FINZI: Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice / Magnificat / Unaccompanied Partsongs, Op. 17 (Andrew Walton/ Christopher Robinson/ Christopher Whitton/ St. John's College Choir/ Cambridge) (Naxos: 8.555792)
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Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
Lo, the full final sacrifice and other choral works
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) attracted critical attention and his reputation grew with the first performances of the song-cycle A Young Mans Exhortation (1926-9) and the cantata Dies natalis (mid-1920s, 1938-9). In the post-war years several of his works were given their premières at the Three Choirs Festival, for example the Clarinet Concerto (1948-9) and his setting of Wordsworths 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 the Christmas scene In terra pax (1954) and the Cello Concerto (1951-2, 1954-5).
Finzis music is rooted in the tradition of Elgar and his lifelong friend Vaughan Williams. It was his response to words, however, that gave his music its particular individuality, resulting in music that seems inevitably to mirror the essence of the poets thought. As in Finzis favourite poet, Thomas Hardy, a sense of urgency can be felt in the music reflecting his keen awareness of lifes frailty. A further preoccupation was his belief that adult experience tarnishes the innocent wonder of childhood. Both these concerns may be traced to Finzis own early experience when the deaths of his father, three brothers and his teacher Farrar made an indelible impression on him. As a young man he was introspective: literature provided companionship, and in authors like Robert Bridges, Thomas Traherne, Wordsworth and Hardy he found like minds.
Indefatigable that nothing good should be lost, Finzis energetic mind went far beyond his compositions. He was an ardent champion of neglected composers like Ivor Gurney, and with the fine amateur string orchestra he founded, the Newbury String Players, he revived works by forgotten eighteenth century composers such as John Stanley and Richard Mudge. He also collected a library of English poetry and literature of over three thousand volumes including many rare editions. Not least, in his orchard, he rescued several traditional English apple varieties from extinction.
During the early 1930s Finzi was encouraged to compose a cycle of unaccompanied partsongs to poems by Robert Bridges by the photographer and early keyboard specialist Herbert Lambert. (It was Lambert who took the well-known photograph of the composer sitting reading whilst smoking his pipe.) Composed between 1934 to 1937, the resultant Seven Unaccompanied Partsongs were given their first performance in a BBC broadcast on 29th December 1938 by the BBC Singers conducted by Trevor Harvey. Although Finzi himself was not entirely satisfied with his settings, which he described as finicky and old maidish, their fresh lyricism has continued to make them justly popular with small choirs.
Finzis festival anthem, Lo, the full, final sacrifice, was written for the 1946 Patronal Festival of St Matthews, Northampton, where the remarkable incumbent, Walter Hussey, had initiated a series of commissions of music, painting, literature and sculpture from composers, artists and writers including Britten, Lennox Berkeley, Sutherland, Moore and Auden. Sixteenth and seventeenth century poetry was another inspiration to Finzi and here he sets Richard Crashaws translation from the Latin of St Thomas Aquinass Adoro te and Lauda Sion. The anthem is planned on an extended scale beginning with a substantial organ introduction. Finzi follows the verse structure of the poem bringing to each a memorable musical idea and the setting is varied by solos and a cappella passages as the music ebbs and flows to ecstatic climaxes. Finzi matches Crashaws words with melodies of ravishing loveliness, for instance at Jesu, Master and the serene, melismatic Amen.
My lovely One was composed for the marriage of Finzis sister-in-law in 1946. The words by Edward Taylor (?1646-1729) are a further example of the composer being drawn to a poet from the age when he believed English poetry and prose reached its apogee. Its opening and closing sections are set to a lilting, caressing 6/8 rhythm, as the voices enter in turn. In the middle is a change of metre, and a rapt outpouring of emotion that brings the music to its climax at the words Lord, melt me all up into Love for thee.
God is Gone Up also sets Taylor and was commissioned for the St Cecilias Day Service of 22nd November 1951, when it was performed at St Sepulchres, Holborn Viaduct, with John Dykes Bower conducting choristers from the Chapels Royal, St Pauls Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral. Overall it has an exultant air, with its fanfare-like opening mirroring the words The Lord with sounding trumpets melodies.
Welcome sweet and sacred feast was a BBC commission from its Religious Broadcasting Department. Once again Finzi was drawn to a seventeenth century author, and set here The Holy Communion by Henry Vaughan (1622-1695). The first performance was in a BBC Evensong broadcast from St Michaels Cornhill on 11th October 1953. It begins with a short organ introduction, which, almost at the end of the work, returns transformed into one of Finzis most lyrical and memorable phrases at the words O rose of Sharon! O the lily of the valley!
The circumstances that led to Finzis 1951 setting of a passage from Ecclesiastes, Let us now praise famous men, are not known, nor are any details of its first performance. It is set for a two-part male chorus characterized by a broad, noble melody and marching tread in the accompaniment.
The Magnificat was Finzis sole foreign commission, written at the behest of Iva Dee Hiatt, the conductor of the All Smith Choir and Amherst College Choir, Northampton, Massachusetts. It received its première on 12th December 1952 at the colleges Christmas Vespers Service. Finzi, however, did not conceive it for liturgical use; there is no concluding Gloria, nor a companion Nunc dimittis. For the opening Finzi provides an exultant theme which will recur refrain-like during the work. Among its impressive moments are the extended melodic lines at for he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden; as well as the subtle progression at he hath filled the hungry with good things, as the pangs of the starving are assuaged by the consonance at the words good things.
In the early 1950s Finzi conceived the idea of composing a companion group for his earlier Bridges partsongs, but for male voices only. However, Thou didst delight mine eyes was the only one completed. As Finzis personal style hardly changed over the years, it could almost have been written at the same time as the earlier settings, although the vocal writing is now far more assured.