About this Recording
8.557963 - FINZI: Earth and Air and Rain / To a Poet / By Footpath and Stile (English Song, Vol. 15)
English  German 

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
Earth and Air and Rain • To a Poet • By Footpath and Stile

 

Gerald Finzi studied with Ernest Farrar, Edward Bairstow and R.O. Morris. He came to attention with works like the orchestral miniature A Severn Rhapsody (1923) and a song-cycle to poems by Thomas Hardy, By Footpath and Stile (1921-2). Finzi's reputation grew during the 1930s with performances of two groups of Hardy settings, A Young Man's Exhortation (1926-9) and Earth and Air and Rain (1928-32), and was consolidated with the première in 1940 of his cantata Dies Natalis (1925-39). 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 (1938-40).

To the post-war years belong the festival anthem 'Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice' (1946), the ceremonial ode For St Cecilia (1947) and a further Hardy song set Before and After Summer (1932-49), the Clarinet Concerto (1948-9) and Intimations of Immortality for chorus and orchestra (late 1936-8, 1949-50). Although the final years of his life were lived under the shadow of an incurable illness, he completed the Christmas scene In Terra Pax (1951-4) and the Cello Concerto (1951-5).

Song-writing is at the heart of Finzi's output and he made a significant contribution to British twentieth-century music in this genre, especially the settings of Thomas Hardy, his favourite poet, whom he set more than any other. His volume of Hardy's Collected Poems was a treasured possession; as he wrote to a friend: 'If I had to be cut off from everything that would be the one book I should choose'. He felt an empathy with Hardy's bleak fatalism, his sense of transience, and his anger at the suffering that mankind afflicts on mankind. About Hardy he wrote tellingly: 'I have always loved him so much and from earliest days responded, not so much to an influence, as to a kinship with him.'

The songs that comprise Earth and Air and Rain were composed between 1928 and 1932 and published in 1936. Several songs were performed individually, or in groups, but it was not until 1943 that the first complete performance took place on 23 March with Robert Irwin, accompanied by Howard Ferguson. The work marks a significant step forward in Finzi's development as his mature voice comes to the fore in the impressive range of emotions tackled.

In 'Summer Schemes', Finzi aptly captures the contrast between the eager anticipation of the summer idylls that the poet dreams he and his sweetheart will share, and the measured caution of the caveat in the final lines of each verse – so long as fate does not intervene. 'When I set out for Lyonesse', recalls Hardy's visit to Cornwall as a young man when he fell in love with Emma Gifford who became his first wife. Its brisk march rhythm creates a sense of adventure and the song culminates radiantly as the poet returns with 'magic' in his eyes.

'Waiting both' is an imaginary conversation between the poet and a star, each pondering on the meaning of existence, with Finzi evoking the vastness of eternity through the use of the extremes of the piano's range. 'The phantom' is Hardy's recollection, after the death of his first wife, of her as a young woman riding along the Cornish cliffs during their courtship. Finzi reflects this image in the cantering gait of the accompaniment, which by the final verse, with its chromatic inflections in the vocal line, has become an obsessive fixation in the poet's mind.

In 'So I have fared', Finzi sets the convoluted syntax of Hardy's macaronic verse to a supple, quasi recitative-like vocal line, broadening in the penultimate verse to an evocation of the relentless tread of time. 'Rollicum-Rorum' is a drinking song with a bravura rollicking accompaniment deftly placed half-way through the work to provide maximum contrast. 'To Lizbie Browne', a poem of regret for what might have been, has a touching simplicity and a haunting refrain which Finzi subtly varies. The most ambitious song is 'The Clock of the Years' which is like a miniature solo cantata, compact in its combination of recitative, arioso and instrumental commentary, and linked motivically by the rhythm at the words 'Agreed to that'. It ends dramatically in bleak despair with the spirit's chilling admonishment.

'In a churchyard' also has a range of expression: the sentient Yew tree communicates the view that the dead are more content than the living to a listless rocking rhythm, whilst in the final verse the changed perception of the poet is reflected in a flowing piano figuration and a change to a major key. 'Proud Songsters' opens with an extended piano introduction, with a lilting appoggiatura figure, that binds the song and returns full circle in the postlude, bringing a sense of conclusion to the set as a whole. It is also blessed with sublimely beautiful music in the setting of the second stanza where Finzi's lyricism captures the heart of Hardy's words and philosophy.

