Gerald Finzi

1901 1956

Gerald Finzi



Gerald Finzi was a British composer of the first half of the 20th century. He wrote over 100 pieces for solo voice, chorus, solo instrument, and orchestra. He set 43 poems by Thomas Hardy, collected into 5 song cycles. He wrote concertos for clarinet, violin, and cello. Finzi also arranged four songs by Ivor Gurney and C. H. Parry’s Chorale Fantasia. He also edited the works of several composers like William Boyce and John Stanley.

Gerald Finzi was born 14 July 1901 in London, his father was of Italian ancestry and his mother was German. He spent his early childhood in London. His father, a London shipbroker, died when Finzi was seven years old.  At the outbreak of World War I, Finzi’s mother moved the family of four boys and one girl to Harrogate, Yorkshire. It was in Yorkshire that he began studying composition with the young composer Ernest Farrar. Farrar was called up to serve in the war and would be killed in 1918. Farrar’s death and the death of his three brothers, through suicide, disease, and war, would have a great impact on the shy, introverted, young Finzi. He was a pacifist, profoundly influenced and affected by two world wars. He was an agnostic, from a family of Jewish origins.

In 1917 Finzi began studying with Edward Bairstow at York Minster. His attraction to the countryside led him to move to Painswick, Gloucestershire, where he found the tranquility to compose. He published his first piece, a song cycle for baritone and string quartet:By Footpath and Stile. The cycle used texts by Thomas Hardy, a writer whom Finzi admired and would return to many times when writing his songs.

Finzi returned to London in 1926, having found the countryside isolating. During this time he studied with R.O. Morris. He also became acquainted with one of his major influences,Ralph Vaughan Williams, who would later conduct Finzi’s Violin Concerto. In London, other composers such asHolst, Bliss, Rubbra, and Ferguson became his acquaintances.

A Young Man’s Exhortation Op. 14 (1926-1929) is Finzi’s only true song cycle. Written for tenor and piano, it is presented in two parts: “In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up” and “In the evening it is cut down, and withereth”. The cycle clearly shows the influence of Holst and Vaughan Williams. There are full harmonic moments like in “Her Temple and the bare “The Comet at Yell’ham”. It is a cycle that shows a young composer in sync with the poet, Thomas Hardy.

He married artist Joyce Black in 1933 with Ralph and Adeline Vaughan Williams as witnesses. Finzi left a teaching position at the Royal Academy of Music, where he had been since 1930, and moved to Aldbourne, Wiltshire. In Aldbourne, he focused on composing, but also on apple growing, saving rare English apple species from extinction. 1933 was also the year of the first performance of his song cycleA Young Man’s Exhortation. Another piece with words by Hardy, it would be Finzi’s first noted London success.

World War II abruptly interrupted Finzi’s growing career. His scheduled premiere ofDies natalis at the Three Choirs Festival was canceled in 1939. The premiere may have been a major boost to Finzi’s reputation, but the cantata for soprano and strings would instead be first performed more modestly in London’s Wigmore Hall. Premiered by soprano Elsie Suddaby on 26 January 1940,Dies natalis became better known as a tenor work after a 1963 recording conducted by Finzi’s son. It is a setting of text by Thomas Traherne, a seventeenth-century poet and preacher. Finzi used lines from Traaherne’sCenturies of Meditations and three poems, presenting the impression of a newborn child experiencing the world for the first time.

That same year, Finzi founded the Newbury String Players, a small, predominantly amateur ensemble. He conducted the group until his death, presenting premieres of his contemporaries and reviving forgotten eighteenth-century string music.

Finzi was drafted in 1941 into the Ministry of War Transport. He also opened his home to German and Czech war refugees. After the war, Finzi received a number of important commissions. These included the anthem ‘Lo, the full, final sacrifice’, theOde For Saint Cecilia, a Clarinet Concerto, and Intimations of Immortalityfor tenor, chorus, and orchestra.

Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto Op. 31 was premiered by clarinetist Frederick Thurston and theLondon Symphony Orchestra in 1949 in Hereford. It is Finzi’s most performed orchestral work. He mixes the clarinet's ability for sustained legato and rapid figuration as it interacts with the strings. The piece is a combination of baroque pastoralism, a folk inspired melody, and the influence of Edward Elgar. The Clarinet Concerto was performed by 16-year-old Michael Collins in the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition 1978, which won him the woodwind prize and catapulted Collins to fame, becoming one of the most prolific clarinettists of his time. Collins has also recorded Finzi's melodious Five Bagatelles op. 23 for clarinet and piano, together with the pianistMichael McHale.

Finzi was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease in 1951 and was given five to ten years to live. The diagnosis did not diminish his work or his championing of other composers. In 1934 he had begun cataloguing the works ofIvor Gurney, a British composer and poet who was gassed in World War I, dying years later in an asylum.  He was also working on the music of Hubert Parry and Williams Boyce. The Royal Festival Hall hosted an all-Finzi concert in 1954, which was an acknowledgement of his place in British music. For the 1955 Cheltenham Festival, Sir John Barbiolli commissioned a Cello Concerto, which  was to be Finzi’s most ambitious strictly instrumental work. Also in 1954, Finzi was invited to deliver the Crees Lectures at the Royal College of Music, London, in which he stated: “Of one thing we can be certain; what Hanslick called “the morganatic marriage of words and music” is the least destructible of all musical elements. The marriages may be happy or unhappy, but, as surely as birds must sing, so long as words exist and man is capable of feeling, there will be song.”

Following an excursion with Vaughan Williams to Chosen Hill Church, Finzi developed shingles. On 27 September 1956, the night after the radio premiere of his Cello Concerto, Gerald Finzi died in an Oxford hospital.

Requiem da Camera for choir, chamber orchestra, and baritone soloist is an early work of Finzi’s though not premiered until 1990. It was written in memory of Ernest Farrar, his first teacher. Much likeFarewell to Arms, a piece for tenor and orchestra, it is a work of peace and futility of war.

Gerald Finzi, while from a family of diverse backgrounds, was a quintessential English composer. He was a sensitive man, deeply affected by the deaths in his family and that of his teacher Farrar. He was a methodical composer, often taking many years to complete a piece. While not the best known or most performed of composers, his solid and deserved reputation ensures that he is still represented on the concert platform in England and elsewhere.

Header image: courtesy of Portrait image of Finzi: by Angus McBean, courtesy of The Finzi Trust Image of Gerald Finzi with Ralph Vaughan Williams: public domain