finzi’s lyrical music. Popular vocal works are re-imagined and performed by Amy Dickson on the saxophone, Thomas Gould on violin, Tom Poster on piano and Nicolas Fleury on horn. The Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon play the arrangements which have been specially commissioned by the Trust from craftsmen such as Paul Mealor. This record has received a mixed reception in the musical reliable place to buy ambien online press, though many have felt that it is an admirable initiative which will increase the awareness of Gerald Finzi and his music.
The Clarinet Concerto
The Clarinet Concerto is a puzzling example of Finzi’s compositions being slow to become well known, as it is one of his most approachable works although its premiere was given by the eminent clarinettist Frederick Thurston in 1949. The first recording was not made until twenty-eight years later when John Denman was the soloist and he was followed by a succesion of clarintettists – the most notable being Thea King (1979), Alan Hacker (1979), Richard Stolzman (1990), Emma Johnson (1991), Robert Plane (1995), Andrew Marriner (1996), Margaret Donaghue (1997), James Campbell (1999), David Campbell (2008), Sarah Williamson (2009) and Michael Collins (2012). Michael Collins had played it in the woodwind final of the first BBC Young Musicians Competition in 1978 and in those days the coverage of this competition was wider so reached a large television audience.
Naxos – a Wider Audience
Robert Plane’s version on Naxos in 1995 – retailing at £5.00 – was very influential as it sold 10,000 copies in its first year and so encouraged the company to record other major Finzi works. The Cello Concerto (Tim Hugh) and a CD of Choral Works (Christopher Robinson and St John’s College Cambridge) followed in 2001, I said to Love, Let us Garlands Bring and Before and After Summer (Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside) in 2004, Intimations of Immortality (James Gilchrist, David Hill and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra) in 2005, Earth and Air and Rain, To a Poet and By Footpath and Stile (Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside) in 2005, A Young Man’s Exhortation, Till Earth Outwears and Oh Fair to See (John Mark Ainsley and Iain Burnside) in 2006 and Dies Natalis (James Gilchrist, David Hill and BSO) in 2007. Finally to mark the sixtieth anniversary of GF’s death a handsome box set of all eight CDs has been produced to retail at £30. One of the strengths of Naxos Records is that it created its own distribution network and this has been so successful worldwide that other independent labels began to use these services also. Many of these CDs were played on Classic FM and both the Bagatelles and Eclogue have featured on its annual “Hall of Fame”.
A View from the Sales Stall
Looking at the programmes of the Finzi Trust’s Weekends in Ellesmere, Oxford and Radley one is amazed at the ambition and breadth of the programming and the same could be said for the Friends’ Ludlow Weekends of Song, an event inaugurated in 2001 to celebrate the centenary of Finzi’s birth. I had taken over the Sales Stall from Keith Parker in 1995 but apart from selling Stephen Banfield’s excellent biography (published in 1997) it was a low key affair. However with so many performances arranged in the centenary year the stock of CDs was built up and I travelled the country to fly our flag at most places where Finzi was being played. It was a tíme when people were building up their CD collection and sales were invariably good – especially when a specific work was being played by an artist who had recorded the work.
So concerts that included Raphael Wallfisch playing the Cello Concerto generated £800 in Harrogate, £1,500 in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, £381 in Newbury and £1,790 at the Three Choirs in Gloucester. Other places visited – Warwick, Reading, Lichfield, Kendal, Buxton, Wigmore Hall, the Barbican, Luton (twice), Ripon and a Making Music Workshop in Bromsgrove – generated over £5,000. There were so many at the Ludlow Weekend who had never seen the records and books on the Sales Stall before that they spent very freely and £3,943 was taken. Most of the venues were generous in letting us set up our stall in the foyer and only a few asked for 10% of the takings.=
Diana McVeagh, after establishing her credentials with a seminal biography of Elgar in 1955, has been a benign and invaluable influence during these sixty years and her friendship with Joy Finzi gave her 2005 biography, which members bought in large numbers, a special authority. In succeeding years taking the stall to the Three Choirs Finzi Friends’ lunch continued to be productive. In 2006 Howard Wong’s enterprising Finzi Festivals in Nottingham and Canterbury boosted takings further. Howard Wong himself had made a CD (A Song Outlasts a Dynasty) of all the baritone song cycles and this was a steady seller. Ashmansworth, Paul Spicer’s Choral Experience in Dore Abbey, a John Rutter Workshop, Celebrating English Song, Finzi Friends’ events at Oxford, Tardebigge, Northampton, Chester and Gloucester all kept the bandwagon rolling. The four triennial Ludlow Weekends continued to be very profitable and to date the total taken since 2001 is a staggering £65,540. We reckon to make a mark up of about 20% (dealers mostly give us 33%) so are able to sell goods at well below the average retail price.