At Finzi's death some two dozen songs were left complete. Howard Ferguson, together with Finzi's widow, Joy, and eldest son Christopher, divided them into four song sets of which To a poet brought together six songs for baritone by various poets. John Carol Case and Ferguson gave the first performance on 20 February 1959. The songs span the whole of Finzi's career, 'To a poet a thousand years hence' dating from the early 1920s, although it was revised in 1940. It is a song brimming with lyrical felicities in which Flecker's words match exactly Finzi's own artistic creed that a work of art spans time and space to create a bond between the artist and individuals yet to be born. Significantly Finzi buried this song in a time capsule under his house whilst it was being built.

'On parent knees' (1935) is a setting of an epigram translated from the Persian, attributed to the eighteenth-century orientalist William Jones, although Finzi's erudite footnote points to an alternative source. Finzi perfectly balances the poem's conceit – a crying baby is watched by smiling faces: a man on his death bed smiles peacefully whilst onlookers weep – by inserting a bar's rest in between the two halves. 'Intrada' sets words from Centuries of Meditation by Thomas Traherne as a quasi recitative. It may date from the 1920s when Finzi was setting other Traherne texts for Dies Natalis.

Finzi had intended to compose a set of songs to poems by Walter de la Mare; one was completed in 1920, the next, 'The birthnight', 36 years later, three months before his death. Particularly effective is this tranquil song's ending with its rapt change of key ushering in human warmth and happiness at the arrival of the new born child, after the chill evocation of icy night outside. In 'June on Castle Hill' (1940) Lucas's image of the laden bee, transformed into a plane loaded with bombs, is captured by Finzi in the syncopated, throbbing chords of the accompaniment, heavy with foreboding. 'Ode on the rejection of St Cecilia' was a BBC commission of 1948. Six new poems were to be set by different composers for a programme about composers' approach to word setting. In the event only Finzi fulfilled the brief, writing a scenalike song with far-ranging moods that conjours the 'fury and magnificence' he found in George Barker's poetry.

By Footpath and Stile, for baritone and string quartet, was Finzi's earliest collection of Hardy settings, begun in 1921 and completed the following year. It was performed on 24 October 1923 by Sumner Austin, with the Charles Woodhouse String Quartet and published two years later. Finzi, however, withdrew the work intending to revise it and replace some songs with new ones; he revised the first and third songs in 1940, but undertook no further work. In 1981 Finzi's friend Howard Ferguson edited the work for republication mainly adding dynamic markings which were scant in Finzi's early scores. Unlike most of Finzi's song collections this work was conceived as an integrated cycle, and it shows him seeking his own identity as a composer; the melodies, for instance, rarely have the stamp of his maturity. What is characteristic though, is the preoccupation with death and the transience of life, a salutary reminder that Finzi by this time had frequently brushed shoulders with death having lost father, three brothers and beloved teacher Ernest Farrar.

'Paying calls' develops out of a serene, lyrical modal phrase played by the first violin, and at the beginning of the second verse there is a momentary flash of Finzi's mature voice. The oscillating chords at the end of 'Where the picnic was' recall 'Clun' from On Wenlock Edge by Vaughan Williams, who was an important influence on Finzi at this time. This is apparent too through the use of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century harmonic traits in 'The oxen', which is also unified by a binding refrain. 'The master and the leaves' provides welcome contrast from the predominant slow tempos in its Presto marking and lively counterpoint; the last verse has a Holstian marching bass line which Finzi often adopted in later works.

This poem and the next, 'Voices from things growing in a churchyard', share Hardy's pantheistic philosophy that the dead return to become the branches, leaves, berries of trees and plants. The latter is the most ambitious and impressive song of the cycle, almost a scena, in which Finzi deftly characterises the different participants of this dance of the dead as they appear in turn. In 'Exeunt omnes' the cycle comes full circle with themes from earlier songs returning. Towards the end the melody of the first song is reached once more and the music slips into the rocking peace of eternity.

Andrew Burn


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