Mr Gerald Finzi - A Sensitive Composer
Mr Gerald Finzi, who died yesterday in a nursing home at Oxford at the age of 55 after a short illness, was a composer whose work, already highly esteemed by musicians, was beginning to impress its merit upon a wider public. Quiet and unobtrusive in style, his music is characterized by high craftsmanship and an individuality which is none the less unmistakably his own for all its evidence of the influence of such two diverse minds as those of Vaughan Williams and Elgar. Bach was also a formative influence and there can be no doubt that Finzi’s early association with that wayward, but remarkably sensitive teacher, R.O. Morris, taught him how eclecticism could be bent to his purpose. He was, himself, peculiarly sensitive to the music as well as the meaning of words and this proved to be his strength as a composer, for though he brought the same fine craftsmanship to bear on all his works, it is the vocal works which manifest that extra sensitiveness which makes them so distinctive and so satisfying.
He was still developing when he was struck down by illness and there is no knowing what he might have done. Nevertheless, on what he has already shown there can be no doubt that he was most felicitous in his setting of words to music and was especially happy in interpreting Thomas Hardy - that most difficult of all poets to interpret in musical terms. No other musician has reached Finzi’s standard in setting Hardy to music in the two songcycles, A Young Man’s Exhortation and Earth and Air and Rain - a total of 22 settings.
Gerald Finzi was born in London on July 14, 1901, and after attending private schools studied under Sir Edward Bairstow from 1918 to 1922 and then in 1925 under R.O. Morris for a few months. A sufficient competence permitted him to follow his own bent in composition and his work in this way was interrupted only twice in his life. The first time was when he was a member of the teaching staff of the Royal Academy of Music in 1930-33 and the second time was during the last war when he worked as a temporary civil servant in the Ministry of War Transport. He first became known as a composer by the publication in 1924 of his A Severn Rhapsody by the Carnegie Trust, but this work he later disowned. Then came a long series of vocal works showing ever increasing mastery of the medium and culminating in the Hardy settings already mentioned.
Meanwhile instrumental works were appearing ranging from solos to works for full orchestra. Since the end of the war his principal works have been choral and include a festival anthem for choir and organ, ‘Lo, the full final sacrifice’ and a ceremonial ode for a St. Cecilia’s Day concert in London in 1947. He also produced the incidental music for a radio production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. His last appearance as a conductor was at the Three Choirs Festival this year and his recently composed Cello Concerto was broadcast by the Hallé Orchestra on Wednesday night, with Mr Christopher Bunting playing the solo part.
He married in 1933 Miss Joyce Black, who survives him together with two sons.
Mr Gerald Finzi
Your obituary of Mr. Gerald Finzi rightly concerned itself with his work as a composer. His many friends in Berkshire and Oxfordshire will also miss him for the wonderful work he did with his Newbury String Players. With this able body of amateur players - his wife and two sons among them - he took music of high artistic value to the villages of his county. I have a programme in front of me: “An Hour of Music” in Stockcross Church in 1955 - Schutz, Mozart, Faure, Arnell (first performance in England) and some of his beloved eighteenth century English composers, Boyce, Wesley, Mudge. His work in these and many other of their contemporaries, and his splendid editions of them, are a worthy memorial to him.
MR GERALD FINZI - WIDE SYMPATHIES
Dr Edmund Rubbra writes:
Gerald was an example to us all, whether as man or musician. In all my 30 years’ friendship with him I cannot remember a single occasion when, in contact with him, I did not carry away something of vital importance. His musical judgments were singularly, for a composer, devoid of personal bias, and his own very recognizable style did not prevent him from seeing what others were aiming at. His tragically early passing robs English music of a personality whose wide, balanced, and sane outlook, in life as well as in art, will be sorely missed.
Mr. Gilbert Spencer writes:
I have been reading with great interest the accounts of Gerald Finzi in your columns. If, as a non-musician, I might add anything it would be: “This upright man.” His wife and family will be sustained in their great loss by the strength of his character which will live on not only in his music, but in the memories of those of us who were privileged to have known and to have been helped by him.
Mr John Russell writes:
It is essential that any account of Gerald Finzi should include three aspects of his life’s work which were as close to his heart as was his own music. First, his editions of English music of the eighteenth century, notably that of John Stanley, William Boyce, John Garth, and Richard Mudge, are models of scholarship, in that they combine accessibility of performance with a steadfast reverence for the texts as the composers wrote them down. By doing this he has enabled performing musicians to view that Handel-dominated period in truer perspective.
Then there was his founding and conducting of the Newbury String Players, an accomplished and devoted orchestra which he rehearsed weekly for nearly 20 years. Playing in village churches, army camps and schools, they gave impressive performances of music - ancient and modern - which had survived their conductor’s stem tests of sincerity.
Lastly there was his burning desire to help young musicians. Though not by nature a committee-man, he was always the first to support any organization whose task it was to administer money or opportunity to a talented youngster. He was the first chairman of the Berkshire County Music Committee, and through this office, as well as in private ways, he was able to fight many a battle on behalf of local music-making. With the possible exception of Dr Vaughan Williams’s work at Leith Hill, no other composer of national repute has done more for the music of that corner of England in which lie chose to live.
