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Intimations of Immortality, Op 29

started in the 1930s; completed in May 1950; Ode for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra; first performed in Gloucester Cathedral on 5 September 1950 by Eric Greene, Herbert Sumsion conducting; dedicated to Adeline Vaughan Williams
author of text
from Recollections of Childhood

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.

from notes by Andrew Burn © 1996


Finzi: Intimations of Immortality & Dies natalis


Movement 01: Andante sostenuto
Movement 02: There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream
Track 7 on CDH55432 [3'25]
Movement 03: The Rainbow comes and goes
Track 8 on CDH55432 [2'27]
Movement 04: Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song
Track 9 on CDH55432 [4'21]
Movement 05: Ye blessèd Creatures, I have heard the call
Track 10 on CDH55432 [0'57]
Movement 06: Oh evil day! if I were sullen
Track 11 on CDH55432 [2'09]
Movement 07: – But there's a Tree, of many, one
Track 12 on CDH55432 [2'27]
Movement 08: Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting
Track 13 on CDH55432 [3'41]
Movement 09: Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own
Track 14 on CDH55432 [1'49]
Movement 10: O joy! that in our embers
Track 15 on CDH55432 [3'05]
Movement 11: But for those first affections
Track 16 on CDH55432 [4'09]
Movement 12: Then sing, ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song!
Track 17 on CDH55432 [3'56]
Movement 13: And O, ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves
Track 18 on CDH55432 [4'32]

Track-specific metadata for CDH55432 track 15

O joy! that in our embers
Recording date
10 February 1996
Recording venue
All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Finzi: Intimations of Immortality & Dies natalis (CDA66876)
    Disc 1 Track 15
    Release date: October 1996
    Deletion date: November 2013
    Superseded by CDH55432
  2. Finzi: Intimations of Immortality & Dies natalis (CDH55432)
    Disc 1 Track 15
    Release date: February 2015
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