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A cluster of choral miniatures culminating in one of Finzi’s most intense, visionary masterpieces: this is some of the most exquisite English choral writing of the last century.
These are curious credentials for a composer contributing at least two enduring touchstones to the corpus of Anglican choral music. Moreover, in a spiritual sense Finzi never felt himself to be Jewish, but nor did he espouse any other faith, and his death led to no funeral. Yet, his passionate belief in an earthly purpose of commitment to honest artistic toil aligns him in some ways with Bach, who came of a dynastic family line of composers and saw himself as the Christian artisan, labouring to render back unto God. At the same time it might remind us of the humanistic belief of Carl Nielsen that ‘music is life, and, like life, inextinguishable’. Finzi’s church music represents a meeting point in this sense, speaking perhaps to the condition of doubt as much as to belief. It also displays much the same characteristics of word-setting as his songs, generally espousing the ‘one-note-per-syllable’ principle predominating also in the French mélodie tradition of Chausson, Duparc, Fauré and others, and reserving ‘melismas’ (expressive extensions of a single vowel over several notes) for special moments of heightened intensity.
The fact that Finzi’s Magnificat (1952) lacks both a Gloria setting and a companion Nunc dimittis is explained by its having been commissioned not for Anglican Evensong but for the celebration of Christmas Vespers at a college in Massachusetts, USA. This was an exceedingly busy period in the composer’s life, not least because he was living already in the shadow of Hodgkin’s disease, acutely aware that his time was short. The work was written in haste, but betrays this, if at all, through fleeting reminiscences of other works, not a lowering of quality.
The apparently rhapsodic freedom of the Magnificat is regulated by a technique whereby melodic contours either emerge as musical ‘anagrams’ of one another or give common prominence to certain intervals. Finzi’s exact contemporary and close friend, Edmund Rubbra, titled the first movement of his unconventional piano concerto a ‘corymbus’, in its botanical connotation of an ‘inflorescence of stalked flowers springing from different levels but making a flat head’. In musical terms, this meant that a seminal idea would be added to upon its reappearance, thus heading in a new direction after the initial element of repetition. Something similar often informs Finzi’s methods, which may well have been influenced by conversation with Rubbra (and vice versa).
The Magnificat’s seminal materials are set out in an expansive organ introduction, before a series of three declamatory choral entries, each confined to the canticle’s opening six words and the second entry echoing the organ’s opening motif. One prominent unifying element is a tendency to balance a wide rising interval with several narrower descending ones. ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’ recurs more than once in the work as a whole, constituting an emotional or dramatic subtext and eventually acknowledging the Blessed Virgin as its human source in a soprano solo version. Other aspects of long-range thinking include the balancing of the word ‘blessed’ (reiterated eight times) and, considerably later, ‘for ever’ (repeated ten times and suggesting a verbal elision into ‘blessed for ever’). Free counterpoint is energetically deployed in response to ‘And his mercy is on them that fear him’, while the putting down of the mighty from their seat is graphically evoked in a sequential series of descending sevenths. ‘Humble and meek’ brings the music eventually to a complete standstill and a subdued fresh start. The final Amen pacifies the questing music of the opening, its beatific retrospection perhaps drawing for inspiration upon its lengthier counterpart in Lo, the full, final sacrifice. Here, as elsewhere, conceptually the florid organ writing differs little from Finzi’s characteristic string ensemble writing.
Of the three short anthems grouped as Op 27, Welcome sweet and sacred feast is the most substantial. The neo-Baroque flavour of its accompanied passages tellingly alternates with subdued a cappella writing, and with the oblique cadence approaches which form so distinctive a part of the composer’s voice. After two radiant but short-lived climactic passages the music becomes subdued again, eventually returning to the brief organ statement with which it opened.
The enduringly popular God is gone up was commissioned in 1951 for performance in the London church of St Sepulchre on St Cecilia’s Day, the annual (22 November) commemoration of the patron saint of music. Not only is Stephen Layton’s addition of ceremonial brass for the present performance wholly appropriate, but it also makes amends for a premiere at which the organ was somewhat underpowered. Given free rein over text, Finzi chose two verses from one of the Sacramental Meditations of Edward Taylor (c1642–1729), fashioning them into a ternary form in which the recurring material towards the end is somewhat condensed. Imitative writing is deployed occasionally and succinctly, creating an effective foil to the predominant choral unanimity without overextending the music. Finzi’s fluid migration between quadruple and triple time suggests that the mentality and technique of his solo songs are never far away; indeed, the music tactfully irons out a few moments of bumpy syllabic accentuation where Taylor possibly found self-imposed iambic pentameters something of a straitjacket.
