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In his songs Finzi shares with us joy and introspection, characters and philosophies. Here is, interpreted by English tenor and sought-after recitalist James Gilchrist, a beautiful selection of the composer's song cycles with text by Thomas Hardy and other notable English poets.
‘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…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.’
Finzi was a fastidious composer: songs could be the product of years of gestation, remaining in his “bottom drawer” until his strivings after perfection were neared. Once completed he kept the songs in his drawer until such point that he had enough suitable settings to form a set of songs, which he believed would have more chance of making an impact and surviving in a commercial world than the issue of an individual song which could get overlooked. Part of Finzi’s genius is that, despite the possible longevity of gestation and time between the settings, the songs and sets sound spontaneous and fresh, the music almost having grown organically from the poem, like the fruit on one of his collection of rare species of apple tree.
His way of waiting to gather songs together into collections meant that upon his death some two dozen unpublished songs were left in his drawer. These were gathered together into four sets, of which Oh fair to see and Till Earth outwears are those for high voice, their posthumously assigned opus numbers filling gaps left in Finzi’s own catalogue of works.
Gerald Finzi was born in London on 14th July 1901. In October 1915 his mother moved the family to Harrogate to escape the aerial bombardment of London, which had begun in April of that year. It was in Harrogate that Finzi had his first formal music tuition from the composer Ernest Farrar. Finzi was an enthusiastic pupil and held a high regard for his teacher. After Farrar was killed in September 1918 in the Battle of Epehy, on the Somme, Finzi maintained a lifelong devotion to Farrar’s memory. Finzi’s Requiem da Camera is dedicated to his memory and a couple of his works seem to be influenced by those of Farrar. Finzi’s setting of Edward Shanks’ (1892-1953) ‘As I lay in the early sun’ could be one such work. The lilting, falling third figure which runs through the song creates a languorous atmosphere similar to that instilled by the same figure used in the second of Farrar’s English Pastoral Impressions, ‘Bredon Hill’, a work first performed just before Finzi’s arrival in Harrogate and posthumously published in 1920—the year before Finzi composed this setting.
At around the same time as the Shanks setting, Finzi completed his opus 1: ten settings of words by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) for upper voices and piano, possibly following a fashion at about this time for her more simplistic verse. The Rossetti setting, ‘Oh fair to see’, was composed later, in 1929, and is a pre-Housman evocation of the beauty of the cherry tree.
It was whilst sitting in on a singing lesson given by Finzi’s next music teacher, Edward Bairstow, that Finzi first heard Ivor Gurney’s (1890-1937) song ‘Sleep’. The song made such an impact that Finzi soon began a ‘lifelong crusade’ to bring Gurney’s work to a wider audience. His setting of Gurney’s poem ‘Only the wanderer’ was composed in 1925, before Finzi knew Gurney’s own setting of the poem.
One of Finzi’s aids in his work promoting Gurney’s work was Edmund Blunden (1896-1974), who, in 1951, stayed with the Finzis at their home at Ashmansworth whilst preparing a selection of Gurney’s poetry for publication. Finzi had hoped to complete a set of songs to Blunden’s own poems, in the event only completing two. The first, the ironically titled ‘To Joy’, composed in 1931 before Finzi and Blunden had met, finds poet and composer forming a perfect union, capturing a touching humanity in the selfless ‘Our tears fall, fall, fall—I would weep my blood away to make her warm’. The innocence and vulnerability of infancy is a subject that much attracted Finzi, as epitomised in Dies Natalis. In this case the poem was written by Blunden following the death of his first child, Joy, in 1919, aged just five weeks. Finzi’s widow, Joy, said that Finzi considered it one of his best songs, feeling that it ‘evoked the Suffolk sky where the clouds herald the breath of the storm’.
The second completed Blunden setting is ‘Harvest’, a poem that, Trevor Hold observes, ‘Blunden sees…as a metaphor for his own life: a creative harvest that has not come to its hoped-for fruition.’ Finzi composed the setting in 1956, his last year of life, and is a poignant casting in music of his thoughts following his diagnosis with Hodgkin’s disease in 1951. As Finzi himself quoted in a postscript to his catalogue of works, added after his diagnosis: ‘My thread is cut, and yet it is not spun’.
‘Since we loved’, the final song in the set, was the last work to be completed by Finzi. One cannot help seeing this last breath of creativity as a tribute to his wife, Joy, who had been the mainstay of his life and art since their marriage in 1933.
The first song of Oh fair to see, and all of those in Till Earth outwears and A Young Man’s Exhortation, are settings of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). Hardy is a poet with whom Finzi is now inextricably linked. The sensibilities expressed in Hardy’s poetry resonated deeply within Finzi and, of his 160 song settings (including fragmentary works), its significance is shown in the fact that nearly half of these are of Hardy.
A Young Man’s Exhortation was the first of Finzi’s Hardy sets with piano accompaniment to be published, in 1933, although an early cycle for baritone and string quartet, By Footpath and Stile, had been published in 1925. Despite their non-narrative nature, and unlike Finzi’s later Hardy sets, these two early works were intended as cycles.
A Young Man’s Exhortation is divided into two parts, both headed with a clause from verse 6 of psalm 90. Part I, ‘Mane floreat, et transeat’ (‘In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up’), is a section graced with songs of youth and love; Part II ‘Vespere decidat, induret et arescat’ (‘in the evening it is cut down, and withereth’), brings us to the autumn of life, with memories of the spring and summer of youth, and, finally, human passing. In practice the parts are not quite as clear-cut. Hardy and Finzi cannot escape the subject of human transience towards the end of Part I, ‘Her Temple’ speaking of a shrine to a loved one, and the timeless, quasi-recitative setting of ‘The Comet at Yell’ham’: ‘It will return long years hence…but not then on that sweet form of thine.’ This latter song finds its counterpart in Till Earth outwears. ‘At a lunar eclipse’ is set in the same senza misura, quasi-recitative manner, perhaps in an attempt to evoke the still, timeless, unconstrained nature of the cosmos.
In his songs Finzi shares with us joy and introspection, characters and philosophies. From a rare glimpse of triumph in ‘The Market-Girl’, to the coming of the cider-maker in ‘Shortening days’. ‘In Years Defaced’ brings us to a place once shared by lovers, now parted. In this song the piano interlude after the first stanza perhaps foreshadows the final ‘Amen’ of Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice of ten years later.
The subject of mortality is recurrent, perhaps the result of his early life being so overshadowed by loss, with the death of his brothers, father, and teacher, all before he had reached adulthood—not to mention the later cloud of his own terminal illness.
‘Transformations’ is one of two settings of Hardy in Finzi’s output in which those buried in a churchyard live once more through the plants and flowers that grow on their resting places to greet passers by. This could have been Hardy’s—and thence Finzi’s—‘belief’, as an agnostic, of human perpetuation, becoming part of the earth from which we came. Such is also echoed in the ‘Window to English Music’ in the church opposite Finzi’s home at Ashmansworth. Engraved by a friend of the Finzi family, Laurence Whistler, in 1977, it depicts the initials of English composers at the roots of, and growing up into, a tree. Finzi himself is joined by a host of friends and other English composers from all ages:
So, they are not underground,
But as nerves and veins abound
In the growths of upper air,
And they feel the sun and rain,
And the energy again
That made them what they were!
Philip Lancaster © 2005