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Book Review

Gerald Finzi

Gerald Finzi by Banfield

An English Composer

Stephen Banfield
London: Faber & Faber. 1997
ISBN-10: 0571195989
ISBN-13: 9780571195985
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Authoritative, but confused.

"Gerald who?" you may well ask. Even today, with a steady stream of recordings, Finzi counts as a rarified taste. Many consider him, along with Ivor Gurney, one of the great setters of English poetry, an English Fauré. Forty years after his death, we finally get a critical study of his life and work.

Born to a moderately well-to-do old English-Italian Sephardic Jewish family, Finzi identified himself mainly as an Englishman. He showed some musical talent. His mother took him to the Royal College of Music, where Stanford told her not to waste her time. Nevertheless, Finzi studied with Ernest Farrar (killed at the front in World War I), Edward Bairstow (whom he considered a pedant), and finally R.O. Morris at the RCM. Finzi developed very slowly as a composer and for most of his career took a long time to complete works. Some songs spanned decades from start to finish. Part of this stemmed from his independence of mind and his perfectionism, part from a fundamental insecurity about his practical musicianship. He didn't play any instrument very well and had almost no experience performing in musical groups. He also had wide interests beyond music, collecting books, growing (and rescuing) old varieties of English apples commercial interests had forced out, and art and architecture. In the late Thirties, after more than twenty years seeking his way, he finally found himself artistically, ironically just before the Second World War intervened. Finzi had to put his career on hold (although fortunately he never saw combat, possibly due to his contracting tuberculosis as a young man) to work for the wartime Ministry of Transport. Postwar saw a significant jump in his output and other activities, including leading an amateur string orchestra, definitively editing work by obscure British 18th-century composers, rescuing and agitating for the publication of works by Gurney and Parry. However, in 1951, he was diagnosed with cancer and given months to live. His career became a matter of much to do in little time. If anything, he increased his workload (including chairing a Bartók symposium) and hung on for another five years, taking only a couple of days to die.

Although almost entirely self-taught, Finzi was an enormously cultured man. As a composer, most associate him with British Pastoralism. While he admired Vaughan Williams, Howells, Bliss, and Rubbra (and became the friend of all four), he also admired much of the "advanced" music on the continent. His own idiom was conservative, but it was allied to a unique artistic sensibility. Once you hear a couple of bars by Finzi, you don't mistake him for anybody else. Furthermore, he didn't stay still. He had Vaughan Williams' capacity to incorporate new ideas without losing himself.

Because there's not that much secondary literature about Finzi, Banfield has perforce had to work with a mountain of primary material – letters and diary entries, mainly from Finzi and his wife Joyce, known as Joy, a brilliant portraitist. For those of you who know the Bridges part-song "My spirit sang all day," the refrain "Oh, my joy!" is certainly significant, Finzi having composed the piece around the time of his courtship and marriage. This constitutes the meat of the book, and Finzi's own voice reacting to the day fascinates. Like Michael Kennedy in The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Banfield has done a first-rate job of research and of pulling all this stuff together. His musical analysis of Finzi – though you definitely need to be able to read music, to know something of form, and to follow along either in score or on disc – is wonderfully insightful, especially good exploding the myth of Finzi as a mere brainless singing bird. Indeed, some of Finzi's early composing troubles may stem from an attraction to complexity, of wanting to outstrip one's own (or perhaps anyone's) abilities.

However, Banfield falls down occasionally in his prose. Vague pronoun references in the first half of the book drove me crazy. I had to reread paragraphs two and three times before I could figure out to whom an errant "he" referred. Furthermore, in raising and dealing with larger issues, Banfield tries to make a case for psychic injury because Finzi identified with bucolic, C of E Englishness rather than with urban Judaism. I really don't understand why this becomes fodder for speculation. It seems to me that Finzi's case resembles that of many other assimilated, secular Jews. An assimilated American Jew myself, I also feel closer to Anglophilia than to Judaism. As far as I can tell, whatever psychic trauma I may have suffered has little to do with the Judaism I let drop. I have plenty of other reasons closer to home for being screwed up. Banfield even admits he can't find the psychic trauma in Finzi. However, he concludes that the composer must have strongly repressed it, rather than that it's not there to be found. Banfield seems more obsessed than Finzi himself with the notion of "the other."

Banfield also gets into trouble when he tries to rank Finzi. Finzi didn't write much, and not everything he wrote hits the mark. To give you some perspective, Vaughan Williams at 55 (the age when Finzi died) had written three symphonies, two operas, a string quartet, a concerto, several large choral works, a ballet, the Tallis Fantasia, The Lark Ascending, Flos campi, the Mass in g, and a boatload of pieces of all sizes in many genres. Finzi had no symphony, and all three of his big concerted works were completed in the last ten years of his life. Ultimately, Banfield labels Finzi as a minor composer. However, he doesn't seem entirely comfortable with his own judgment. I can see why. Finzi doesn't sound minor. One senses a bigness of mind and spirit behind everything he wrote, even the pieces from the second drawer. At this point, I suspect the categories themselves.

We get our notions of the proper artist from the Romantics and from the eighteenth-century proto-Romantics. They saw the artist as spiritually more aware, more tuned-in to the times than non-artists – God's radio, if you like. The grandeur of Creation finds its reflection in grand artistic forms. Accordingly, we value large forms over smaller ones, an epic rather than a lyric. A song is nothing much, but an opera … Other times have held other views, not simply about the hierarchy of genres but about the very conception of the artist. The older I get, the less I believe in the idea of the major artist as shaman plugged into the cosmos. I suppose I've read too many biographies. I believe more in the individual piece. A song can burrow as deeply as a symphony. We should be grateful for the "real, right thing" when we finally meet it, and an artist is as good a maker as his best piece. In the end, I don't care whether Finzi (or anyone else) is major or minor. Agonizing over the question seems to me a waste of megathoughts, especially when I can spend the time listening to the Hardy cycles, Dies natalis, In terra pax, Love's Labors Lost, and the concertos.

Copyright © 2008 by Steve Schwartz.