In short, Finzi occupied no ivory tower, even though much of his exquisite music may suggest that he did. Those many people who know and love Finzi’s music may first be attracted by its sensitiveness, but they next perceive its inherent vigour and sturdiness. These last qualities spring from his immense capacity for sympathy and optimism, fostered in the hurly-burly of life and music (which were synonymous to him) and growing to maturity in such works as Intimations of Immortality, where Wordsworth’s poetry and Finzi’s music meet in complete accord. “Thanks to the human hew by which we live…”
Gerald Finzi was in sympathy with almost every aspect of living, from music and poetry to the smallest details of running a house and garden. I was often surprised when visiting him at Ashmansworth by his practical knowledge and thought qualities which were especially shown in his effort to revive neglected and almost extinct varieties of English apple. He gave his whole self to this work, as he did to whatever seemed to him to be worth while.
His voice was unforgettable, an extraordinary combination of strength and tenderness. How beautifully he employed it - and never more beautifully than when fondling and talking to one of the many cats which were always in his home.
Mr Gerald Finzi - A Many-Sided Man
Dr Ralph Vaughan Williams writes:
Gerald Finzi’s last new work was the cantata In terra pax. This work is significant not only for its intrinsic beauty but because it seemed to give us hope of even better things to come. These hopes will not be fulfilled. In Terra Pax is characteristically founded on a poem by Robert Bridges. Finzi’s music shows an extraordinary affinity with this poet and with Thomas Hardy, both their language and their thought find an absolute counterpart in his settings.
No mention has been made in your obituary notice of Finzi’s work as a musicologist. He was convinced that the English eighteenth-century composers were underrated, so he brought his imaginative scholarship to bear on the British Museum and other libraries where he discovered and made known to the world many hitherto hidden treasures.
Visiting Finzi’s house, with its wonderful view of the distant downs, was a happy experience. Gerald had a wide and critical knowledge of English literature, his wife is an accomplished artist and his two sons are fine musicians, so that a feeling of beauty without any self-consciousness has always pervaded the atmosphere of their home, in which there was always a welcome for their many friends and where discussion and hospitality flowered. Finzi had strong views on all that was going on in the world, with which I did not always agree; and he expressed them in vigorous and clear-cut language. His interests were varied; he was, for instance, an enthusiastic fruit grower; indeed he was almost as keen on reviving forgotten varieties of apples as the works of forgotten English composers. Finzi had a great sense of the social responsibilities of the artist. This led him, during the war, to found the Newbury String Players, a small body of amateur musicians, who, with a little professional help, have continued ever since to bring good music to the small villages of the neighbourhood which otherwise would have been without any such artistic experience.
Finzi’s compositions range from the slightest of songs through the noble cantata Dies natalis, to the large scale choral work Intimations of Immortality. He also wrote much purely instrumental music, including concertos for clarinet, violoncello and pianoforte. In all these works we find something absolutely personal, and in my opinion they will last on when other more showy but less truly original compositions are forgotten.
Sir Arthur Bliss writes:
The death of this highly gifted composer is a severe loss to English music and a deep sorrow to his many friends. He was a lover of English poetry, and had a wide knowledge of it - Wordsworth, Blake, Hardy, and of living poets, Blunden, were his favourites. His many settings of English poems equal the finest in our musical literature. He had a rare gift for binding friends to him, being by his very nature loyal and generous.
It was characteristic of him to devote years of work to rescuing from oblivion the music of eighteenth-century English composers in order to give them further life. Of his own music it is this writer’s opinion that it contains the beauty that endures. The lovely slow movement from his cello concerto, broadcast on the day of his death, could be his own true epitaph.
Gerald Finzi himself knew the inevitable end of the illness that was with him for many years. His stoic reticence and courage in the face of this knowledge compel complete admiration.
Many more than professional musicians will mourn Gerald Finzi. He was a many-sided, robust, warm and vital man. He had a devotee’s love and admiration of Elgar, whose life he thought ideal. His own, with his adored wife and sons, was somewhat like it. Their loss is the keener in that Gerald was so much with, and of, them. Like Blake, Coleridge and Samuel Butler, all of whom he copiously quoted, he was intrigued by so much: Nature, his loved England and its changing moods, “and earth and air and rain,” psychology, folk lore, brass bands (for which he wrote), our pre-history, old things and old people, churches, our literature, and particularly Clare, Cowper, and Crabbe, and Hardy, Housman and Blunden, whose poems he set to a music that tells the continuity of the English tradition.
Impatient of that narrow scientific consistency which he always called “the hobgoblin of little minds,” he was a great talker and arguer, and was both mentally and physically as lively as a grig. In our twenties he and I tramped weeks on end - in Cornwall and the Sillies, round Uriconium and “on Wenlock Edge,” and once, unforgettable, barefooted for long - from Pewsey, off that early train on which one breakfasted, through Marlborough and Avebury across the Ridgeway to Radcot (where we read The Duchess of Malfi in a punt) to Oxford, all for a Whit weekend. For all his name, known here for two centuries, he was intensely English, loving “our sweet English tongue, “ lovable himself in everything. Though his memory cannot die and his music will live - it is good to know how admired it is by the young in our schools - life is darker and duller without him.