Gerald Finzi as a Tutor of Composition
‘Hello! Is that you’ Tony? How are YOU, and how’s the work going? - and how’s Ruth?’ This was the almost invariable greeting to me from Gerald Finzi since our first meeting in 1937, until 1939-40 and even during the war when we had to go our separate ways - and also from Joy, his wife, in the same words. This welcoming recognition of my existence - in fact, of my purpose in life to be a composer - from a man whom I so much admired, sustained me through many years of depression following the return of scores with the rejection slips. Even after Gerald’s death, Joy continued with much the same greeting to maintain my confidence and impulse to write and used her influence to secure performances of works she had asked me to write.
I am writing about my experiences under Gerald Finzi’s tutelage because, as far as I know, I was his only private pupil, although I believe he deputised at the Royal Academy of Music for a term to teach Howard Ferguson’s pupils.
He deprecated the description of what occurred as a ‘teacher-pupil relationship’ and said ‘these sessions are to be as one composer to another: I look at the music you show me and I put in a stick here, suggest a path there, just to guide you, a handrail to steady you’. He would not accept any fees for the many hours he devoted to helping me, and it was indeed help, not only in my music but also with my personal problems and those of my family.
So I must explain how this musical friendship came about. My wife and I, in our twenties, rented a small farmhouse near Newbury, between Thatcham and Bucklebury Common. This was a few years before the Second World War. I had finished studying with Herbert Howells and Henry Ley (organ) at the RCM, and we left London for the country where I intended to devote myself to composing. We did not then know that Gerald and Joy Finzi were living at Aldboume only about fifteen miles from Thatcham on the Marlborough Downs, and also that Robin and Kirstie Milford lived a couple of miles off at Hermitage, where he taught music and wrote many works for the girls of Downe House School, where later on Hilary Finzi (neé du Pré) taught the flute, and Christopher the cello.
In 1937 George Weldon, later to become associate conductor of the Birmingham Orchestra, was conductor of the Newbury Amateur Orchestral Union whose lively musical activities owed much to the timpanist, Peter Davies and to Mrs Neate, one of the violinists, whose son Joe later married Mags, Joy Finzi’s sister.
It became known to the orchestra that there were several composers living in the Newbury area, and the Committee decided to put or, a concert entirely of the music of ‘Local Composers’ (how proud GF would now feel to be a ‘local composer’!).
Whether a success or not the concert had for me the merit, or effect, of bringing together three families into a bond which endured and was not broken except by death: Gerald and Joy, Robin and Kirstie, and us - Tony and Ruth.
The concert began with Robin Milford’s fine overture, Sir Walter Raleigh. Among other composers’ works were Finzi’s Earth, Air and Rain - my very first experience of his music and my Fantasia for Strings. At this time I was hopelessly in love with the music of Frederick Delius, and the piece was written in an idiom strongly influenced by his music, but with his chords stretched to a tauter and more acerbic idiom.
After this concert at which Soy was a violinist and at rehearsal she had defended my music from the strictures of a music teacher in the orchestra who complained that I had broken most of the rules of harmony and counterpoint, we three composers exchanged compliments and arranged to meet later on. Gerald, perhaps out of kindness, expressed a wish to see the score of my Fantasia, and suggested that I bring more scores for him to see at Aldbourne.
This was rather awkward for me as I had not written much at that time, but I found a set of songs, piano pieces and fragments of a new work. Eventually, I had to confess that I was facing an impasse, that, at least for a time, I was musically constipated.
He must have thought I was worth an attempt at resuscitation for he invited me to come to his house at Aldbourne once a week on condition that I brought some music with me. These weekly meetings with Gerald were tremendously exciting and challenging to me. I gave full rein to my gift of hero-worship and submitted meekly to and accepted, uncritically perhaps, his personal theories and sometimes eccentric opinions. For our sessions were not only musical, but branched out into philosophical and topical - generally moral - problems. I had glimpsed a world of cultivated but free and happy discourse from my reading, especially of De Quincy and his Lake poets, of Samuel Butler and, later, Virginia Woolf and Edith Sitwell. Several books by composers appealed strongly to me at that time, for instance Debussy’s piquant essays Monsieur Croche, Van Dieren’s Down among the Dead Men and Constant Lambert’s Music Ho!. And now, incredibly, I seemed admitted to this Arcadian way of life which Ruth and I were able to share with the Finzis in their lovely house. The latter was an attractive Georgian building, with stables and a coach house now converted to a badminton court a most important item for me, as I shall explain later. The large garden had a great copper beech giving the house its name, Beech Knoll, and a fruit cage which was a permanent structure of gas piping to hold the nets, and a track from just across the lane giving a pleasant walk across the downs to some barrows or tumuli.
In those days the Finzis could afford a cook-general, Violet, who under Joy’s guidance cooked delicious and, to me, unusual dishes such as vineleaf fritters. Also Peggy, the nanny who looked after Christopher and Nigel who were respectively about a year older than our Richard and Michael. During the war when Joy and Gerald were established at Ashmansworth, Ruth moved to a cottage in the village. The four boys were frequently together, and Richard and Michael were invited to join their club.
Gerald and Joy had an antipathy to facades or anything that seemed a sham in architecture or furniture to disguise its real function, and also in art and music, any kind of applied or superficial decoration would be anathema. As in music, so their personal and social relationships could be nothing less than open and truthful, though not hurtful, friendships.
The late organist of Gloucester cathedral, ‘John’ Sumsion, a friend of the Finzis, to whom I was introduced, liked to divide people according to their positive and passive personalities, and called them respectively ‘dynamos’ or ‘waitamos’: GF was very much a ‘dynamo’ and Joy, though not perhaps a ‘waitamo’, had a more reflective and less emphatic stance in discussion, and her pleasure and amusement at somebody’s foibles prevented her from seeing people or their behaviour in black and white stereotypes.