In recent years the decline of interest in the CD and classical music in general, fewer special events and a less active membership have all contributed to a decline in sales but in spite of the rise of “downloading” the CD refuses to die and gloomy predictions have been confounded.
Over the years the best seller has undoubtedly been Wilfred Brown’s Dies Natalis on the EMI label and although it was deleted in 2007 it can still be bought at inflated prices on the internet. Hyperion’s best sellers have been War Embers, Earth and Air and Rain, and Songs by Finzi and Friends. Chandos most popular discs have been Raphael Wallfisch playing the Cello Concerto and Choral Works sung by the Finzi Singers under Paul Spicer. As the Naxos series were issued these took over as Finzi best sellers because of the very favourable price and excellent quality of artists and recording.
When Joy Finzi founded the Finzi Trust in 1969 (to be joined later by her young friends Robert Gower, Andrew Burn and Paul Spicer) little can they have anticipated that Gerald’s music would have been so widely played as it is today.
During his lifetime, Gerald Finzi was blessed with having his music performed by some of the finest English singers, instrumentalists, choirs and orchestras; partly, no doubt, because his music is really approachable and satisfying to play and sing, and partly because he was such a lovely man. Indeed, happily that state of affairs still exists .
The first public performance of his music was in November 1923, when the baritone and opera director Sumner Austin sang By Footpath and Stile with the Charles Woodhouse String Quartet at a British Music Society concert in London. The Times commented ‘with a good deal more grip [it] would stand as a not unworthy parallel to Wenlock Edge’, and The Daily Mail that it needed to be sung ‘with more variety and lightness’ – which was not really in the least surprising, as at that time no-one knew about the Finzi style and how to sing it.
Five years later, Finzi finished his Two Sonnets (by Milton) for tenor or soprano and orchestra, and they were originally sung (together with the early ‘Aria’ fromFarewell to Arms and ‘When I set out for Lyonesse’ from Earth and Air and Rain) by Steuart Wilson, with Iris Lemare conducting a scratch orchestra, at The Mercury Theatre in London on 6 February 1936. It has to be said that Wilson was not a popular figure in the musical world, or, indeed, by all accounts a particularly nice man. (Those interested will find some intriguing details in the long Wikipedia article about him)The Times, reviewing the concert, made no mention of Wilson’s singing, but commented that ‘Mr Finzi showed again, as he has shown before, that he possesses a genuinely lyrical gift’. Finzi was definitely beginning to be noticed as a composer.
When he was in his twenties, Finzi (GF) set some verses of the metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne, and, added to in 1939, they became his undoubted masterpiece, Dies Natalis. It is a celebration of the wonders of childhood and innocence – as Diana McVeagh has said “No-one but Finzi could have composed this radiant and tender masterpiece.” It is a heart-warming synthesis of music and poetry, one of the best examples of GF’s characteristic ‘fusing [of] the vocal line with the inflections of speech … and, as with all his songs, the accompaniment … is a commentary on the words and in no way a subservient part’. Maurice Miles conducted its first performance at the Wigmore Hall in January 1940, with Elsie Suddaby and an ad hoc string ‘orchestra’ (consisting of two violins, and one each of viola, cello and bass!) . The Times called it ‘A glowing and strong work’ and commented on its ‘vein of spontaneous melody and a sense of verbal accentuation’. The ‘real’ premiere of the work, however, was at the 1947 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, with the LSO conducted by Finzi and ‘rapturously sung’ by Suddaby; after it, in a letter to GF, Vaughan Williams (RVW) said that she had sung it “divinely”.
