Gerald Finzi belongs to a generation of English composers that has, until recently, suffered some neglect, His music is tonal and attractive, firmly based in English traditions to which the descriptive adjective 'pastoral' has been applied, in addition to more opprobrious epithets from some quarters. Born into a family of Italian Jewish origin, Sephardic on his father's side and, less happily, belonging to the Askenazim tradition on his mother's, rooted rather in Germany than in the long-established Sephardic connection with England, Finzi was born, the youngest of five children, in London in 1901. His father died in 1909 and he was brought up by his mother, his three brothers dying in close succession, the youngest as a war-time airman in 1918. Finzi and his mother had meanwhile moved from London to Harrogate, where he was able to study music with Ernest Farrar, a former pupil of Stanford who had worked in Germany and was at the time organist at Christ Church in Harrogate. Farrar's connection with composers associated with the revival of English music in the early years of the twentieth century had a lasting influence on Finzi, felt all the more after Farrar's death in action in 1918. Farrar had been nearer to his own age, only 33 when he died. Finzi's next teacher represented a much more conservative and formal tradition. Edward Bairstow, a Yorkshireman, had been appointed organist at York Minster in 1913, a position he held until his death in 1946. A pupil of Henry Farmer and, as an organist, of Frederick Bridge, he remained a pillar of the English cathedral tradition, his stricter teaching of less relevance to his pupil.
It was, it may be supposed; in pursuit of the spirit that had inspired Vaughan Williams and Holst, Parry and Elgar, that Finzi moved in 1922 to Gloucestershire, his compositions at this time largely consisting of songs, settings of Christina Rossetti and Thomas Hardy.
His period in the Cotswolds brought contact with the composer Herbert Howells. In 1925, on the advice of the conductor Adrian Boult, he took lessons in counterpoint from R. 0. Morris, whose pupils included Edmund Rubbra and Howard Ferguson, moving then to London, where he had personal contact with a wider circle of young musicians. His friendship with Ferguson and with Rubbra remained of great importance to him, as was the encouragement he received from Vaughan Williams, Hoist and Bliss. It was this last who seems to have procured for him, in 1930, work at the Royal Academy of Music, teaching second-study composition students the elements of counterpoint and harmony one day a week. During this period in London his compositions had varied success. His Violin Concerto, written for Sybil Eaton, proved intractable and after a first partial performance it was revised and completed, to be heard under Vaughan Williams in 1928. His attempted Piano Concerto offered still further difficulties and was not completed, serving as the source for later compositions.
In 1933 Finzi married the artist Joyce Black and after a period living in Hampstead they moved to the country, this time to Wiltshire. In 1939 they moved again to Ashmansworth on a Hampshire hill-top, near Newbury, having bought a farm-house that they replaced with a building well adapted to their own requirements. Retirement from London allowed Finzi to live a relatively simple life, concentrating now on composition, on his continuing literary interests and on his study of earlier English music, in particular that of the eighteenth century. In the English countryside, where he was able to indulge an interest in apple- growing, he was in close touch with the roots that he had adopted as his own and that were an essential basis of his work as a composer. Contact with the Three Choirs Festival brought the composition of what remains his best known composition, Dies Natalis.
Although Finzi had distanced himself from his Jewish identity, he nevertheless was bound to be affected by the events in Germany in the 1930s. The war brought inevitable disruption and he was forced to return to London, working there throughout the war at the Ministry of War Transpon. Although there was relatively little time for music, there was, by way of compensation, a salary, although the Newbury String Players, the amateur orchestra he had established in Newbury in 1940, could still occupy weekends when he was able to escape to the country. Compositions from this period are few, although the Five Bagatelles date in pan from this time.
Released from his war-time duties in 1945, Finzi was able to resume the life on which he had embarked five years before. The Newbury String Players continued to flourish, often providing an outlet for composers whose work he found congenial. His own life as a composer prospered with a series of compositions that now found a hearing, notably his setting of Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality on which he had embarked before the war and which he now completed, for a first performance in the Three Choirs Festival in 1950 Finzi's health had never been good and the years before the war had brought threats of tuberculosis. In 1951 he was found to be suffering from Hodgkin's Disease and it was as a result of an infection consequent on this immune deficiency that he died in September 1956, three weeks after conducting his In terra pax at the Three Choirs Festival, where Howard Ferguson' s Amore langueo, dedicated to the Finzis, had also been performed.
Finzi's Clarinet Concerto was completed in 1949 in response to a commission from the Three Choirs Festival, that year to be held in Hereford Cathedral, where it was performed with Frederick Thurston as the soloist and the strings of the London Symphony Orchestra under the composer's direction. The first movement opens with a strong statement from the strings, leading to an Elgarian sequence, A stridently repeated octave figure precedes the solo entry with the principal theme of the movement. The soloist leads to the second subject with a two octave downward leap, before the lyrical theme proper is heard. There is a relatively short development section and a recapitulation that is followed by a more extended coda, an undemanding cadenza, inserted at the suggestion of Vaughan Williams, and a maestoso conclusion, the whole in a finely connected, thoroughly English rhapsodic style. Muted strings open the slow movement, before the entry of the soloist. The orchestra then introduces the modal principal theme of the movement. allowing the clarinet to offer its own rhapsodic comment. The music moves forward to a dramatic dynamic climax, the mood of the opening finally restored, as the sound dies away. The final Rondo opens forcefully, leading to the cheerful principal theme from the clarinet, which frames extended episodes, with their reminiscences of motifs from the first movement.
Finzi wrote his Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano for the clarinettist Pauline Juler, for whom he had originally intended the Clarinet Concerto, forestalled by her marriage and pregnancy and subsequent withdrawal from a concert career. The Bagatelles, completed as a set in 1943, were subsequently arranged for clarinet and strings by Lawrence Ashmore. The highly characteristic Prelude has an exuberant opening and gently contrasting middle section, ending in a slightly menacing climax, after which the first material returns. The tenderly lyrical Romance is followed by the simplicity of Carol that seems to have had its origin in a tune written for the children of Herbert Howells some years before. The Forlana has a gentle lilt to it, not strictly in the pace or mood of the original dance. It seems Finzi himself hesitated over the title of the piece, which seemed mid-way between a Forlana and a Berceuse. The work ends with a Fughetta, its subject first entrusted to the clarinet. While not a masterpiece of counterpoint, it provides a delightful ending to an agreeable set of short pieces.
Reviews...beautifully performed here by soloist Robert Plane. - David Hurwitz