At Aldbourne there were two grand pianos in a large sitting room, and should I fail to bring any new music, Gerald would order Joy, if not to actually lock me in, at least to keep guard over me. Then, with the help of one of the pianos, I generally succeeded in getting several bars of music down on paper aiming, to please my tutor, to introduce a linear character to the music. If successful by 12.00, 1 would be rewarded by playing in a foursome at badminton which gave us all a good appetite for lunch. It was about this time that G was composing ‘Come Away, Come Away Death’, later to be the first of Let Us Garlands Bring. The poignant beauty of this song with its sinuous melismata was quite piercing and revealing to me and a precursor of his music to come. GF soon realised that I W lost musical freedom and was bogged down in composing harmonic progressions. What I needed, he saw, was to introduce lines through these harmonies like steel wires through concrete.
He found an original and clever solution to my problem. He gave me a series of the two-part Bach inventions for clavier and set me an exercise which consisted of adding a third part to each invention. I liked doing these exercises, and I found that the effect was startling; I began to think in lines and threaded them though the harmonic progressions which appealed to me. This was a very different approach indeed to the arid exercises in sterile ‘paper work’, so called harmony and counterpoint. My efforts with the 3-part inventions would be rewarded with a visit to the fruit cage, where we would gorge on black and white currants, gooseberries or raspberries, whichever was ripe. Other important periodical events were visits by composers, either singly or two or three together, in order to play and study each other’s works. These times were very interesting and educative to me. The best evenings were when Edmund Rubbra (FR) brought a new symphony. He performed it very well on the piano, but sang an inner part, perhaps the viola, in a moaning kind of voice suggesting an ancient reed instrument - a crumhorn or chalumeau.
Frequently GF would break off from the piece of mine he was discussing to talk about music he had been listening to or perhaps was sparked off by a passage in my manuscript which recalled some contemporary composer he had in mind. It seemed to me that after the early 15th and 16th century, and later more classical composers, his heart lay with Elgar and Vaughan Williams. He loathed Wagner, and Richard Strauss even more. He said that whereas Debussy in revision attempted to remove all superfluous notes, Strauss tried to add as many as possible. He listened to Berg and the Schoenbergian School, but especially Berg’s operas and Violin Concerto. Of Walton’s music he especially admired the Viola Concerto and the First Symphony: he said that Walton was the Isaac Newton of music. Indeed the sustaining of those splendid arches of sound in the symphony’s first movement, with such logical intensity, certainly merits the comparison. I shared his admiration of the Viola Concerto, but also agreed that the subtle and over sophisticated scoring of the Violin Concerto seemed an anguished attempt to recapture the unforced ecstasy of the former work.
Another composer I remember that he often talked of was Ernest Bloch whose work he admired and, as in his relationship with Edmund Blunden the poet he considered that artists should be protected by a state pension in the dearth of private patronage. He was almost guiltily distressed that Bloch had to spend many of his composing hours chopping firewood and other chores. Lennox Berkeley sometimes visited the Finzis when they had moved to Ashmansworth, their relationship being one of mutual respect rather than affection. He used to qualify Herbert Howells as a sad case of a composer whose early promise, as shown in his brilliant chamber music and lovely settings of French chansons, was not fulfilled, with the exception of Hymnus Paradisi - which brings me back to my own musical blockages. He sometimes spoke about poets - and a few musicians who had a wonderful flowering of poetry in adolescence, but with the onset of maturity their outpourings dried up. Eventually I realised that he was kindly trying to persuade me, with such subtlety, to face the fact of sterility. However, we persevered and I was able to repay him, in small part by ferrying many loads of hand made bricks from the Hermitage Hand Made Brick and Tile Works up to the site of his new house at Ashmansworth. My wife and I also crammed our little car with books for his new library, the book room. This was under his music room to give him extra privacy.
In this little account of my tutelage under Gerald Finzi, I make no apology for discursiveness because one could not learn music from him without learning a great deal about life. Music was at the centre and all activities radiated from this and returning, enriched the music.
But to return to my musical problems: Gerald honoured me by writing a lovely theme for me to write a fugue upon. To my surprise I found that I could write a fugue. G, I am sure, was delighted and pleased with his pupil, especially when it had become a Prelude and Fugue for organ and vindicated his unconventional method of teaching. OUP accepted it for publication, but persuaded me to insert a new section in the fugue to balance the larger prelude. GF never quite accepted the insertion as he felt that it did not fit the tranquil mood of the original.
My tutelage did not end here. Our two families shared holidays, twice before the war, and sometimes after, at a windmill belonging to my wife’s cousin, a Cambridge architect at Burnham Overy Staithe where a creek from the villages of North and South Creake flowed into the sea on the Norfolk coast near Wells-next-the Sea. In the upper sitting room, Ruth’s cousin Hugh Hughes had attached a sloping wooden desk for him to draw on at standing height against the wall, and here GF would place his manuscript and, work, sometimes on his editions of Stanley and other contemporaries of Handel such as Ame and Boyce whom he thought were unfairly overshadowed by him. Although he partook of our happy picnics and our evening expeditions to the salt marshes to cut samphire, the thought of music was never far away and the night ‘Becomes the touches of sweet harmony’.
At the windmill we all came under his life-enhancing spell - it was impossible to become tired or bored by him. All the children gathered round him to hear his stories about an eccentric but loveable colonel in India who lived in Poona. I also remember his solicitude and practical care of any of us who were not well. After the war, I continued to bring all my compositions to him for his advice and so that he would know that his tutelage had borne fruit.