GF had first met Suddaby in 1920, when she was practising Gurney’s Sleep with Edward Bairstow: he was greatly taken by both the singer and the song, and that was in fact the beginning of GF’s love and respect for Gurney. Suddaby was born in 1893, a ‘Yorkshire lass’, and in a career of over 40 years she became one of the finest English lyric sopranos, with a repertoire that ran from Bach to Vaughan Williams; she was greatly respected by the finest English conductors, and between 1924 and 1951 she made recordings with Beecham, Barbirolli, Albert Coates, Lawrence Collingwood and Malcolm Sargent. Her first real success had been at the 1922 Three Choirs, when, so Musical Times reported, she “sang on five different occasions, and in all kinds of music, giving striking proof of her versatility and musical intelligence”. She was one of the four sopranos in the celebrated first performance of RVW’sSerenade to Music, one of the others beingIsobel Baillie, with whom she was often compared.
Although written for soprano or tenor, Dies is more often sung by a tenor – and few composers have been as lucky to have such a number of superb singers who took it into their repertoire.The palm undoubtedly goes to Wilfred Brown, who first sang it with GF and the Newbury String Players (at their 115th concert) in High Wycombe in 1952 and, having recorded it with Christopher Finzi in 1964, it was in fact the last thing he sang before his death in 1971. In their review of the recording, The Gramophone said ‘Wilfred Brown gives the most sympathetic account imaginable’, and The Times ‘the performance brings a reminder of the exemplary diction of Wilfred Brown’.
Brown was a lovely man. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital and Cambridge, and as a conscientious objector during World War 2 he joined the Friends [Quakers’] War Relief Service, becoming an upholsterer and furniture repairer working in evacuation hostels and shelters during the blitz, and after the War in France and Germany. Of great humility and humanity, with no pretentions, he was a perfectionist in every aspect of his life; often appearing very serious and reflective, with no time for small talk, a marvellous father to his six children – and he was an exceptionally knowledgeable ornithologist. A long-time member of the mainly early music Deller Consort (acting as their unpaid travel agent), he also gave talks for the BBC’s Religious Affairs programmes. As might be expected, he was a superb recitalist – he gave the first performance of Till Earth Outwears, with Finzi’s lifelong friend, Howard Ferguson, two years after Finzi’s death – and an Evangelist as fine as any. It was at the 1956 Gloucester Festival, with GF in the audience, only three weeks before his death, that Brown sang the tenor solo in Herbert Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi. At that same festival,Bruce Boyce – a lovely singer not normally associated with GF – was the baritone in Interra pax.
One of Wilfred Brown’s own greatest friends was the baritone John Carol Case, by happy chance equally celebrated for his performances as Christus in the St. Matthew Passion, and in fact a greater exponent of 20th century English oratorio and song than Brown.He had a very special sense of humour: when Sir Adrian Boult recorded Elgar’sThe Apostles in the 1970s, he insisted on Case for the role of Jesus. In one session things had ‘ground to a halt’ during a rehearsal. ‘I’m afraid we weren’t together, Mr Case,’ Boult said, to which Case replied, ‘But Sir Adrian, I was trying to follow your beat.’ His riposte was, ‘Mr Case, you have been working with me for long enough to know that I follow you, you don’t follow me!’
John Carol Case was a distinguished and popular singing teacher – and, by a curious coincidence, the week after I began writing this piece, I met a (now retired) professional soprano who had been one of his pupils; she said that she could not possibly have had a more encouraging or inspiring teacher, and she held him in the highest regard, both as that and as a person .He held many masterclasses and adjudications, and his main concerns were ‘with the singers’ diction and with their understanding (or, distressingly often, their lack of it) of the text. ‘Words! Words! Words!’ and ‘Far too much in love with the sound of his/her own voice!’ were [not infrequent] comments on the mark sheets.’ As for the prize-winners, another yardstick was: ‘Would you pay money to hear this person sing again?’ He gave the premières of I Said to Love in 1957, andTo a Poetin 1959(and recorded those and all the other cycles, again with Howard Ferguson). After the former, The Times wrote:
A concert of works by Gerald Finzi was given at the Victoria and Albert Museum not as a memorial, perhaps not even as a statement of faith, yet serving both purposes and giving an opportunity eagerly seized on by a large audience, to come to grips with his mind and art in a more comprehensive way than is possible from scattered contacts with him. […..] Finzi left many songs still unpublished which he would have, according to his custom, gathered together in anthologies, not cycles like his Dies Natalis, which was also sung (by Mr Eric Greene), but collected in an order that would be effective in their presentation. Mr John Carol Case, whose skill in singing English poetry is equal to Finzi’s in setting it, gave, with Mr Howard Ferguson at the piano, the first performance of his new set, in which were two songs composed not long before he died that showed an extension beyond his purely lyrical style, notably a new dramatic note in ‘I Said to Love’.
