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GERALD FINZI: His Life and Music
by Diana McVeagh
25 b/w illustrations
1 line illustration
306 pages
Size: 23 x 15 cm
ISBN: 1843831708
Binding: Hardback
Publication date: September 2005
Price: 49.95 USD/25.00 GBP
Imprint: Boydell Press


I am sure that many of us wondered if this book would ever be finished. After all if you time-travel back to benighted 1977 and the Lyrita LP of the Clarinet Concerto you will find that the sleeve-note is by Ms McVeagh. There she is announced to be writing a book on Finzi's life and music. That was more than a quarter century ago - not long in Finzian timespan - after all he was the one who set the Flecker poem in which a poet shakes hands across a thousand years with a contemporary reader. 

Since the 1970s Finzi's music has emerged even more triumphant than some of his more publicly illustrious contemporaries. In the popularity stakes he vies with Vaughan Williams. He trounces Bax. His music has Classic FM fame and he is known and loved far and wide. His music has taken off in the USA and has been performed the world over. His bright fame shows no sign of diminution only of growing further.

Despite his Italianate name his music taps deep into the sinews and life force of England. That said, his music is by no means unremitting song. He uses discord adroitly. It might be Britten or Rawsthorne who had written the grinding massed string work at the start of the finale of the Clarinet Concerto. The raw and groaning shout of pain from full orchestra in the Cello Concerto suggests perhaps a yawning grave from which the music turns away in the sweet ballad finale - part-rumba part-Rutterkin serenade. The Eternal Silence evoked in Intimations rumbles with mystery and a hint of malcontent. The Hardy songs can be eerie too - especially the sliming worms in Channel Firing and vivid ululating drool of the glebe cow.

Finzi himself can easily seem a sweetly poetic character - a sort of singing pre-Raphaelite. If you had any such illusions McVeagh puts us right. Finzi can be vitriolic. He denounces the RVW 70th birthday tribute pieces by Alan Bush as ghastly and by Lambert (Aubade Héroïque) as balls. He has more time for Milford, Rubbra and Maconchy. As for Bax’s symphonies he agreed with Boult in not being able to tell one of them from any of the others. He also despised the then popular Charpentier opera Louise - ‘the property of arty sentimental women’.

McVeagh recounts Finzi travelling with Rubbra to wartime Bristol to hear the Boult-conducted premiere of Rubbra’s Third Symphony. Speaking of Rubbra we find that he and his violinist wife Antoinette Chaplin were the soloists in Bach's Double Violin Concerto with the Newbury String Players in 1941. Jacqueline Du Pré was the soloist at an NSP concert in 1953 and this fine performance is captured in primitive but bearable sound in a Cello Classics double issued last year.

The NSP concert seasons are listed as an appendix. There the composers whose works he nurtured and propagated are catalogued as are the many apple varieties he grew at his specially constructed countryside house at Ashmansworth. The composers championed include his contemporaries Anthony Scott, Robin Milford, Edmund Rubbra, Kenneth Leighton, R.O. Morris, Elizabeth Maconchy Vaughan Williams (somewhat heroically they attempted the Tallis Fantasia in their 1945 season).  From previous generations of Brits he included Mudge, Garth, Capel Bond, the Wesleys and Stanley. Possibly surprising inclusions were works by Richard Arnell and Walton.

There was a defiant humour in Finzi’s character as well. He found the experience of working as a civil servant at the Ministry during the second world war completely sapping of life energy. The sense he built into his music of desperation at passing time was heightened by the stultifying waste of those years. In any event when he resigned, his boss found his departure announced by the composer having left a copy of his Farewell to Arms on the desk.

This book is the very readable; typical of Diana McVeagh's style. Crudely this is to the slightly indigestible but satisfyingly detailed Stephen Banfield book Gerald Finzi An English Composer what Jessica Duchen's Korngold book is to Brendan Carroll's. Both Duchen (hardly ever mentioned) and McVeagh have the gift of writing with an easy communicative grace that pleasingly conveys substance.

The chapter in which the genesis and evolution of the Ode to St Cecilia (a commission) is tracked gives a rare insight into the give and take between Blunden and Finzi. The two men's letters trace their writing and rewriting of the version of the poem to be set with Finzi showing himself an adept wordsmith. Finzi planned a Blunden song cycle which was not to be.

Tragedy added to Finzi's melancholy inclinations. By his teens a large complement of sibling Finzis children had been reduced by death to himself and the only girl. The Great War despatched brother Edgar and his young teacher Ernest Farrar - each killed within weeks before the Armistice.

One of his first loves was the violinist Sybil Eaton, the dedicatee of the Howells first violin sonata and one of the few champions of Holbrooke's Grasshopper Violin Concerto. Sybil was to premiere the Finzi Violin Concerto including the serene Introit middle movement. Ms Eaton was one of the constants. She was there as a member of the string quartet when the NSP gave a performance of the RVW Tallis Fantasia in 1945.

Pragmatism was also borne in on him. For a while consistent with his socialist principles he and his mother did all the house and garden work at their Gloucestershire home in the early 1930s. That didn’t last long.

The book  is well kitted out with a 17 page index. There’s a catalogue of works in Appendix 1. The select bibliography is joined by a list of his musical editions and writings. The former include his performing versions of the orchestral music of Capel Bond, Boyce, Mudge, Garth, Stanley and Charles Wesley. His own writings take in articles on The folksongs of Newfoundland, an R.O. Morris obituary (Morris may soon feature in the Toccata Classics CD programme), Words and Music, A Tribute broadcast on RVW’s 80th, Herbert Howells and, of course, the three Crees Lectures on The Composer’s Use of Words.

Looking to the future there will surely be premiere recordings of various works outside the accepted Finzian canon. By Footpath and Style is a natural candidate; after all it was broadcast by the BBC twice on the 1980s (David Wilson-Johnson and the Allegri in 1982 and Michael George and the Bochmann in 1985). Since the Violin Concerto has been revived on CD (Chandos - rather desiccated in the manner of the Holst Double Violin Concerto and the RVW Concerto Accademico apart from the ineffably beautiful middle movement Introit) why not other works. The symphonic suite The Bud, The Blossom and The Berry could surely be brought out. The Fall of the Leaf is the Berry movement and Prelude is the first movement. The middle movement is the Nocturne. Then there's the unrealised Piano Concerto. If Elgar's Piano Concerto and Third Symphony can emerge there is no reason why the same should not apply to Finzi. We shall see.

This book jostles for front row with the Banfield book. The fact is that the McVeagh is a lithe yet plangently detailed read. It is well indexed and often touching without being sickly or fey. Banfield’s book is complementary and heavy with scholarly detail. The blizzard of letter references in the middle of the text was not perhaps the best choice. If I had to recommend a book  to read for an enthusiast who had just discovered the composer then there’s no doubt that the McVeagh is first choice.

McVeagh surely loves Finzi’s music and it shows. However her devotion is clear-eyed and her writing completely avoids the sort of pastoral hagiography that Finzi scholarship can easily collapse into.

The book is self-recommending but that does not stop me recommending it.

Rob Barnett








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