Gerald Finzi

Gerald Finzi


• 1901 1956

Editor's Choice

English composer Gerald Finzi was shaped musically and personally by the wars that scarred his teenage years and early middle age. The loss of his three brothers and much-loved teacher - the composer Ernest Farrar - during World War I informed his sombre outlook. As a result, his musical output tends towards the melancholic, and encapsulates the essence of lost innocence. His early period is characterised by settings of the work of various English poets, as well as Christian choral works. During World War II, Finzi and his wife took in German and Czech refugees and he composed sporadically while working for the Ministry of War Transport. His clarinet concerto (1949) and cello concerto (1955) date from the last years of his life, before his death at 55 from blood cancer. Yo-Yo Ma was a 21-year-old rising star when he recorded what has been described as Finzi's swansong, with the late clarinettist John Denman the established luminary of this album. Recorded in London in the mid-1970s, this remastered version was released in 2007. These concertos provide a wonderful introduction to Finzi's expansive and elegiac orchestral sound world.


A pacifist who believed that creative artists were the prime representatives of a civilization, Gerald Finzi is perhaps best known as a composer of songs. He believed that all texts of artistic merit can be set by composers who wish to work with their artistic substance; none are either too fine or too familiar. Many of his songs are set in an aria-like style. His accompaniments, designed to complement and support the material of the singer, are often reminiscent of the treatment given his short orchestral works. Finzi was influenced in his melodic and harmonic vocabulary by the music of Elgar and Vaughan Williams. His works also show a strong influence by the music of J.S. Bach.

The son of an English ship broker, Gerald Finzi began to study music with Ernest Farrar in 1914. When Farrar joined the army in 1916, Finzi began to study with Edward Bairstow at York. In 1922, drawn to the English countryside, Finzi moved to Painswick in Gloucestershire to work in isolation. Then, in 1925, on advice from Boult, Finzi began to study counterpoint with R.O. Morris in London. From 1930 to 1933, he taught composition at the Royal Academy of Music.

In 1933, Finzi married artist Joyce Black. In 1935, the couple moved to Aldbourne in Wiltshire. Then, in 1937 they built a house, designed for them to work in, on a 16-acre site on the Hampshire hills at Ashmansworth. From this base of operations, Finzi composed, assembled a music library, and tended an orchard of rare apple trees. He also traveled, taking whatever adjudication, examination, or committee work was offered him.

In the winter of 1939, Finzi founded the Newbury String Players, a group consisting mostly of amateur musicians. Since Finzi was neither a pianist nor a singer, the orchestra became the composer's primary performance vehicle. Through this ensemble, he became an advocate of many young performers and composers, as well as a champion of English works from the eighteenth century. He kept the group together from 1941 to 1945, during which he worked at the Ministry of War Transport in London.

In 1951, Finzi learned that he suffered from a form of leukemia. He was told that he had, at the most, ten more years to live. He kept this news within his family, simply continuing to work between his treatments. In 1955, he gave the Crees lectures at the Royal College of Music; providing a somewhat provocative survey of the history and aesthetics of English song during which he presented his principles of text setting.

However, the leukemia eventually weakened the composer's resistance to infection. He died of shingles in 1956, after a chance encounter with chicken pox at the 1956 Gloucester Festival. After his death, his library of music from 1740 to 1780, at the time considered the finest collection of materials from that period in all of England, was donated to St. Andrews University, in Fife. His library of English literature, from which he had drawn so much of his inspiration, is located in the Finzi Book Room at the Reading University Library.