The Correspondence of Gerald Finzi and Ralph Vaughan Williams

On 17 November 1923 Vaughan Williams replied to a letter he had received from a young composer, Gerald Finzi, who had apparently asked him for permission to use a folk tune which VW had collected on an expedition to Herefordshire with Ella Mary Leather in 1912. VW’s response was typically generous but at the same time punctilious in protecting the legitimate interests of others:


Dear Mr Finzi

As far as I am concerned, with pleasure .. But please ask Mrs Leather as well ... By the way perhaps I ought to tell you that I also have used the tune in a choral work [almost certainly Fantasia on Christmas Carols, 1912] published by Stainer and Bell.

Yours sincerely,
R. Vaughan Williams

The tune which VW refers to is The truth sent from above which he had collected at King’s Pyon, Herefordshire, with Mrs Ella Leather in August 1909. VW had used it as the opening tune in Fantasia on Christmas Carols (1912) while Gerald used it as the basis for his Christmas carol setting ‘The brightness of this day’ published by Stainer and Bell in 1925 (with permission granted by VW and Mrs Leather duly acknowledged).

From this seed friendship developed steadily. By 1927 Gerald appears to have been coming to see VW regularly for advice about his compositions and also getting to know Adeline (who writes in March thanking him for two photographs he had taken of the cat which the VWs were looking after for R.O. Morris and his wife, Adeline’s sister Emmeline - always known as Jane).

In late 1927 Gerald consulted VW, for example, about his Violin Concerto, which had been first performed in May that year. In November VW asked him to let him have another look at it and on 2nd December, having agreed that if it was revised he would give it a second performance at a Bach Choir concert the following February, he wrote ‘We’ve fixed up the Concerto now. It only remains for you to write it’. Gerald replaced one movement and altered much else for this second performance.

Just after this the VWs moved to the country, first briefly to Holmbury St Mary while they looked around for a permanent house. Gerald became a regular visitor - in August 1928 he received the following instructions how to reach the VWs:

  • 23rd will suit me very well
  • Come as early in the morning as you like.
  • Take a bus at Dorking to Holmbury St Mary & enquire for the footpath up.
  • But if you want a longer walk you can take a bus to Wotton Manor Farm or Crossways & walk here via Abinger Common
  • You have been here before
  • Certainly bring some stuff with you.

After the move to The White Gates in Dorking Gerald became a regular ‘house-sitter ‘when the VWs spent time in London. Though letters are still addressed to ‘Mr Finzi’, the development of their friendship is marked by the fact that Gerald was invited to the VW’s box for the second performance by the Camargo Society of the ballet Job on 6th July 1931 at Sadlers Wells and, significantly, to the try-through of VW’s Piano Concerto by Nora Day, Vally Lasker and Helen Bidder on two pianos at St Paul’s Girls School later that month. The following January he was summoned to a further performance by Lasker and Bidder, the first outing of the 4th symphony:

We are trying through the sketch of my new symph (2 pfts) at St Pauls G.S. next Wednesday (Jan 6th) at 2.0 P.M. Do come if you can - go to the side entrance (48 Rowan Road) & ask for Gustav or me - & be on time if possible as Gustav does not want to keep the headmistresses bell ringing all afternoon

In 1933 there was great excitement over Gerald’s engagement to Joyce Black. Adeline wrote: ‘Ought we to know? Anyhow we do & the more I think of it the more glad I am for your sake & for hers & for ours’. The VWs were especially touched that Joy and Gerald determined that they would be married at Dorking Registry Office with the VWs as sole witnesses (and it was from now that ‘Dear Mr Finzi’ becomes ‘Dear Gerald’). On July 7th VW wrote a very typical letter about the arrangements - Gerald was concerned that there might be steps at the door of the Registry Office which would be an obstacle to VW who was lame at the time:

Dear Gerald

The following facts are true -

  • I fell into the brook.
  • I broke my ankle
  • I mayn’t put my foot to the ground for a month


  • I have no pain
  • I am quite well
  • I was not drunk at the time

Don’t wait to examine those registry steps till my foot is well - but come over one day - both of you - and see us. [Later] I find that Ellen has reported about the steps as follows - There are none.

Mayn’t I play the harmonium? Yrs RVW

By the time of his marriage therefore Gerald had established a relationship with the VWs which must have done something to alleviate the latter’s loss of Gustav Holst in 1934, for from now on there is a steady stream of letters advising about Gerald’s compositions and, eventually, asking for Gerald’s advice about VW’s own work. In early 1934 Gerald sent VW ‘Nightingales’, one of the Seven Poems of Robert Bridges, op.17, to which VW replied: ‘Its real you, I think, & v. good - the only place I am doubtful about is the tenor lead at b.7. - which may sound a little dreary (you know what tenors can be when they try) - but we must hope for un-tenory tenors.’