The predilection of Bach singers for Finzi’s music (or visa versa) was continued with yet another celebrated Christus (and writer on English song), the baritone, Stephen Varcoe; he sang in the 1990 première of the orchestral version of Requiem da camera with the lamented Richard Hickox, and in 1984 made a wonderful recording, with Martyn Hill and Clifford Benson, of five of the cycles. As a review of his recording of Stanford songs said ‘his warm natural baritone, finely judged legato and sensitivity to words are a joy’. Hickox, too, was a most sympathetic conductor of Finzi’s music, and in 1999, with Tasmin Little, he gave the first performance of the Violin Concerto since that of the revised version in 1928.
Sir DanGodfrey founded the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra (as it was originally called) in 1893 – and during his 41 years with them he became a tireless champion of English music, both established and new, gradually overcoming Bournemouth’s ‘provincial narrowness, parochial snobbery, prejudices and the apathy born of that heavy, pine-laden air, to say nothing of spiralling costs.’ He was one of a line of musicians: his father Lieutenant Dan(iel) Godfrey LVO, FRAM, was the bandmaster of the Grenadier Guards for forty years from 1856 (and achieved notoriety in 1899 by being arrested in Boston, Mass. for ‘permitting his band to play secular music on a Sunday’), while his son became the first full-time conductor of the BBC Wireless Orchestra in 1924. He gave the premières of GF’s first two orchestral works: A Severn Rhapsody (which had won a Carnegie Award) in 1924 and New Year Music:Nocturne eight years later. A Severn Rhapsody was well received, and after the concertVaughan Williams told GF that the big tune was ‘just the sort of melody I have wanted to do all my life …’
One tends to forget that the Violin Concerto was a very early work, dating from 1925. Just the second and third movements were played in Queen’s Hall on 4 May 1927 by Sybil Eaton and the British Women’s Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Malcolm Sargent(who, in one of his wasp-like moments called it amateurish), and she then played the complete work in Queen’s Hall the following February, with VW conducting the LSO –not often has there been a first performance conducted by the composer’s mentor! GF was in fact infatuated with Eaton, although she seems not to have noticed it! Eaton told a lovely story of how, when GF and Joy Black became engaged in 1933, she asked him about her, and he replied ‘Well, I’ll tell you who she’s notlike, and that’s Harriet Cohen.’
Although most the songs in the earliest of Finzi’s sets, Earth and Air and Rain were written between 1928 and 1932, it was not until March 1943 that it was heard complete, when Robert Irwin and Howard Ferguson gave it at as part of one of Myra Hess’s celebrated and vast series of wartime concerts at the National Gallery. GF had a great admiration for Irwin – an Irishman, primarily a lieder singer, who began his career at music festivals in Dublin, and received help from the celebrated John McCormack. He frequently sang for the BBC – and after he included the cycle in a broadcast, also from the National Gallery, four years later, GF wrote to him saying that it was ‘as lovely a performance as I have ever heard’. At another National Gallery concert, in October 1942, Irwin and Ferguson also gave the first performance of the complete Let Us Garlands Bring – GF’s most memorable and immediately attractive cycle, composed ‘for Raph Vaughan Williams on his [70th] birthday’, and The Times reported that both the songs and Irwin’s singing were ‘greatly enjoyed and the composer was warmly received by the large audience’ . Then, six days later, he sang the orchestrated version with Clarence Raybould and the BBC Orchestra (as it was in those days):
Mr. Irwin’s merits as a singer, his agreeably reedy voice, and excellent articulation were shown to better effect in Finzi’s recent Shakespeare cycle, ” LetUs Garlands Bring,” since here his tendency to dryness of tone was checked by the lyrical sweep of the songs. Finzi, unembarrassed by previous settings, has produced something that even now gives new force and point to familiar words—he is a natural song¬writer who hardly ever seems to miss his mark and certainly not in this cycle.
