Gerald Raphael Finzi (July 14, 1901 - September 27, 1956) was born in London to a Sephardic Jewish family that had moved to England from Italy in the early eighteenth century (think of De Sica's Garden of the Finzi-Continis). His father was a prosperous shipbroker who could afford to indulge his son. Even after his father's death and living only on his inheritance, Finzi, with a bit of thrift, could do pretty much what he wanted. Educated privately, Finzi became hipped on literature and music. His mother took him to Charles V. Stanford, who told her essentially not to waste her time and who rejected Finzi as a pupil. Nevertheless, Finzi studied with Ernest Farrar and Edward Bairstow and, later, counterpoint with R. O. Morris. Finzi disparaged Bairstow as a teacher throughout his life, but Bairstow in any case gave him most of the technique Finzi ever had. He warmed, however, to Farrar, and Farrar's death in the First World War devastated him. Finzi was too young and too asthmatic to have fought, but the War affected him almost as much as it did the combatants.
After the War, Finzi fell in with a group of younger composers – including Herbert Howells, Arthur Bliss, Howard Ferguson, and Edmund Rubbra. He also became friendly with Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. The latter was to have a deep influence on Finzi, although not particularly on his idiom. Finzi was not, in his early days, a particularly fluent composer. Many of his compositions took years to complete. This was not because he had so little technique, but because he was trying ambitious things. Furthermore, the fact that he played no instrument well (unlike Ferguson, a virtuoso pianist) and had no orchestral experience inhibited him. Indeed, Ferguson often became the de facto musical technical reference and editor for Finzi's orchestral and ensemble works. Still, Finzi had enough technique to become a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music from 1930 to 1933.
In 1931, Finzi married Joyce Black (known as "Joy"), a very good portrait artist. In 1935, they moved to the Wiltshire countryside. There, in addition to writing music, Finzi cultivated rare varieties of apple trees commercial horticulture had driven out and assembled a huge library of books and musical scores. He became one of the pioneers and leading authorities on English music of the eighteenth century and produced many performing editions. He also began to catalogue the music of English songwriter and poet Ivor Gurney and of Vaughan Williams' teacher Charles Hubert Parry.
However, many of his mature compositions also come from this period: the Thomas Hardy song cycles A Young Man's Exhortation, as well as Earth and Air and Rain, the choral cycle 7 Partsongs to words by Robert Bridges, and the Traherne cantata Dies Natalis. The last represented a career breakthrough, both to audience awareness and acceptance and to a new-found ease (relatively speaking) in composition. Finzi remarked that, for the first time, he felt like a real composer. Then World War II began.
Finzi tried to enlist in combat, but his early bouts of illness caused the military to reject him. Nevertheless, he pulled strings and got a job in the Ministry of War Transport. He also founded and led the Newbury String Players, a mixed group of amateurs and professionals. He became a decent conductor, and this activity accelerated his preparation of scholarly editions and performing editions of English eighteenth-century music – at the least, something for the group to play. These were his wartime activities, and they left him with little time for composing, although even here he managed to produce his Shakesperean cycle Let Us Garlands Bring, written as a birthday tribute to Vaughan Williams.
After the War, Finzi the composer started producing in earnest. He was now in his forties. The major work of this period is a large-scale oratorio, a nearly-complete setting of Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. Also from this period comes the large choral ode For St. Cecilia.
In 1951, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease and given less than ten years to live. He and his wife kept the news pretty much to themselves, and he managed to engage in a full life (including chairing a major Bartók symposium) almost up to a week before the end. From this final period come such works as the clarinet and cello concertos, the suite made from incidental music to a Forties radio production of Love's Labors Lost, the Grand Fantasia and Toccata for piano and orchestra, and his final score, the beautiful Christmas cantata In terra pax.
Finzi as a composer was, I suppose, a conservative, although I suspect that the conservative-advanced dichotomy doesn't apply all that well in his case. He certainly knew and understood the advanced music of his time, and his forms, as opposed to his harmonies, are incredibly innovative as well as, one must add, sui generis. His literary interests led him to concentrate on setting words, and he is one of the great English song writers. Like Gabriel Fauré, he writes melodies mindful of the rhythms of speech, and he manages to penetrate to the heart of his texts, without relying on word-painting. His harmonies have a Fauré-like subtlety as well. Two measures of any Finzi work generally suffice to proclaim the composer. He didn't confine himself to obvious song-forms in the poetry he chose. One finds magnificent settings of Milton sonnets, as well as the Wordsworth ode on immortality and dramatic scenas like Hardy's "Channel Firing." Indeed, Finzi often works against those poems with conventional song-forms he sets.
Finzi's characteristic tone is that of lyric ecstacy. The melodies just take off, and even in his purely instrumental pieces, the human voice seems to lie just around the corner. He died in the middle of his finest work. He simply ran out of time. ~ Steve Schwartz