This album brings together two of Finzi’s most characteristic works. Dies natalis, a setting of prose and verse by the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne, is a piece of sublime concord and timelessness, music which vividly suggests the vision of a child’s innocence and unsullied perception of the world which lies at the heart of Traherne’s philosophy. Intimations of Immortality is by contrast a lament for the lost joys of Traherne’s idealized childhood. Finzi uses Wordsworth’s famous ode to convey his view that ‘a dead poet lives in many a live stockbroker’ and the result is a work of arresting beauty.
Finzi’s experience during these years left a threefold legacy which informed his adult personality and artistic sensibility. First, the breadth of his reading gave him penetrating literary critical faculties which were translated in his songs and choral works into settings of insight and intensity, a remarkable marriage of words and music where the composer seems utterly at one with the writer. Secondly, he had an acute awareness of the frailty of existence which found its musical expression primarily in his settings of Thomas Hardy, whose work often shares similar preoccupations. Finally it left him with the conviction that, for many, the reality of adult life and experience dims the instinctive, intuitive freshness of childhood. It was this that struck such a resonance when he discovered Traherne and Wordsworth, making them a natural inspiration for his music. The results were the cantata Dies natalis and Intimations of Immortality.
Thomas Traherne was a little-known seventeenth-century metaphysical poet whose work was forgotten for two centuries. In 1896 an unsigned manuscript of poems was discovered and assigned to Henry Vaughan. However, the scholar Bertram Dobell was struck by the resemblance in style to an obscure book of religious meditation by Traherne published in 1699. By diligent research Dobell established that the newly discovered poems were indeed by Traherne, and he subsequently edited two volumes of his work, published in 1903 and 1910 respectively. Traherne’s significance lies in his continuing the line of Anglican mystical poetry after Vaughan, yet little is known about the poet himself. He was born in Hereford circa 1636, gained his BA at Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1656 and returned to his native county as rector of Credenhill, a few miles from Hereford. There he became spiritual adviser to Susanna Hopton for whom he wrote his most important prose work, the Centuries of Meditation. From 1669 to 1674 he lived in London where he died aged only thirty-seven. Finzi began his setting of Traherne’s vision of a child’s innocent and unsullied perception of the world in the mid 1920s. The ‘Rhapsody’, a free adaptation of the opening stanzas of the poet’s Third Century of Meditations, was composed first, followed by the ‘Intrada’ and the closing ‘Salutation’. As often with Finzi, the work was then laid aside, allowing it to mature and develop in the recesses of his mind. During the next ten years he composed the setting of the poem ‘Wonder’, but it was a request from the Three Choirs Festival for a work to be performed at the 1939 festival that galvanized him into revising the extant movements and adding the contrasting fast ‘The Rapture’, subtitled ‘Danza’. The finished work, which he called Dies natalis (literally, ‘Day of birth’), resembled a Baroque cantata in form. The planned premiere was cancelled due to the outbreak of war and the work instead received its first performance at Wigmore Hall on 26 January 1940; Elsie Suddaby was the soprano soloist with Maurice Miles conducting his own string orchestra.
Finzi’s choice of a purely instrumental movement, ‘Intrada’, to begin Dies natalis creates an image of the unborn child in the womb, and is synonymous too with Traherne’s lines, ‘An empty book is like an infant’s soul, in which anything may be written, it is capable of all things but containeth nothing’. Its musical ideas are shared with the second movement ‘Rhapsody’: an ingenuous phrase to swaying rhythm and, in the middle section, a stately flowing melody which swells to a heady climax, pregnant with anticipation.
The title ‘Rhapsody’ should be understood in its seventeenth-century meaning of ‘rapturous delight or ecstasy’, its text describing the infant’s wide-eyed response to the world it has entered. Finzi’s setting is composed in the fluid, supple recitative-cum-arioso style of which he was a master and responds to each nuance of the text. This approach reflects his comment to the poet Edmund Blunden in 1952: ‘I like the music to grow out of the actual words and not be fitted to them.’
Finzi had two images in mind when composing ‘The Rapture’: the dancing circle of angels above the oxen-stall of Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity that hangs in The National Gallery, and the magnificent carved wooden angels in March Church in the Fens which he had visited on holiday in 1927. With these in mind Finzi fashioned this swirling dance of praise, as he recalled in 1939:
There is a great resemblance between the static and the ecstatic. I discovered this one day when I was standing in March Church looking up at the double hammer-beam roof and the row of carved angels—which gave the feeling of a Botticelli Nativity and were static from very ecstasy.
At the movement’s climax, to the words ‘O how Divine Am I!’, the music attains an exultant ecstasy through the jostling clash of G and F naturals in the voice and violins and F sharp in the first cellos.
