Slow moments with SW: Gerald Finzi – elegiac radiance

Finzi at his desk.
Sketch by Milein Cosman published courtesy of the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust.

A change of gear this time, I thought, and what better than to explore some of Gerald Finzi’s ‘slow moments’. How does one begin to describe their essence? Imbued in places with a searing introspection, in others with sheer spiritual radiance, his slow movements are also often melancholy, elegiac, heartbreaking. Impossible, of course, to sum up his richly creative life in a few sentences, but let me begin with this little extract from the 5th (1954) edition of Grove’s Dictionary in which Kenneth Avery writes: “…his musical career has been of a quiet freelance nature, composing at leisure in the country, conducting amateur orchestras and so on…all his published music represents him fully, for he adopted the principle of withholding and perfecting his compositions until he is fully satisfied with them.” Only two years later, this seemingly idyllic life was cut short – Finzi died on 27 September 1956 aged only 55.

So, where to start? How to start? I have spent many pleasurable hours “just” listening to remind myself of pieces I know and love and to explore those still awaiting my ever-receptive ears. Well, why not begin with his Introit for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 6, [M310.b.95.4] intended as the slow movement of a full concerto. However, whilst Finzi was happy with this piece, he was never comfortable with its outer movements and so it survives as an orphan – but what an orphan! The movement is marked molto sereno which it lives up to and beyond presenting an intense, meditative seemingly endless melodic stream-of-consciousness by the soloist, gently supported by the orchestra. Here is Lesley Hatfield with the Northern Sinfonia:

No post on Finzi would be complete without reference to his fine body of song – particularly those set to texts by Thomas Hardy for whose poetry he had a particular affinity: By Footpath and Stile (1921-2), A Young Man’s Exhortation (1926-9) and Earth, Air and Rain (1928-32). But – perversely –  it is not from the Hardy settings that my chosen ‘moment’ is taken but his Shakespeare settings Let us Garlands Bring, Op. 18 (1938-40) [MRS.30.260 – the score is inscribed “Arthur Bliss from Gerald Finzi, 10.10.42”]. The songs were dedicated to Vaughan Williams as a birthday gift and were first performed on 12thOctober 1942 (RVW’s birthday) at the National Gallery lunchtime concert by baritone Robert Irwin accompanied by Howard Ferguson. So here, in response to a special request, is Come Away Death– Feste’s second song in Twelfth Night. (Incidentally, the UL has some of the National Gallery concert programmes in its Lily Marion Rosenberg collection – sadly not this one though). This is Bryn Terfel.

We come now to perhaps my favourite Finzi slow moment – the 1929 Eclogue, Op. 10 [M330.a.95.126] for piano and orchestra. It was intended as the slow movement of a piano concerto which was never completed and given its premiere at a memorial concert for the composer on 27 January 1957. The opening stops me in my tracks every time – sublime simplicity, quietly contemplative before giving way to a more troubled middle section after which calm is restored and peace returns. For me, this is quintessential Finzi. Peter Donohoe performs with the Northern Sinfonia:

Finally, it seems right to end my selection with the slow movement of what was to be his last large-scale work: the Cello Concerto (Op. 40 in A minor) [The UL has a reproduction of the manuscript at MRA.310.95.80]. Although Finzi had been thinking about writing a concerto for the instrument for many years, he did not put pen to MS paper until – tragically – he was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease and knew he did not have long to live. Here is Raphael Wallfisch writing for “The Strad”:

It was Christopher Bunting who gave the premiere of the concerto, at the 1955 Cheltenham Festival. He worked closely with the composer and made a lot of suggestions that Finzi incorporated. I knew Christopher very well when I was growing up; he played chamber music with my father, the pianist Peter Wallfisch [who, incidentally, was married to Anita Lasker – also a cellist, playing for many years with the English Chamber Orchestra. SW], and I felt honoured when I was asked to edit a new version of the Cello Concerto for Boosey & Hawkes, where Christopher had edited the original. It’s very affecting to think that he also gave the first performance of the concerto at the BBC Proms in 1956, and that Finzi was listening to the broadcast; he passed away the very next day. (The Strad 9 May 2018)

I could go on, but I need to leave you wanting to explore more for yourselves! If you would like to find out more about Finzi, you can do no better than visit the Finzi Trust and the Finzi Friends websites and read Diana McVeagh’s biography of the composer [M501.c.200.63]. Intriguingly, there is an indirect Cambridge connection with Finzi in that his wife Joy was a friend of Jim Ede, the founder of Kettle’s Yard, where art and music are inextricably linked.


Joy Finzi, whose nature matched her name, was also a friend of the composer, William Alwyn. Letters from Joy, along with cards designed by her, may be found in the Alwyn / Carwithen Archive.


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1 Response to Slow moments with SW: Gerald Finzi – elegiac radiance

  1. dannydicks56 says:

    Thanks so much for this post – Finzi is one of my very favourite composers, and the ‘Eclogue’ would vie with ‘Dies Natalis’ for a Desert Island Discs slot! Diana McVeagh’s book is very informative and comprehensive, but I have to confess the musicological sections are a challenge for me! (And how did Joy put up with him?!)


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