Friday 20 September 2019

Finzi: the essential Englishman

George Hamilton

With a name like Gerald Finzi, you wouldn't be surprised to discover that there was some Italian in this most English of composers. His grandfather was a doctor from Padua who settled in London. On his mother's side, the roots went back to Hamburg in Germany.

Gerald was born in 1901 into a prosperous household. His father, Jack, who had built up a successful shipbroking business, died just a fortnight before Gerald's eighth birthday.

In The Times, the elder Finzi was recalled as a man who "never lost the refined courtesy of his Italian ancestors". He also left the family well-off.

In her biography of the composer (Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music), the British writer Diana McVeagh pinpointed the moment the boy made up his mind to become a composer.

It was in the sickbay at his prep school. Every night, as the coal fire went out, he noticed the floor would glow red. He told the nurse, but she thought he was hallucinating.

Then, one evening, the wooden floorboards burst into flame. The fire had gradually worked its way along the joists. That was Gerald Finzi's eureka moment.

When the family moved to Harrogate in Yorkshire to get away from First World War London, Gerald was enrolled with a music teacher, Ernest Farrar - a young composer with an Irish connection. He'd been taught at the Royal College of Music by the Dubliner Charles Villiers Stanford.

According to McVeagh, Farrar detected a lack of concentration in the youngster. But he more than made up for it in his energy and enthusiasm.

Farrar's death in action on the Western Front at the Somme had a profound effect on the teenage Finzi.

Not only that, but he lost his three brothers at an early age. There's melancholy in his music and it's perfectly understandable.

That music marked him out as a quintessentially English composer. A man who had an aversion to the life in the city, he and his artist wife, Joyce Black, lived in several different rural locations.

Finzi was something of a market gardener. He was an enthusiastic apple grower and is credited with reviving a number of English varieties that had almost become extinct.

He found inspiration in English literature, in the writings of Thomas Hardy and William Wordsworth, and he had set their words to melodies of his own. These were songs that helped to make his name.

Another huge influence was Thomas Traherne, a religious scholar and poet who lived in the 17th century. Finzi's cantata Dies Natalis is a setting of texts of Traherne's for solo soprano and string orchestra, a paean to the wonder of birth

Finzi's son Christopher, a conductor, recorded a version of the work with a tenor singing the lead.

Gerald Finzi wrote for a range of instruments. There's his concerto and five bagatelles for clarinet, one of which - Forlana - is a signature piece of the virtuoso Emma Johnson.

There's also what was meant to be a full-blown piano concerto but was never finished and was given the title Eclogue for Piano and Strings by the publisher after his death.

His Romance for String Orchestra is one of his most lovely pieces. Written when he was in his twenties, a series of revisions meant it didn't appear until nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1952. It's pastoral English music at its best, the influence of Edward Elgar evident in almost every bar.

Finzi's output was modest enough, compared to others, but what there is offers another glorious landscape from the ample expanse of 20th-century English music.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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