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Local Hero

I have a hunch that music-lovers all over the world, who consider themselves well-versed in the kind of twentieth-century music that does not offend them, have not heard of the English composer Gerald Finzi. Who is this biography of Finzi for, in the United States? Stephen Banfield believes that it is for the American church musicians who know Finzi's anthem God is gone up, and the clarinetists who have played his bagatelles, and all those who saw the film Hilary and Jackie and are passingly interested in the identity of Kiffer, Finzi's son. Perhaps this is too pessimistic. Banfield himself notes that Michael Dukakis proclaimed January 31, 1988, to be "Gerald Finzi Day" in Massachusetts and urged its citizens to "take cognizance of this event and to participate fittingly in its observance."

So is Finzi just a local English hero? His music is as English as anyone could define music to be; but Banfield shows that its Englishness was in some ways a careful, even a desperate, construct. For Finzi, who was born in London in 1901, was the child of a distinguished and many-branched Jewish family, originally from Italy. Against the wishes of Gerald's descendants but with the same eye for detail that characterizes every aspect of this book, Banfield traces the Finzis to 1369, when Musetino del fu Museto de Finzi di Ancona set up the first Jewish money-lending office in Padua. From these beginnings there came noted scholars, jurists, and preachers, and—in the nineteenth century—poets, lawyers, an Assyriologist, and two patriots: Ciro, who died in 1849 at the age of sixteen defending the Roman Republic, and Giuseppe, who became the confidant of Mazzini and Garibaldi and a long-standing member of parliament.

The English Finzis resided in London from the eighteenth century onwards, where the clan eventually led to Jack Finzi, the composer's father, who "was not a practicing Jew but whose cultural background was nonetheless firmly defined." In 1887, under the auspices of the Bevis Marks synagogue, Jack Finzi married Lizzie Leverson, whose family came from Germany. This was the background against which Gerald Finzi, born in 1901, the youngest of five children, so strongly rebelled, for reasons that Banfield does his best to guess. He supposes that it had something to do with an unmarried uncle William, a German tobacco merchant, "against whose patronizing attitude Gerald later railed when his music began to make its mark in the 1920s." In 1952, in any event, Finzi set this exam question for music students at the University of St Andrews: "An imaginary Uncle, who strongly disapproves of the idea that you should take up music as a profession, virites you his reasons. Give his letter in not more than 250 words."

It will not surprise the modern reader to find that rejecting so much led to a confused personality. There is much to explain. Why did Finzi think it such a sign of radical independence to become a composer, when his mother was a composer, too? Why did he emphasize environment above all things—he became a noted cultivator of fruit trees—when he so completely failed to acknowledge his own early environment, to the extent of drawing no nourishment at all from his magnificent pedigree? Banfield finds no final answers. He refers instead to Finzi's favorite poet, Thomas Hardy, whose verse he set more than any other composer has ever done, and with whom he obviously identified: "What Hardy celebrated in the structure of both his life and his poetry was not just the gradual changes that time wreaks but the brutal, often sadistic suddenness of acknowledgment that is humankind's way of perceiving them and to which a desperate defiance to have nothing more to do with the old or the first cause is anger's reaction." And Banfield sums up: "One thing is certain: his identity, if it ever did get anywhere near greatness, was not the watertight unitary one he would have himself and us believe."

What Finzi would have us believe, as his music gives it, Banfield defines as "charm and attraction and containedness and elegiac sweetness and reassuring 'Englishness.'" Such a sentence, I fear, will do Finzi few favors in the world at large, because herein lies the problem for anyone listening to Finzi who is not besotted with Englishness. A parochial Englishness in twentieth-century composers has a stigma to it. This is as true of Elgar's reputation as it is of Finzi's reputation. To be sure, there has to be more to a writer or a composer than local circumstance, if he wants an international audience—even, or especially, when that circumstance is self-willed. Still, the corollary need not necessarily be true: that an evidently local method of expression must fail to convey anything to people outside that particular tradition. If this were true the whole Germanic symphonic tradition would go up in smoke, since it never did establish itself as a properly international style, as Renaissance polyphonic writing once had done: its Germanness always sounded German.

There are traces of the universal in the most resolutely particular. And yet modern English music is not given much space. We are trained not to take seriously what so often in English culture seems to be a mildness out of step with the times, as if it is an insult to our obvious sufferings to dwell on such ordinariness. Anthony Burgess defined this when writing about the Church of England: "It's tepid, because it knows that fire burns. It thinks fire should be imprisoned in an Adam fireplace, not held in the hand. Never despise 'tepidity.'"

