Finzi: A composer who sensed a deeper purpose beyond suffering

The composer Gerald Finzi (1901-56) was shy, modest and sensitive. Descended on his father’s side from Italian Jews, the Finzis were otherwise a typical middle-class English family until a series of childhood tragedies contributed to Gerald’s extreme introversion. He lost his father when he was eight, and his three elder brothers died before he had reached adulthood. His grief was compounded by the loss of his first composition teacher, Ernest Farrar, killed in the trenches in 1918.

These misfortunes turned Finzi into a committed pacifist and agnostic, finding spiritual comfort in poetry and music. His own musical works would convey a profound longing for peace and knowledge of the divine, restoring the listener to a prelapsarian state through a childlike sensibility. Yet, despite his lack of belief, Finzi was an undogmatic Christian apologist, writing music for the Anglican liturgy and contemplating the world around him with Christ-like compassion.

Finzi’s conservative instincts caused him to judge the harmonic experiments and world-historic pretensions of Arnold Schoenberg with distaste, preferring the pastoral school of English composers led by Vaughan Williams, for whom folksong, archaic modality and rural landscape provided a refuge from the horrors of industrialised warfare. Finzi also longed to return to the golden age of Tudor polyphony. Tallis and Byrd provided models of succinct expression and musical unity, while Dowland’s lute songs awakened in him the tearful melancholy so fashionable during the Elizabethan period.

Finzi’s musical development faltered at first. Then, on New Year’s Eve 1925, the composer attended a party in a cottage on Chosen Hill near Gloucester. At midnight, under the stars, as the church bells rang out, Finzi experienced an epiphany that led to the composition of his Nocturne for orchestra. Its combination of brooding sadness and ecstatic feeling, projected onto the West Country landscape, echoes the writings of Thomas Hardy. Finzi set over 50 of Hardy’s poems to music; sensitive and technically accomplished, his word-setting is second to none.

As another calamitous war was approaching, Finzi penned his masterpiece, the song cycle Dies Natalis (1938), based on extracts from Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation. Traherne (1636-74) was a mystical writer associated with the Metaphysical Poets, and Finzi responded with music of sustained beauty, bursting with rapture, as a new-born child intuits the divine presence.

Finzi had been in part inspired by Botticelli’s painting, The Mystic Nativity. Angels dance around the stable sheltering the Holy Family, while shepherds, ox and ass look on. The scene mirrored Finzi’s domestic circumstances. In 1933, he had married the sculptress Joy Black. By 1938, they had two boisterous sons, and Finzi was grateful for a stability and contentment absent from his own childhood. Together the couple built a home on farmland in Hampshire, keeping assorted animals. In the style of the Arts and Crafts movement, Finzi was devotedly unconventional: a vegetarian, an avid long-distance walker and conserver of rare English apples. The Finzis even ran a community orchestra, the Newbury String Players.

At the end of the Second World War, Finzi completed a recitative and aria, Farewell to Arms (1945), restating his pacifist creed in poems that turn swords into ploughshares. The aria unfolds with the serenity of a Bach chorale prelude, as the tenor voice soars above a seamless violin countermelody.

Finzi also revived an ambitious plan to set Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality (1950) for tenor, chorus and full orchestra; a work lasting 40 minutes. By Finzi’s standards, the musical ideas possessed an unprecedented grandeur; however, the subject matter was not new. The text muses on the transience of human existence and the loss of innocence. Wordsworth lacked Traherne’s spiritual confidence, so that the overriding mood of the poem is sad rather than ecstatic, although Finzi gloried in Wordsworth’s numinous depictions of landscape. The work’s closing bars are a miracle of poignant beauty and tenderness, as the suffering of the human heart is consoled by the intuition of a deeper purpose beyond earthly existence.

In 1955, when Finzi had been diagnosed with cancer, he took Vaughan Williams to see the view from Chosen Hill which had inspired him 30 years previously. Afterwards, they visited the family living in the cottage where Finzi had made merry. Tragically, the children had chicken pox and Finzi, in his weakened state, caught the disease. He died a fortnight later, aged 55. The evidence of his last major work, an impressively beautiful Cello Concerto (1955), reveals a composer at the peak of his powers. Yet Gerald Finzi remains a marginal figure. Out of step with an era of violent upheavals and rapid social change, his music reminds us with touching eloquence what modernity has so casually laid aside.

Peter Davison is a musicologist and cultural commentator. He edited Reviving the Muse: Essays on Music after Modernism (Claridge Press, 2001)