This Saturday, 11 February, the University of St Andrews will be hosting a special celebration of the life and musical career of English composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). The morning session will begin with an introduction and song recital, followed by talks by Finzi biographer Diana McVeagh and Finzi scholar Zen Kuriyama, with an afternoon session featuring the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, and more. Click here for more information about the event and to purchase tickets.
Meanwhile, we would like to thank Diana McVeagh for sharing some insights about Gerald Finzi’s life and works in today’s blog post.
What makes the letters of the English composer Gerald Finzi so compelling? His own prose style is trenchant and striking: he has a flair for the memorable phrase (‘a song outlasts a dynasty’). His 160 correspondents include many of the notable figures of his time: among them Ralph Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, Howard Ferguson, Arthur Bliss, Edmund Rubbra, Edmund Blunden, Laurence Whistler. His serious and prolific correspondences read like ongoing conversations. Some of the letters are amusing, others concerning his opposition to war are anguished and deeply serious. His range of interests went far beyond music. His library of English literature, some 3000 volumes, was donated after his death to Reading University (Catalogue of The Finzi Book Room by Pauline Dingley, 1981). He conserved rare apple trees. He had strong unconventional ideas about education, about heredity and environment. He and his artist-wife Joy built their own house at Ashmansworth on the Hampshire Downs, and filled it with Arts and Crafts furniture made for them by Harry Davoll.
His greatest work is the radiant and touching cantata Dies Natalis (Traherne). Every clarinettist plays the Bagatelles and the Clarinet Concerto. His songs, mostly to poems by Thomas Hardy, are widely performed. The series of letters between Finzi and the poet Edmund Blunden for St Cecilia give rare and valuable insight into the principles of word-setting. His whole repertory, including his Cello Concerto and Intimations of Immortality, is now recorded.
Able to live without a formal day job, he used his energy and influence altruistically to support others. He encouraged lesser-known composer-friends such as Robin Milford and Tony Scott. He recognised Ivor Gurney’s merit at a time when he was scarcely known and collected his scattered unpublished autographs. He was the moving spirit, with the support of Vaughan Williams, behind the publication of Gurney’s songs, and the publication, with Edmund Blunden, of Gurney’s verse. Recent scholarly work on Gurney could not have been done without Finzi’s preservation of the manuscripts. He gathered Parry’s autographs, with the encouragement of Parry’s daughter, Lady Ponsonby, and lodged them in the Bodleian Library.
During the war Finzi founded and conducted a mainly amateur string orchestra to take music around his nearby villages. This prompted him to research 18th century English music, to revive and publish editions of Stanley, Mudge, Capel Bond, and Garth. This early work in the baroque revival was recognised by a commission for a volume on Boyce for the scholarly Music Britannica series. After his death his large collection of 18th century material was bought by to St Andrews University (Catalogue of the Finzi Collection by Thorpe Davie, 1982).
His wife Joy was an artist whose drawings of their friends, full of insight and character, are illustrations in the book.
In 1951 Finzi was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer and given five years to live. He persevered stoically and died in 1956.
All this is recounted in these two-way correspondences. Letters are direct and immediate: the nerves and arteries of friendship. They give an insight into the heart and mind of the writer. And to read first-hand accounts of events, as they were happening, allows one almost to share them.
This guest post was written by DIANA MCVEAGH, a Vice-President of the Elgar Society. Her interests range from Josquin to Birtwistle, but she writes mostly about English Romantics. She is the author of Elgar: His Life and Music (Dent, 1955), and the highly acclaimed Gerald Finzi: His Life and Music (Boydell, 2005 and 2010), and Elgar: The Music Maker (Boydell, 2007). She has contributed to the New Grove (1980, 2001) and the Dictionary of National Biography.