In April 1935, VW’s 4th symphony received its first performance and the first surviving letter from Gerald to VW is dated four days later (VW did not keep letters once they had been answered, so that inevitably - except where his correspondents kept copies of their own letters, which the Finzis did in a few cases - one side of the correspondence has for the most part to be reconstructed from what is said by the other):

Dear Uncle Ralph

I was purposely not going to write to you about the sym. in spite of what I felt about it, because you always acknowledge letters & I can imagine how many you’ll have to tackle. However, there’s something else about which I have to write, but I must first say how tremendously I admired it. Even the slow mvt, which sounded like nothing on earth on two pianos, sounded wonderful on Wed: I expected the rest to sound something like it did, but didn’t expect to be so completely bowled over. All congrats. Fergie [Howard Ferguson] wondered whether we shd have to wait for Jaques to retire from the Bach choir before a min: score comes out!

About the other thing. I mentioned the possibility of doing an article on Gurney. Since then there seems to be a better scheme on foot ... The idea is that at least 2 articles shd appear & Foxy [A.H. Fox-Strangways, editor of Music & Letters] likes this idea for his October issue. Walter de la Mare is going to be asked to do one on the verse: Wd you be willing to write something about his music? Please don’t think that this is a case of shirking responsibility & shoving it on to your already rather laden shoulders! Honestly, its much more important for Gurney’s reputation if the seal is set by you, rather than by an unknown person, or by the wrong person.

Forgive me for troubling. Our love to all

Yrs Gerald Finzi

In his reply VW remarked that ‘we must never again say that Adrian [Boult] is not a great conductor - It was he who found out how to do the slow movt’. He added that Gerald would be the person to write about Gurney. Thus started a crusade by both on behalf of Ivor Gurney, at the time in an asylum, and his music. In July 1937 VW was able to report that he was ‘sending the Gurney songs to Foss [Hubert Foss at the OUP] tomorrow. I have been through them with Herbert [Howells]… You have done a great work in your copying & editing for which we are all very grateful’. in this letter he goes on to remark:

Could you send me a complete list of all gramophone records, pfte duet or solo parts of Sibelius symphonies.

I want these

  • because, as you know, I can’t read a full score
  • because, being no longer able to compose, and having by my mode of life unfitted myself for any useful occupation I think it is time I learnt something about music.
This is interesting, because VW started work on the Fifth Symphony about a year later in rnid-1938 and dedicated it to Sibelius ‘without permission’.

At this time both Gerald and VW were each at work on what some have claimed to be their respective masterpieces - respectively Dies natalis and the 5th symphony. On 9th January 1939 VW wrote enthusiastically to Gerald:

Dear Gerald

We listened to your 2 songs yesterday. You have hit the nail on the head - it ought to be spread abroad that here is the exact equivalent of Hardy & to a certain extent of all English poetry of the post-classical period.

When is Dies natalis - I am excited to know - especially as I have had a mysterious letter about it from Captain Gyde (Sophie Wyss’ husband).

I sent S.W. a sheaf of songs by various English composers which I thought she ought to know - especially as she only seemed to know the wrong-note variety. I included Y.M.s [Young Man’s] exhortation ...

Love to Joyce


Later in September he advised Gerald about the size of the orchestra: ‘Adrian Boult says he can get a better pp out of many strings than out of few - so, to my mind, when you get past the chamber orchestra stage the number of strings does not matter.’ Dies was clearly a work which VW regarded highly - in 1943 he heard a performance by Eric Greene and wrote ‘Dies is lovely - we were all much moved last night - the nuisance was that it set me thinking of all my sins of omission. I still prefer the soprano - it gives a lightness of quality which the tenor cannot have’.

In due course, Gerald was invited to hear Hubert Foss and Alan Richardson play through the sketch of the 5th symphony ‘to see if I like it well enough to go on with it. Your criticism wd be much valued, if you cd come’. Gerald and Joy also attended the first orchestral playthrough at the Maida Vale BBC studios in May 1943.

In 1942 Gerald dedicated Let Us Garlands Bring to VW to mark his 70th birthday. Adeline VW took a protective interest in the wording of the dedication: ‘I am not saying a word to Ralph. I know it will make him happy to have his name on a work of yours. But may I suggest that just this work should not remind him that he is 70. 1 know he can’t escape being 70 but in print mayn’t he? Could it not be ‘For’ - or ‘On’ his birthday October 12 1942? or would that seem wrong to you?’. Gerald complied and tactfully inscribed the work ‘For Ralph Vaughan Williams on his birthday Oct 12th 1942’.