‘Wonder’ is set as a tender arioso. Traherne’s opening line, ‘How like an Angel came I down!’, is evoked through a vocal phrase that seems to float in its descent, whilst once again Finzi exploits a harmonic frisson between the voice and second violins on the word ‘like’ to emphasize the poet’s imagery. The climactic phrase ‘With Seas of Life, like Wine’ is mirrored by Finzi in rich nine-part string writing.
A quality of concord and timelessness characterizes ‘The Salutation’, in which the soloist’s aria is cast in the form of a Bachian chorale prelude. Its arching, soaring melody is quintessential Finzi, and is accompanied by flowing counterpoint in quaver motion over the steady measured tramp of the bass. The violas set the movement in motion and their contrapuntal idea is then shared amongst the other instruments; the verses are interspersed with limpid orchestral flowerings marked by falling sevenths until finally the violas wind the movement to stillness in a mood of rapt wonder.
Intimations of Immortality
Intimations of Immortality is a lament, not only for the lost joys of Traherne’s state of childhood, but also for the severing of the adult soul from the intuitive primal state. As Diana McVeagh has perceptively suggested, Finzi translated this into an exhortation to the artist—and, by extension, to any adult—to keep his or her vision alive and fresh at all costs. As he commented in one of his Crees Lectures given in 1953:
We all know that a dead poet lives in many a live stockbroker. Many of these people before they fade into the light of common day, have had an intuitive glimpse which neither age, nor experience, nor knowledge, can ever give them.
Significantly, Finzi quoted from Wordsworth’s ode there as he had done in a letter shortly before the major turning point in his life, his marriage to Joyce Black in 1933:
For the first time in my life, or since my infancy (for I suppose that there was a time when ‘Every common sight to me did seem apparelled in celestial light’—though I can’t remember it) things have appeared rather more happy and clearly.
The birth of his sons was a reminder of his responsibility as a parent; above all he would ensure that their childhoods would be rich in stimulation.
Intimations of Immortality was begun in the 1930s, about one third being completed before war interrupted work. Finzi took it up again after 1945 and completed the short score in May 1950, four months before the scheduled first performance. However, scoring it became a scramble, indeed almost a nightmare; in the last two weeks before the premiere he wrote that there were ‘2 copyists in the house for the last few days all working to 2 and 3.30am and then up at 6.0!!’.
The work is scored for tenor soloist, chorus and orchestra. Herbert Sumsion conducted the first performance on 5 September 1950 in Gloucester Cathedral; Eric Greene was the soloist and it was dedicated to Vaughan Williams’s first wife, Adeline (known affectionately to the Finzis as ‘Aunt Ad’). The title on the original vocal scores bore the classic misprint: ‘Intimations of Immorality’!
Setting Wordsworth’s ode had posed Finzi a challenge and he knew that many critics would consider the poetry unsettable. However, he countered this view fiercely:
I do hate the bilge and bunkum about composers trying to add to a poem; that a fine poem is complete in itself, and to set it is only to gild the lily … obviously a poem may be unsatisfactory in itself for setting, but that is a purely musical consideration—that it has no architectural possibilities; no broad vowels where climaxes should be, and so on. But the first and last thing is that a composer is (presumably) moved by a poem and wishes to identify himself with it and share it.
The work begins with an orchestral prelude focusing on two recurring principal ideas: the opening horn-call, which seems to arise out of nothing, and a spacious, typically Finzian, melody around which the first and second of Wordsworth’s stanzas are set. An instance of Finzi’s inspired response to Wordsworth occurs at ‘The Rainbow comes and goes’, where, after a ravishing harmonic progression, the tenor’s rapturous phrase rides high over the chorus. With the first of several linking orchestral interludes, the tempo quickens before the chorus conjures images of spring in a joyous setting of stanzas three and most of four, bringing a climax mid-way at ‘Shout round me’.
The tempo slackens as the central question is addressed: ‘Whither is fled the visionary gleam?’ The horn-call returns to preface stanzas five, six and nine, which form the heart of the work where the poet philosophizes on how the adult has become divorced from an earlier, more perfect condition, and then offers a solution in the ninth stanza beginning with the exultant outburst ‘O joy! that in our embers Is something that doth live’. It is possible for the soul to ‘have sight of that immortal sea Which brought us hither’, providing the intuitive part of humanity is nurtured.
The tenth stanza is a recapitulation of the earlier fast music, and with the return of the prelude’s broad melody the final stanza is ushered in; the words drew from Finzi some of the most touching music in the whole piece with the solo flute and violin’s pastoral evocation of the brooks and sunset. Most inspired of all, though, is his setting of the final lines where the poignancy of the tenor’s suspended dissonance is full of aching melancholy. The hushed, brief coda with a reprise of the horn-call seems to echo those thoughts as the music fades away in meditation.
Andrew Burn © 1996