Nor do we like the idea of rich children, especially the children of English gentlemen, turning to creative work and not starving when nobody comes to hear the results: it offends some romantic notion of what a real artist must be. Finzi was not only comfortably off, he was also genuinely successful, especially among the cultivated elite—and that, as Julian Bell recently wrote about his upbringing in the Bloomsbury circle, puts the modern advocate of English culture on the defensive. For Bell, the name Bloomsbury "is a memory, or commodity, on which I mostly turn my back." A description of Virginia Woolf having the most delicious luncheon of her life with Vita Sackville-West in Saulieu causes Bell to ask: "Is it a matter of wishing they hadn't had such a good time? That seems like mean-heartedness for the sake of it."

Perhaps Banfield feels some of this pressure. In treading the difficult road between advocacy and analysis, and in being an Englishman with a strong affinity for his subject, he uses words carefully. Yet at the end of it all I am not sure where he thinks Finzi stands. Was he better than that depressed, privileged, charming Englishness, or not? Banfield regularly squares up to this issue and yet never quite reaches a conclusion. How should one read, for example, his ardent description of Finzi's In terra pax, a choral piece that was composed in 1954 and arranged with a full orchestra two years later—it "contains the best and the most of him, for it delves right to the heart of our shared cultural myths ... speaking words of sorrowful comfort but facing an empty universe"—when elsewhere he has written that "if ever a musical work justified the celebration of the minor masterpiece from the limited pen, that work is In terra pax"? If the piece is really both the best of Finzi and irretrievably minor, we may think we know what Banfield's verdict is.

YET BANFIELD'S REMARKS On Finzi's setting of Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality," a piece for tenor, chorus, and orchestra, suggest something greater. Finzi, he observes, "succeeded in making his Immortality Ode the setting of Wordsworth, not to be superseded in the foreseeable future and an achievement that, however incrementally, adjusts and enhances our view of the poem and poet forever, just as every atom of scholarly and critical accretion does. It was a curious way for a minor composer to court greatness, and like everything else Finzi did it meant sidestepping the usual imperatives, if he could bring his courage, or arrogance, to bear on the determination to prove equal to Wordsworth. For this he did..." If all this is correct, then there is a fumble at the heart of Banfield's book, a crippling ambiguity or a timidity of judgment. Some comparisons with the work of composers in the same milieu as Finzi would certainly have helped. For my colleagues who like to sing it, Dies Natalis, which was written for tenor and string orchestra and first performed in London in 1940, is the most admired of Finzi's works. It has some things in common with Intimations of Immortality, not least a poem that explores the perspectives of childhood, and the use of a tenor soloist; but Intimations of Immortality is far in advance of Dies Natalis in expressive power. I have always thought it a supreme example of the pastoral, melodic style in English writing, the style so often associated with Vaughan Williams.

Vaughan Williams's music is generally better constructed than Finzi's, better balanced in the sense that he could write fast movements with the same facility as slow movements and not lose his individual voice; but Finzi's Intimations of Immortality has to my ear some ofthe finest pure invention to come from anyone in the post-Elgar generation of composers. The work is not particularly well constructed, as everyone (including Banfield) is quick to say, but then the poem poses problems that no musician could tidy up. It is a long work, lasting some three-quarters of an hour, and requiring symphonic argument—not the most promising canvas for a man who habitually wrote miniatures. Yet Finzi could not resist the subject matter, which tapped into his deepest feelings and, exhaustingly for him, drew out a masterpiece. His upbringing, as we now understand, informed his every reaction to Wordsworth's words: "But for those first affections,/Those shadowy recollections,/Which, be they what they may,/ Are yet the fountain light of all our day, / Are yet a master light of all our seeing: / Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make / Our noisy years seem moments in the being/Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake, /To perish never."

Intimations of Immortality was completed in 1950, a few months before Finzi first detected the signs of Hodgkin's Disease which would kill him six years later, at the age of 55. But it was not Finzi's swansong. That melancholy distinction belongs to his Cello Coneerto. The composition of this substantial work dominated Finzi's final year: its first broadcast was given on the night before the composer died, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. Its reception by the critics of the day perfectly underlines the difficulties that are always posed by an idiom that is not fully up-to-date, not cutting-edge, and therefore to some degree "tepid." The Daily Telegraph asked: "Is it possible to call 'contemporary' a work so dominated by the figure of Elgar and one whose harmonic language and thematic character give no hint of what has been happening in music during the last 40 years?" The New Statesman went further: "His Cello Concerto is conceived and executed so much under the shadow of Elgar that only by courtesy can it be called a new work at all." And The Times put forward the stock rejoinder: "It is one of our besetting temptations to overpraise the new because it is new, and another is to underestimate what is traditionally expressed merely because its language is not new." In fact, it was Finzi who had the last word, at least among the English, in having written a genuinely beautiful and increasingly admired piece of music.