Both composers took a strong line about each others’ failures of confidence: When Gerald sent VW his Farewell to Arms apparently with some deprecating remark, VW sternly replied

’don’t call it “small beer” because it isn’t & you know it isn’t. If you did think so you ought not to have published it but I hope you take a proper pride in your own work - which is quite a different thing from the modesty which sees the vast difference between the final result & what we all feel of our work it might have been - so don’t denigrate your own work.’

Gerald’s turn came later, in 1952, when VW was having doubts about The Sons of Light:

Dear Uncle Ralph,

There is no room in the world, as you say, for second rate work. But no work from a first rate mind is ever really second rate. Would you prune the Bach Ges: [i.e. the Bach Geselischaft complete edition] of all the inferior works written by J.S.B?

Surely it is the total projection of an individual creative mind that really counts. It’s worth while knowing that Homer could nod. I don’t think you ought to spend time on revising the work, and the idea that you are getting past writing first-rate music is not worth discussing. Strictly speaking you never wrote a bad work (once you got started) whilst you had to struggle to write, though [you] wrote immature works. After 1920 or thereabouts, when your technique began to get working, you wrote quite a number of unmemorable works. Old King Cole, for instance, and The Poisoned Kiss, isn’t really one of your best works; yet, these were works written amongst your major works.

Yet these are surrounded (in time) with your major works, and you would hardly have asked at the time “shall I stop writing”.

Anyhow, it’s a good job you didn’t!

Although the core of the correspondence deals with the two men’s compositions the subject matter ranged widely. After Gerald and Joy had founded Newbury String Players Gerald often seeks VW’s advice about programming, performers, obtaining music and the like. And in 1943 VW thanks Gerald for pointing out errors in the parts for the Tallis Fantasia and asks him to complain to Curwen as it would be more effective coming from the performer than from the composer. There was discussion of other composers - notably Robin Milford, Kenneth Leighton and Edmund Rubbra. On a more domestic front Adeline wrote to Joy throughout the whole period following the Finzis’ marriage about practical matters - arrangements for visits (inter alia for Joy to draw VW for his old college, Trinity, Cambridge), thanks for flowers (often cowslips) and honey - a special treat in wartime. Later on Ursula Wood enters the scene, asking Joy for advice about the cover of her new book of poetry.

The surviving correspondence between the Finzis and the VWs amounts to about 200 letters and it is obviously impossible to give a full account of it in a short piece. However, perhaps the foregoing will give some idea of the nature of the friendship between the two composers. Ralph Vaughan Williams was a man for whom friendship was immensely important. His letters from his university days onwards demonstrate over and over again the loyalty that he felt for his friends - and they for him. As a composer, he continually sought the advice of musical and other friends without in any way depending upon it. While his closest confidant was undoubtedly Gustav Holst, whose death in 1934 was an irreplaceable loss for VW, it seems that his friendship with Gerald, as has been suggested, went some way to fill the gap. This is clear from the letters written by Ralph and Ursula when news of Gerald’s death in September 1956 reached them on holiday in Majorca. These letters are transcribed in Joy’s Journal:

Dearest Joyce

You know how great a friend he was and what a staunch adviser – I always came to him for advice & help.

I am thinking of those days which we have spent with you & him – they are bright spots in our memory framed in that lovely view of the downs.

All love to you and the boys
from Ralph

Dearest Joy

... It seems to me that you have made something between you that has enriched many people. We were so happy with you, and so glad that we had those lovely few days, & that drive onto the downs, - and that’s only one, of many many times, for which we are glad. And Gerald -’all that I do is me, for this I came’ could be most truly and wholly said of him ...

We were going out today - & we sat in a remote hermitage high on a mountain with the island & the sea below us in a pale blue haze, & Ralph dictated the letter he is sending to the Times. It all seems very fitting, & there were swallows - perhaps some of yours on their way south ...

Love to you all

Hugh Cobbe is extremely grateful to both Christopher Finzi and Stephen Banfield for their ready co-operation in allowing him to make use of transcriptions of the correspondence between the Finzis and VWs prepared by Stephen Banfield in the course of his work for the Finzi Trust. He would also like to acknowledge much advice from Ursula Vaughan Williams, Howard Ferguson and Oliver Neighbour. ©1992 Hugh Cobbe; the letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams ©1992 Ursula Vaughan Williams. Not to be reproduced without permission.