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8.557863 - FINZI: Intimations of Immortality / For St Cecilia
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Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
Intimations of Immortality • For St Cecilia

 

Gerald Finzi studied composition with Ernest Farrar, Edward Bairstow and R.O. Morris. During the 1920s works like his orchestral miniature A Severn Rhapsody (1923) and a song-cycle to poems by his favourite poet Thomas Hardy, By Footpath and Stile (1921-2), attracted critical attention. After his marriage to the artist Joyce Black in 1933, he moved to the countryside near Newbury, settling at Ashmansworth, high on the Hampshire Downs. His reputation grew with the first performances of the song-cycle A Young Man's Exhortation (1926-9) and the cantata Dies natalis (mid-1920s, 1938-9). During World War II Finzi worked at the Ministry of War Transport and founded a fine, mainly amateur orchestra, the Newbury String Players. Two of his most popular works appeared during the war, the Five Bagatelles for clarinet (1920s, 1941-3) and the Shakespeare settings, Let us Garlands bring (1929-42). Two further sets of songs setting Hardy, Earth and Air and Rain (1928-32) and Before and After Summer (1932-49) confirmed his status as a master of song-writing. In the post war years several of his works were given their premières at the Three Choirs Festival: the Clarinet Concerto (1948-9), probably his most popular work, and the large-scale choral ode Intimations of Immortality (late 1930s, 1949-50). The final years of his life were lived under the shadow of incurable illness, but before he died he completed a Magnificat (1952), the Christmas scene In terra pax (1954) and the Cello Concerto (1951-2, 1954-5). Finzi's energetic mind went far beyond his compositions though. He was an ardent champion of neglected composers such as Ivor Gurney, and with the Newbury String Players he revived works by forgotten 18th-century composers like John Stanley and Richard Mudge. He also collected a library of English poetry and literature of over 3,000 volumes including many rare editions. Not least, in his orchard, he rescued several traditional English apple varieties from extinction.

The origins of Finzi's setting of Wordsworth's Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, can be traced to his formative years. His childhood was predominantly unhappy: as the youngest of five children and the only one manifesting artistic sensibilities, he felt himself to be the outsider in an uncomprehending family. His loneliness caused him to find companionship in books which led to an encyclopaedic knowledge of English poetry and literature. These were years haunted by death too; by the age of 17, his father and all his brothers were dead, as was his revered first composition teacher Ernest Farrar, killed on the Western Front.

Finzi's experience during these years left a threefold legacy that informed his adult personality and artistic sensibility. First the breadth of his reading gave him penetrating literary critical faculties which were translated in his songs and choral works into settings of insight and intensity, a remarkable marriage of words and music where the composer seems utterly at one with the writer. Secondly he had an acute awareness of the frailty of existence that found its musical expression in his settings of Hardy, whose work often shares similar preoccupations. Finally it left him with a conviction that for many the reality of adult life and experience dims the instinctive freshness of childhood.

It was this that struck such a resonance with his own experience when he discovered Wordsworth's Ode, which is a lament, not only for the lost joys of childhood, but also for the severing of the adult soul from the intuitive primal state. For Finzi this became a crux of his artistic creed - that the artist must keep his or her vision alive and fresh at all costs - and by extension any adult too; as he commented in a lecture in 1953: 'We all know that a dead poet lives in many a live stockbroker. Many of these people before they fade into the light of common day, have had an intuitive glimpse which neither age, nor experience, nor knowledge can ever give them.'

Finzi had begun composing Intimations of Immortality in the late 1930s and had completed about one third of it before the war interrupted work. It was not finished until 1950, the same year as its first performance at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival conducted by Herbert Sumsion. An orchestral prelude sets the scene, focusing on two recurring principal ideas: the opening horn-call, and a broad, typically Finzian, melody around which the first and second stanzas are set. The tempo quickens with the first of several linking orchestral interludes before the chorus conjures images of spring in a joyous setting of stanzas three and most of four and bringing a climax mid-way at 'Shout round me'. A slackening of tempo leads to the central question at the core of the work: 'Whither is fled the visionary gleam?' The horn-call returns to preface stanzas five, six and nine where the poet philosophizes on how the adult has become divorced from an earlier, more perfect condition, and then offers a solution in the ninth stanza beginning with the exultant outburst 'O joy! that in our embers / is something that doth live'. It is possible for the soul to 'have sight of that immortal sea / Which brought us hither', providing the intuitive part of humanity is nurtured. The tenth stanza is a recapitulation of the earlier fast music, and with the return of the prelude's spacious melody the final stanza is reached. Here the words drew from Finzi some of the most inspired music of the whole work, as is his setting of the final lines where the poignancy of the tenor's suspended dissonance is full of aching melancholy. The coda is brief and hushed with a reprise of the horn-call before the music shimmers into silence.

'I like music to grow out of the actual words and not be fitted to them', Finzi wrote to the poet Edmund Blunden, with whom he collaborated on the ceremonial ode commissioned by the St Cecilia's Day Festival Committee for their 1947 celebration of music's patron saint. Finzi's comment is telling for it reveals his keen literary sensibility which is manifest in the remarkable correspondence between poet and composer as the ode took shape. Finzi had admired Blunden's poetry for many years: in 1931 he had set his poem 'To Joy', and then they had corresponded over their mutual admiration for the poetry of Ivor Gurney. For the ode, Blunden suggested in May 1947, that he had 'the tradition of Dryden and Collins in hearing', and that he 'fancied a little catalogue of Saints with their special attributes, and so to herself'. A month later Finzi received the poet's draft and was delighted, although refinements continued over several months. There were references, for instance, to several composers including Arne and Wesley, which Finzi asked to be changed to Purcell and Dowland; an 'enchanting' Handelian couplet would prove 'a problem, but I wouldn't have it away for anything'; finally the ode culminated in a list of instruments ending with the organ; however, this was omitted: 'The last verse must build up, but after the first six lines a musical "catalogue" suddenly brings it down to an intimate level, from which it wd be impossible to build up again in the last 4 lines … I'm sorry to lose the mighty organ (though I don't like organs – but St Cecilia did).'

The ceremonial mood is established in the fanfares and the sonorous sweep of the opening paragraph with its echoes of Parry and Elgar. Tenor soloist and chorus share the 'catalogue' of saints: ardent Valentine, martial St George; St Dunstan (whose demonic hints of Elgar's Gerontius is surely a deliberate tongue-in-cheek conceit on Finzi's part); St Swithin with the flute suggesting pattering raindrops; lastly the tender evocation of St Cecilia herself. After the tenor has considered the wonder of St Cecilia's gift to the world, a full climax is reached at 'Blazed forth dominion of infinities'. The composers of the past, Merbecke, Byrd, Dowland and Purcell, are summoned in rapt stillness; and a reference to Handel brings a magical harmonic progression and a limpid phrase for the sopranos. Led by clarinet, and accompanied by pizzicato strings, the tenor imagines the saint making music amongst her friends; this exquisite passage is quintessential Finzi with its flowing melodiousness and supple, fluid word-setting across the bar lines. The return of the fanfares brings a festal summation with exultant violin counterpoint at the words 'And in her host we congregate each form'; the saint's name peals around the chorus before culminating in the resounding benediction of the final lines.

Andrew Burn


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