BEHIND THE INEVITABLE hesitations occasioned by Finzi's style and privileged background, Banfield writes a wonderfully engaging account of Finzi's milieu, with a novelist's interest in detail and character. There are many characters playing alongside the Finzis themselves—the most famous are Vaughan Williams, Howard Ferguson, R.O. Morris, Edward Bairstow, Hoist, and Howells; yet one doesn't have to have heard of all these participants to become interested in what part they played in musical life in London in the early 1950s. Consider Iva Dee Hiatt, Director of Music at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, who had brought a choir to Europe in 1951, returning in 1952, and who commissioned Finzi's Magnificat. "Hiatt seemed satisfied width the piece," Banfield writes, "and duly gave it an idiosyncratic first performance (which survives on tape) with the All Smith Choir and her colleague Robert Beckwith's Amherst Glee Club on 12 December 1952. The British premiere followed at the Wigmore Hall on 29 May 1953, given by Audrey Langford (who had been married to the viola player Frederick Riddle) and the Orpington and Bromley Choir with Hammond organ." Eventually Finzi had time to orchestrate the piece, and Banfield notes that the choir in the first professional performance "of about 130 (in number, not age) sounded good."

There is an almost Anthony Powell-esque quality to all this (the music of time, indeed): an entire society—including Constant Lambert, one of Powell's supposed models—is described by Banfield with wit and understanding. He is an exhaustive chronicler who includes the smallest tidbits of circumstance and the smallest musical ideas that may help to explain how a piece came to sound as it does. Perhaps half his fine book is taken up with the description and the analysis of just about everything Finzi wrote, which is dauntingly thorough even for those who know the music and can hear the musical examples.

It is not easy, for Banfield as for all other serious writers on music, to make the way in which one motif relates to another motif in a piece—and the implications of this relationship for the overall structure of the piece—interesting to the average, non-specialist reader; and most specialist musicians make very average writers. But Banfield is a very good writer. Here is a passage from his description of God is gone up, from 1951, one of Finzi's best pieces of church music: "it also demonstrates how even the Deity—at least as conceived by the Church of England—has been permitted to partake of the British Empire's blithe swansong of ceremonial metropolitan marches, for the A section, even when in 3/4, has the trappings of Waltonian or Coates-like pageantry in its organ triplets, jaunty staccato quavers and semiquaver flourish." (It is the invocation of the music of Eric Coates in this passage that denotes the real expert.)

Banfield's method with the sections of musical analysis is to run straight into them, often sandwiched between passages of biography. This juxtaposition has the effect of making it seem natural that the music and the circumstances in which it was produced should go together; and in some deep way this is obviously right. Still, there is nothing very revealing about his predicament in the music that Finzi wrote while he was undergoing treatment for his fatal illness, and so I would rather have had the story of his last days and his death uninterrupted by fifty pages of Banfield's characteristically brisk and efficient musical analysis. It seems, well, clinical to proceed within a single page from a description of the removal of a four-and-a- half-pound spleen to a dissection of the anthem Let us now praise famous men.

Perhaps it is still too soon to give Finzi's achievement a proper historical and aesthetic evaluation. His contemporaries, who cannot be blamed for seeing only the trees, took sides passionately for and against what he stood for, loving him and hating him. At least we have no interest in writing negatively about his idiom any more. We can simply ignore it. And the same can be said about Finzi's most talented contemporaries who also wrote in a style that seems to some to be offensively behind the times: Ivor Gurney, Arnold Bax, Constant Lambert, E. J. Moeran, Edmund Rubbra, and a host more—there is a whole school here. T

he best way to approach these composers and their works may be to recall the circumstances of another great school of English composers, the one led by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd at the end of the sixteenth century. When Byrd died in 1623, his polyphonic style had been completely upstaged by the work of Monteverdi. By the time Thomas Tomkins wrote his Pavan "for these distracted times" in 1649 (lamenting the collapse of order at the outbreak of the Civil War), the idiom in which he expressed himself had been ignored by progressive composers all over Europe for fifty years. Anyone writing for a New Statesman of those days (as if things in those days were not bad enough!) would have poured scorn on such retardataire works. And anyone listening to that music now would conclude that such criticism is completely beside the point.

This article originally ran in the January 15, 2001, issue of the magazine.