Finzi – music for all time

Gerald Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto was completed in 1949 and yet its fame keeps growing; in fact it feels more relevant today than ever. I often find myself invited to perform the Finzi and am heartened by the fact that far from fading, its reputation is strengthening – not necessarily what you’d expect from a work by a composer who, in his time, was rated a “minor” English composer. I think the word “underrated” would be more appropriate.

Finzi didn’t set out to revolutionize musical language and he certainly wasn’t interested in fame and fortune. His studies with Ernest Farrar and then with Edward Bairstow at York Minster were traditional in the extreme and although the young Finzi chafed against some of this rigidity, he was not a firebrand wishing to take the musical world by storm.

Quite the reverse in fact – Finzi liked to immerse himself in the music of the past and by the end of his life had amassed an important collection of 18th century manuscripts. Finzi felt part of a chain of musicians stretching back over the years and he once said that looking at manuscripts of older composers was like shaking hands with kindred spirits from the past. He hoped for that continuity for himself:

‘The pressing forward of new generations will soon obliterate my small contribution. Yet I like to think that in each generation might be found a few responsive minds, and for them I would like to have my work available’ he wrote in the introduction to the catalogue of his works.

In that statement lies, I think, the essence of why we value Finzi so highly today and need his music to nourish our souls. A preoccupation with mortality, with the meaning of death and therefore the meaning of life, permeates his work and resonates with us, because what could be more human than to grapple with such profound issues?

Gerald Finzi had had to face up to death from an unusually early age. His father died when Gerald was 8 years old and soon his three brothers would die, the third, Edgar, just before the Armistice in the Second World War. But worst of all to Gerald, was the loss of his teacher Ernest Farrar, missing in action. This affected Finzi deeply and underlined his sense of the fleeting nature of life. It also, no doubt, reinforced a feeling in the 17-year-old of needing to make a success of things, both to honour his teacher’s memory and also to try in some small way to recompense his bereaved mother.

Given this background it is no coincidence that Finzi was drawn to Thomas Hardy’s poetry throughout his life. Themes about the unrelenting passage of time and a sense of life’s impermanence were as crucial to Hardy’s work as they were to Finzi’s. In The Self-Unseeing, Hardy thinks back to an idyllic fireside scene with his mother and father but cries out, exasperated

“Yet we were looking away!”

The bliss of that moment went by unappreciated and Finzi’s setting of the poem changes the music from high and light to low and dark for that final line.

Such preoccupations don’t always have to be unhappy, as we hear in Finzi’s masterpiece Dies Natalis which revels in the wonders of life.

The song, Proud Songsters, a setting of Hardy published in 1936, underlines again the march of time by describing birds joyfully singing as if “all time were theirs”. It then makes the point that a year or two ago these birds didn’t exist. They were “only particles of grain, And earth, and air and rain.”

Given Finzi’s childhood bereavements and his reverence for the fragility of life, it is understandable that he felt a particularly vehement anger at the brutality of war and this makes its way into the first movement of the Clarinet Concerto. Although the language is lyrical, it is not relaxed; there is a robust edginess which gives the work urgency and strength and which eventually works itself up into a tempestuous climax marked con furia- with anger.

Inexplicably Finzi was rejected by Stanford for study at the Royal College of Music, but it could be argued that this allowed his compositional technique to retain its personality and its elemental power. To achieve the Clarinet Concerto’s combination of lyricism and strife, Finzi uses a kind of ‘grit’ in the harmony:  normal diatonic chords have a semitone discord added to create tension and to destabilize the harmony until it can be resolved. The wide intervals in the melodic writing suit the clarinet’s range and also add to the sense of brutality that needs appeasing.

Like his muse, Hardy, Finzi expresses love too. The second movement of the Clarinet Concerto is transparent and contemplative but works into an outpouring of emotion that is hardly bettered by any other English concerto I can think of. The music sweeps you off your feet, at once longing and passionate before it gradually subsides into silence.

We might be left at this point just to muse on the fragility of life, but Finzi shakes us up with a rondo that conveys some of his love for the countryside and for melodious writing based on English traditional music. What stay with us long after the Clarinet Concerto has ended are Finzi’s powerful themes about the joy of life and its transcience.

Sadly, Finzi died in his fifties and may have thought that he hadn’t had time to do enough. Although there are jewels in his output, there isn’t a huge body of work to back up his reputation as a composer, partly because his life was disrupted by two world wars. He also was a man of many interests, including rescuing and cultivating 350 varieties of English apples in his orchards! I wish he could have known that by writing the Clarinet Concerto he gave future generations a precious gift and that was far more than enough.

Emma Johnson