My lovely one was composed for the marriage of Finzi’s sister-in-law and took its text from the same source as God is gone up. Again, the especially rapt moments are the unaccompanied ones. Within a very brief span Finzi moves from a subdued minor-key invocation to an affecting major-key candour and tenderness, then back again.
David Bednall wrote his Nunc dimittis in 2016, in order to facilitate the use of Finzi’s Magnificat within Anglican Evensong. He also fashioned a Gloria which could be inserted into the Magnificat before Finzi’s own Amen, though this is not heard in the present recording. Few, if any, contemporary composers are so well qualified to inhabit Finzi’s idiom while preserving a personal integrity of voice and approach. Despite this, Bednall modestly disavows any explicit intention to complete or correct Finzi’s work, preferring to stress only a de facto widening of opportunity for the Magnificat to be regularly heard.
Finzi himself was dissatisfied with the Seven poems of Robert Bridges, as a letter to his friend Robin Milford shows. One difficulty here is that Bridges was almost exclusively a poet of the first person singular, so that setting his lyric poems chorally requires a composer to preserve the sense of a single composite voice. Finzi’s scrupulous respect for text shows in his limiting the imitative divergences whereby textures can be enlivened and pacing regulated—but words potentially obfuscated. Since songs one to six are all in a major key, and the seventh ambivalently poised between minor and major, it cannot be said that Finzi made things easier for himself. However, each of these sensitive, melodically disarming miniatures is attractive in itself, and the third of them lastingly popular, while in the sixth, ‘Haste on’ evokes from Finzi an apt canonic rhythm whereby the upper voices seem to be perpetually nudging the lower ones along. The only true problem here lies in programming the group in toto rather than individually; and therefore their perfect collective context is arguably a recording, not a live concert.
A comparable but different difficulty applies to White-flowering days. Finzi was one of a dozen composers approached by the Arts Council with a commission for what became a set of madrigals entitled ‘A garland for the Queen’, echoing ‘The triumphs of Oriana’ presented to Queen Elizabeth I in 1601. Britten and Walton turned their commissions down for differing reasons, so only ten works were written, each now a little isolated in its brevity unless the collection is programmed as a whole. Finzi collaborated with his old friend Edmund Blunden. The result is a shapely and contained utterance, its brief moments of overt exultation tempered by the evanescence of the music’s weightless opening parallel thirds.
All this night was commissioned for the University of London Musical Society chorus, a huge force of 400 voices. Finzi evidently took that into account, conjuring a forcefully jubilant and high-flying short work from largely homophonic and chordal material, and a perfect musical response to the evocative poem of William Austin (1587–1634).
In noting how far Lo, the full, final sacrifice sits from the choral sound and manner of Vaughan Williams, Banfield observes also its distance from Finzi’s other metaphysical settings, commenting on its ‘intense, almost necromantic atmosphere, laden with incense’. This, indeed, was fairly specifically requested when the work was commissioned by the Revd Walter Hussey for the patronal festival of St Matthew’s Church, Northampton. Finzi’s sensitive conflation of two poems by Richard Crashaw (1612/3–1649), both free translations from Latin hymns by St Thomas Aquinas, resulted in a musical conception that grew and grew from the sombre contemplation of its opening. Focus on the Eucharist (suggested by Hussey) is maintained through the recurrent imagery of manna, bread, wine and redemption. The central exhortation ‘Rise, Royal Sion!’ calls forth one of Finzi’s most radiantly majestic passages, but elsewhere the music is punctuated by exquisitely introspective solo material or the highlighting of individual vocal lines. What could have degenerated into an unworkably discursive series of episodes is unified by Finzi’s skill in the use of ‘head motifs’, much like the ‘corymbus’ notion of Edmund Rubbra, cited earlier, whereby ideas heading in fresh and unexpected directions spring initially from a common source, in apparent illustration of Crashaw: ‘Nor let my days / Grow, but in new powers to thy name and praise.’ Ultimately the subdued opening music returns (‘When this dry soul those eyes shall see’), followed by a recurrence of the text’s opening couplet. The E major Amen that follows is beautiful not only for itself, but also for its ‘healing’ restoration of F sharp to what had previously been a modal scale ‘disfigured’ by a dissonant F natural; yet both these competing entities are then held in unresolved balance within the very final bars, like the two inseparable wings of an eternal truth.
Francis Pott © 2019