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Dies natalis, Op 8

for tenor solo and string orchestra; first performed in the Wigmore Hall, London, on 26 January 1940 by Elsie Suddaby, Maurice Miles conducting his own string orchestra; work started in the mid-1920s
author of text
from Centuries of Mediation

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.

from notes by Andrew Burn © 1996


Finzi: Intimations of Immortality & Dies natalis


Movement 1: Intrada
Movement 2: Rhapsody: Recitativo stromentato  Will you see the infancy of this sublime and celestial greatness?
Track 2 on CDH55432 [6'33]
Movement 3: The Rapture: Danza  Sweet Infancy!
Track 3 on CDH55432 [3'38]
Movement 4: Wonder: Arioso  How like an Angel came I down!
Track 4 on CDH55432 [4'25]
Movement 5: The Salutation: Aria  These little Limbs
Track 5 on CDH55432 [4'48]

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