After a Wigmore Hall recital in 1947, The Times critic wrote that Irwin:
is most skilful in the management of his voice and has the art of floating his words upon the music, so that he can shape a long phrase – the beautiful melody, for instance, of Finzi’s setting of the dirge in Cymbeline – with perfect control and clarity of diction.
Irwin was also a natural Baroque singer, and invariably received notices such as ‘Mr Robert Irwin know[s] the right way to sing Bach’; ‘[his] grave vocal bearing and rich baritone lent dignity and conviction to Jesus’s music.’; and that he was a ‘master of Purcell’s declamatory style’.
At the 1947 Gloucester Three Choirs, GF meta young man, John Russell, and they became great friends. I was lucky enough to be taught by Russell at Leighton Park School in Reading in the very early 1950s, and he was a magic man. My previous teacher was a highly respected academic, and I learnt almost all there was to be learned, for Higher School Certificate and A-level purposes, about the ‘mechanics’ of music and the way it was composed, but I knew very little repertoire; his successor, John Russell, changed all that, for my lessons were spent in a cloud of cigarette smoke and a whirlwind of ‘D’ye know this?’ immediately followed by bits of Bach, Brahms, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, Dvorak and almost every other romantic composer except Wagner, Mahler and Bruckner. Russell was an excellent all-round musician: the conductor of the Reading Choral Society from 1948 until 1973; in 1953, with GF conducting, he gave the first performance of the Grand Fantasia and Toccata in Newbury, and in 1957 he conducted the first performance of theEclogue, with (perhaps surprisingly) Kathleen Long as the soloist, at a chamber concert in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The soloist in the première of GF’s largest work, Intimations of Immortality, first heard at the 1950 Gloucester Festival, was Eric Greene, with the LSO and the Festival Chorus conducted by Herbert Sumsion, the cathedral organist who was one of GF’s greatest friends.Greene started his singing career in 1927, and became one of England’s foremost oratorio tenors. Gerontius was one of his celebrated roles, and he became the Evangelist in the St. Matthew Passion of the period. Twenty-something years later his ringing, but by then forced, tenor sounded unfashionable –- although, as with everything he sang, his delivery of Wordsworth’s words was exemplary and his understanding of the part was complete. The Times thought that he ‘gave the extensive solo music all its eloquence.’
The first performance of any of GF’s music considered perhaps the least effective was that of the Cello Concertoat the 1955 Cheltenham Festival, by Christopher Bunting, with John Barbirolli conducting the Hallé Orchestra. Bunting was an excellent cellist, but perhaps happier teaching than on the platform, and, although GF was very pleased with his performance, that is borne out by The Times’ review of the concert :
Its spaciousness and energy would have been more apparent if it had been more positively handled by the soloist. Mr Christopher Bunting is an accomplished player so far as clean execution and pure tone is concerned, but he seemed unaware that he was playing the solo in a big concerto, and that it was for him to present the work with some sense of leadership. But his reticence could not conceal the fact that this is a rich score, stamped with Finzi’s individuality in all three movements ….
As most of the foregoing account shows, GF realised very early on that, for him at least, the ideal voices for songs are tenor or baritone, for their ranges best allow the singer to project the words without sacrificing tone. As a very general rule, sopranos can find it difficult to enunciate vowels properly above the stave, and their flexibility (as in Baroque music or bel canto opera) is not appropriate for poetry.Altos find words on high notes easier, but they(the words, not the singers) tend to get lost around the A below middle C –whilst basses are inclined to sing gruffly and their high notes above D can sound very strained.None of GF’s songs were written specifically for the female voice; only Two Sonnets, Oh Fair to See,Till Earth Outwears and Dies Natalis were for ‘tenor or soprano’ (in that order) or ‘high voice’; and ‘alto’ does not appear in the catalogue of his works at all; furthermore, Dies Natalis is the only vocal work to have been premièred by a soprano.
It is almost as if English poetry was written for the marvellous tenors and baritones who have sung GF’s vocal music: Eric Greene, Wilfred Brown, John Carol Case, Stephen Varcoe and Robert Irwin . Was any other composer ever blessed with such affection and musicality?
There was a time, it seemed, when BBC Radio 3 broadcast nothing else but songs by Gerald Finzi. At least that’s how I remember it. When my father would turn on the radio at our family home in Barnet and shout “Composer?” round the house (a traditional family game), the rest of us were in the habit of shouting back “Finzi” and, more often than not, we were right.
