Six of the best…
Our Chairman suggests six starting points for exploring Finzi’s music:
1. Dies Natalis Op. 8
For Tenor and String Orchestra
Perhaps Finzi’s most celebrated work, particularly through the timeless recording made by Wilfred Brown, conducted by Finzi’s son, Christopher. Dies Natalis sets words by the 17th century clergyman and metaphysical poet, Thomas Traherne. This meditation on the entry of ‘the babe’ into the world inspired some of Finzi’s most beautiful melodic writing, particularly in the final movement The Salutation where the voice hovers over gently undulating, interweaving string lines which recall Bach’s counterpoint.
2. Earth and Air and Rain Op. 15
For Baritone and Piano
This song cycle, published in 1936, for baritone and piano, sets the poetry of Thomas Hardy with whom Finzi showed much empathy in the very many settings he made. Unlike some of Finzi’s ‘cycles’ which were actually gathered together after his death, this cycle was intended from the first to be a coherent whole, rather than just a collection of songs. Therefore it enables an authentic juxtaposition of many moods in different songs, highlighting Finzi’s skill in capturing key elements in Hardy’s poetry. Where to start? Lizbie Brown sits in the middle of the cycle and has been much anthologized and sung. Finzi captures perfectly the regret that ‘Dear Lizbie Brown’ became ‘Lost Lizbie Brown’ over the years because the singer never had courage to tell his love and make her his. The halting phrases in voice and piano communicate this perfectly and, at the end, the piano leaves us suspended in time.
3. Cello Concerto Op. 40
For Solo Cello and Orchestra
Some have cast doubt on Finzi’s capacity to compose symphonic works without text as a structural aid. Of the large-scale works for orchestra, the Cello Concerto, composed right at the end of Finzi’s life, is perhaps the most convincing. Indeed, it was the work broadcast on the Third Programme, conducted by Barbirolli, the night before Finzi died. Go to the slow movement, one of the most beautiful concerto movements in the whole twentieth century concerto repertoire, worthy to stand beside Elgar, Korngold, Walton or Barber in its lyrical writing for a solo string instrument.
4. Lo, the full, final sacrifice Op. 26
For Choir and Organ
Finzi’s choral music continues to be loved by singers, particularly through the Seven Poems of Robert Bridges and the anthem God is gone up. But the heart of Finzi’s expressive choral writing is surely here in his setting of another seventeenth century text, this time one which translates into English the words of the medieval writer St Thomas Aquinas. The focus is on the Christian Eucharist and for Finzi the essence lies in the mystery at the heart of this rite. The hushed choral opening is preceded by an atmospheric organ solo which presages many of the themes to come and their highly expressive harmonic context. The piece builds to a great climax before returning to the hushed mystery of the opening, followed by an exquisite setting of the word ‘Amen’ for eight interweaving vocal lines.
5. Five Bagatelles Op.23
For Clarinet and Piano
Finzi’s instrumental output is substantial but less well known than his writing for voice. These five clarinet pieces, published during the Second World War (when Finzi worked as a civil servant) have gained much fame, partly through their simplicity: they have become regular examination pieces, for example. The short movements distil Finzi’s melodic beauty (Carol) or rhythmic vigour (Fughetta) into their essence, according to mood and the contrast between movements is particularly satisfying.
6. Since we loved (from Oh Fair to See) Op. 13b
For Voice and Piano
This is, effectively, the last piece Finzi composed, in the summer of 1956, though biographers stress that he is unlikely to have viewed the work in this light, his final illness overtaking him quickly. It is a short and immensely simple yet moving song, setting once again the poetry of Robert Bridges and was posthumously include in the collection Oh Fair to See. For those who know Finzi’s life and the huge significance of his wife, Joy, in supporting and, after Finzi’s death, promoting his work, the word ‘joys’ in the fifth line and the dedication of the poem to the speaker’s beloved lock in a special intensity to this setting. Like so much of Finzi’s music, his approach is simple and direct, setting the text in a naturalistic way. Enjoy it while reading the lyrics below: