Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Gerald Finzi

Gerald Raphael Finzi (July 14, 1901 - September 27, 1956) was an English composer.

Table of contents
1 Life
2 Works
3 Conclusion
4 External links


Born in London, son of an Italian Jewish father and a German Jewish mother, Finzi was to belie his heritage by becoming one of the most characteristically English composers of his generation, as well as an agnostic, which didn't prevent him from writing some inspired and imposing Christian choral music.

1901-1918: Childhood and youth

Finzi's father, a successful shipbroker, died when he was 7 years old, and the boy was educated privately. During World War I the family settled in Harrogate, and Gerald began music studies with the inspiring Ernest Farrar whose death on the Western front affected him deeply. During these formative years he also suffered the losses of three of his brothers.

Such adversities contributed to Finzi's bleak outlook on life, but he found kindred spirits in the poetry of Thomas Traherne and his favourite poet Thomas Hardy whose poems, as well as those by Christina Rossetti, he began to set into music. In the poetry of Hardy, Traherne, and later William Wordsworth, Finzi was attracted by the recurrent motif of the innocence of childhood corrupted by adult experience. From the very beginning, most of his music was elegiac in tone.

1918-1933: Studies and early compositions

After Farrar's death, Finzi studied privately with the organist and choirmaster Edward Bairstow, a very strict teacher as compared to the youthful Farrar, at York Minster. In 1922, following five years of study with Bairstow, Finzi moved to Painswick, Gloucestershire, where he began composing with earnest. His first Hardy settings and the orchestral piece A Severn Rhapsody were soon performed in London to favourable reviews.

In 1925, at the suggestion of Adrian Boult, Finzi took a course in counterpoint with R. O. Morris and then moved to London where he became friends with Howard Ferguson and Edmund Rubbra. He was also introduced to Holst, Bliss and Vaughan Williams, the last-mentioned of whom arranged him a teacher's job (1930-1933) at the Royal Academy of Music.

1933-1939: Development of mature style

Finzi never found himself at home in the city and, having married the artist Joyce Black, settled with her in Aldbourne, Berkshire, where he devoted himself to composing and apple-growing, saving a number of rare English apple varieties from extinction. He also collected a valuable library of some 3000 volumes of English poetry, philosophy and literature, now in the library of Reading University.

During the 1930s, Finzi composed only a few works, but it was in these works, notably the cantata Dies natalis (1939) to texts by Traherne, that his fully mature style developed. He also worked on behalf of the institutionalized poet-composer Ivor Gurney, cataloguing and editing his works for publication, and studied and published English folk music and music by old English composers such as William Boyce, Richard Capel Bond, John Garth, Richard Mudge, John Stanley and Charles Wesley.

In 1939 the Finzis moved to Ashmansworth, near Newbury, where he founded the Newbury String Players, an amateur chamber orchestra which he conducted until his death, reviving 18th-century string music as well as giving first performances of works by his contemporaries, and besides offering chances of performance for talented young musicians such as Julian Bream and Kenneth Leighton.

1939-1956: Growth of reputation

The outbreak of World War II caused the projected first performance of Dies natalis at the Three Choirs Festival, an event that could have established Finzi as a major composer, to be cancelled. He worked for the Ministry of War Transport and lodged German and Czech refugees in his home. After the war, he became somewhat more productive than before, writing several choral works as well as the Clarinet Concerto (1949), perhaps his most popular work.

By now, Finzi's works were being performed frequently at the Three Choirs Festival and elsewhere. But this happiness was not to last. In 1951, Finzi learned that he was suffering from the incurable Hodgkin's disease and had at most ten years to live. Something of his feelings after this revelation is probably reflected in the agonized first movement of the deeply moving Cello Concerto (1955), his last major work, although its second movement, originally intended as a musical portrait of his wife, is of greatest serenity.

In 1956, on an excursion near Gloucester with Vaughan Williams, Finzi contracted chickenpox which was too much for his weakened state, causing severe brain inflammation. He died not much later in an Oxford hospital, having heard the first performance of his Cello Concerto on the radio the night before.


Finziís output includes nine song-cycles, six of them to poems by Thomas Hardy. The first of these, By Footpath and Stile (1922), is for voice and string quartet, the others, including A Young Manís Exhortation and Earth and Air and Rain, for voice and piano. Among his other songs, the charming Shakespeare settings in the cycle Let Us Garlands Bring (1942) are the best known. He also wrote incidental music to Shakespeareís Loveís Labourís Lost (1946). For voice and orchestra he composed the above-mentioned Dies natalis, a work of profound mysticity, and the pacifist Farewell to Arms (1944).

Finziís choral music includes the popular anthems Lo, the full, final sacrifice and God is gone up as well as unaccompanied partsongs, but he also wrote larger-scale choral works such as For St. Cecilia (text by Edmund Blunden), Intimations of Immortality (William Wordsworth) and the Christmas scene In terra pax (Robert Bridges and the Gospel of Luke), all from the last ten years of his life.

The number of Finziís purely instrumental works is small even though he took great pains over them in the early part of his career. He began a piano concerto which was never finished, but material from its individual movements found its way into the gentle Eclogue and the vigorous Grand Fantasia and Toccata which demonstrates Finziís admiration for Johann Sebastian Bach. He also completed a violin concerto which was performed in London under the baton of Vaughan Williams, but was not satisfied with it and withdrew the two outer movements; the surviving middle movement is called Introit.

Of Finzi's few chamber works, only the Five Bagatelles for clarinet and piano have survived in the regular repertoire.


Through Farrar and Vaughan Williams, Finzi belongs to the firm tradition of Elgar, Parry and Stanford, which made his music seem unfashionable in his lifetime. One canít really speak about experimentation, let alone modernity, in the case of Finzi, even though some of his lesser-known works completely contradict his popular image of a lyrical pastoralist. He did, however, have a distinctive voice of his own, most evident in the sensitive songs and choral works which show an unfailing response to and unity with each poetís words, resulting from his thorough knowledge of English literature. In this respect, he resembles Gurney, Quilter and other English song composers of the early 20th century, though works such as the Cello Concerto and Intimations of Immortality show him more than a miniaturist.

Finziís son Christopher inherited his pacifist sympathies as well as his musical talent and became a noted conductor and an exponent of his fatherís music. Thanks to him and other enthusiasts, Finziís music has enjoyed a great resurgence from the late 20th century on.

External links

A Finzi page on the website of his publisher Boosey & Hawkes, including a complete list of works and a discography.

Gerald Finzi at Classical Music Web, by John France.