I remember encountering a Finzi song at close quarters for the first time on a summer choral course when another singer brought along ‘It was a lover and his lass’ from Let Us Garlands Bring to a master-class. The jaunty, easy syncopations of the opening and the perilous metre changes as the birds sing ‘hey ding-a-ding’ were immediately seductive to this teenager and I decided to buy a copy and learn the songs myself. So it was that I gave one of my first solo performances with broken voice on a school visit to a care home for the elderly; I took to the floor and merrily declared to the on-looking, wheelchair bound inmates that I would be singing them ‘Come away, come away, death’.
These memories I recall by way of explaining that Finzi songs have been a part of my solo performance since my interest in singing began. Longer than that, in fact. Had someone predicted to me that I would make a career out of singing such music myself, or that my recordings would plague the Radio 3 schedules to the same degree, I would have been amazed. That had never been my ambition in those days. But I knew the essential sound of Finzi’s music, I was aware of the way he matched vocal line to words, and piano accompaniment to vocal line.
I suspect my introduction to Finzi’s baritone songs through Garlands is fairly common amongst singers and audiences and I would hope this starting point would lead them, as it led me, to explore other settings, arriving of course at the Hardy cycles. I struggle now to remember exactly how I came across Before and After Summer although I’m fairly confident that I performed it with Susie Allan as part of our National Federation of Music Societies award, a scheme that allowed us to perform recitals all cross the UK. Perhaps Susie recommended them to me. In any case, it was this cycle I encountered first and I have therefore a special soft spot for it, over and above Earth, Air and Rain which was always Susie’s favourite.
I think what impressed me most about Before and After Summer was the seriousness of its intent. Much of the art song I had met up until that point had churned over that familiar trope ‘Boy loves girl, girl loves boy, girl spurns boy, (repeat and fade)’, a rich seam in all its variations. But here in Hardy was poetry that appeared a whole lot more grown-up; ‘Old man looks back on his life and is filled with remorse for opportunities passed by’. How I used to relish singing the closing verse of the last song,‘He abjures love’ which begins “I speak as one who plumbs/Life’s dim profound”.
Granted, Hardy’s poetic style, his fondness for archaic words and pedantic structures can feel a little obtuse at times but, at the same time, I find Finzi’s settings of them extraordinarily direct and powerfully emotional. Both of the two cycles mentioned so far are ten songs long and take about half an hour to perform. Both are tightly constructed in terms of a vocal recital, carefully taking into account key structure between songs and pacing of tempo in a way that recalls the classic model of Schumann’s Dichterliebe. Both cycles leave the performers and audience emotionally exhausted by the end.
For me this is because Finzi’s setting of Hardy’s text illuminates the poetry and I find I can grasp the meaning of the words more clearly through the music than I do when I see them printed on the page as poetry. Incidentally, I would like to say how grateful I am that the standard Boosey& Hawkes editions of these cycles have the poetry printed out ahead of the music. It is fascinating to see the shapes of the verses as Hardy intended and to see how cleverly Finzi has absorbed the most complicated of verse structures. I’m not sure I, as a composer, would ever have the courage to attempt such strait-jacketed poems as ‘Lizbie Browne’ or ‘Amabel’ and yet Finzi manages a naturalflow in his settings that both nods to the structure and avoids its complications.
This is what makes singing in English so rewarding. I enjoy the immediate impact that singing my own language has on English speaking audiences and this is served best by those composers who knew most instinctively how to ally music and words. There is a clarity in these songs, both in the vocal and the piano part, that sets it apart from other song composers. I relish this as a singer and I admire and learn from it as a composer.
I grew up with the Hyperion recordings of the Hardy cycles by Martyn Hill, Stephen Varcoe and Clifford Benson and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s how this music goes. But I’m also grateful to have been a part of the Naxos recording project that allowed Iain Burnside and myself to record the baritone repertoire, introducing me along the way to I said to Love, To a Poet and By Footpath and Stile, all of which I was then able to programme in recital and all of which were tremendously rewarding to explore and perform. I have even been able to steal a handful of songs from the tenor volumes in transposition to fit specific programmes. My exploration of Finzi’s songs is by no means over. But my goodness, how I enjoy my Garlands and my beloved Hardy cycles!