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Gerald Finzi and his Clarinet Concerto

Finzi

Gerald Raphael Finzi (July 14, 1901–September 27, 1956) was a British composer who is best known as a choral composer, but also wrote in other genres, including large-scale compositions such as the cantata Dies natalis for solo voice and string orchestra, and his concertos for cello and clarinet.  Finzi was born on July 14, 1901, in London, the son of John Abraham (Jack) Finzi, of Italian Jewish descent, and Eliza Emma (Lizzie) Leverson, daughter of Montague Leverson, of German Jewish descent), and spent his childhood in the city.  Finzi’s father, a successful shipbroker, died just two weeks before his son’s eighth birthday.  Finzi was educated privately. During World War I the family settled in Harrogate, and Finzi began to study music at Christ Church, High Harrogate, under Ernest Farrar, a former pupil of Stanford from 1915. Farrar’s death at the Western Front and the loss of three of his brothers affected him deeply.

After Farrar’s death, Finzi studied privately at York Minster with the organist and choirmaster Edward Bairstow.  In 1922, following five years of study with Bairstow, Finzi moved to Painswick in Gloucestershire, where he began composing in earnest. His first published work was ‘By Footpath and Stile’ (1921-22), a song-cycle for baritones and string quartet to texts by Thomas Hardy, whose work Finzi greatly admired.  This first Hardy setting and the orchestral piece A Severn Rhapsody were soon performed in London to favorable reviews.  In 1925, at the suggestion of Adrian Boult, Finzi took a course in counterpoint with R. O. Morris, one of the outstanding British teachers of the inter-war years, and then moved to London, where he became friendly with Howard Ferguson and Edmund Rubbra. He was also introduced to Gustav Holst, Arthur Bliss and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Vaughan Williams, who in 1928 conducted Finzi’s Violin Concerto, obtained for him a teaching post (1930–1933) at the Royal Academy of Music, U.K.

Finzi never felt at home in the city, so, having married the artist Joyce Black, in 1933 gave up the post and settled with her in Aldbourne, Wiltshire, where he devoted himself to composing and apple-growing. The same year saw a complete performance of the song-cycle ‘A Young Man’s Exhortation’ (1926-29), his first noted success in London.  He also amassed a large library of some 3000 volumes of English poetry, philosophy and literature, now in the library of the University of Reading, and a collection of some 700 volumes including books, manuscripts and printed scores of 18th-century English music, now at the University of St Andrews.  During the 1930s, Finzi composed only a few works, but it was in these, notably the cantata Dies natalis (1939) to texts by Thomas Traherne, that his fully mature style developed. He also worked on behalf of the poet-composer Ivor Gurney, who had been committed to an institution. Finzi and his wife catalogued and edited Gurney’s works for publication. They also studied and published English folk music and music by older English composers such as William Boyce, Capel Bond, John Garth, Richard Mudge, John Stanley and Charles Wesley.

In 1939 the Finzis moved to Ashmansworth Farm in Hampshire, where he founded the Newbury String Players, an amateur chamber orchestra which he conducted until his death, reviving eighteenth century string music as well as giving premieres of works by his contemporaries, and offering chances of performance for talented young musicians such as Julian Bream and Kenneth Leighton.  The outbreak of World War II delayed the first performance of Dies natalis at the Three Choirs Festival, an event that could have established Finzi as a major composer. He worked for the Ministry of War Transport and lodged German and Czech refugees in his home. After the war, he became somewhat more productive than before, writing several choral works as well as the Clarinet Concerto (1949), perhaps his most popular work.  The return of peace brought Finzi a series of important commissions, namely, ‘Lo, The Full, Final Sacrifice’ (1946-47), a festival anthem; a larger scale ode ‘For St Cecilia’ (1946-47); and his masterpiece ‘Intimations of Immortality’ (1938-50), for tenor, chorus and orchestra.

By then, Finzi’s works were being performed frequently at the Three Choirs Festival and elsewhere. But in 1951, Finzi learned that he was suffering from the then incurable Hodgkin’s disease and had at most ten years to live. An all-Finzi concert at the Royal Festival Hall in 1954 acknowledged his standing in Britain’s musical life.  Something of his feelings after this revelation of his illness is probably reflected in the agonized first movement of his Cello Concerto (1955), Finzi’s last major work, although its second movement, originally intended as a musical portrait of his wife, is more serene.  In 1956, following an excursion near Gloucester with Vaughan Williams, Finzi developed shingles, probably as a result of immune suppression caused by Hodgkin’s disease, which developed into a “severe brain inflammation,” probably encephalitis. He died not much later on September 27, 1956 in the Radcliffe Infirmary hospital in Oxford, the first performance of his Cello Concerto on the radio having been given the night before.  Finzi’s eldest son, Christopher, became a noted conductor and an exponent of his father’s music. Finzi’s younger son Nigel was an successful violinist, and worked closely with their mother in promoting his father’s music.

Finzi’s output of more than 100 songs for soloist or choir includes nine song cycles six of them on the poems of Thomas Hardy.  The first of these, By Footpath and Stile is for voice and string quartet; the others, including A Young Man’s Exhortation and Earth and Air and Rain, for voice and piano.   Among his other songs, the settings of Shakespeare poems in the cycle Let Us Garlands Bring are the best known. He also wrote incidental music to Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.   For voice and orchestra he composed the pacifist Farewell to Arms.  Finzi’s choral music includes the popular anthems Lo, the full, final sacrifice and God is gone up as well as unaccompanied partsongs, but he also wrote larger-scale choral works such as For St. Cecilia (text by Edmund Blunden), Intimations of Immortality (William Wordsworth) and the Christmas scene In terra pax (Robert Bridges and the Gospel of Luke), all from the last ten years of his life.  The number of Finzi’s purely instrumental works is small even though he took great pains over them in the early part of his career. Of Finzi’s few chamber works, only the Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano have survived in the regular repertoire.

The following works by , op. 31 (1949)

Eclogue for Piano and Strings (1956)

Five Bagatelles for clarinet and strings, op. 23a (1943)

Introit in FM for solo violin and small orchestra, op. 6 (1927)

Romance in EbM for string orchestra with solo violin, op. 11 (1928)

A Severn Rhapsody, op. 3 (1923);

Three Soliloquies from Love’s Labours Lost, op. 28 (1946)

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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