Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Saturday 31 October 2015

Gerald Finzi's Five Bagatelles and Chosen Hill

View of Chosen Hill, Glos, from Witcombe. Photo by Philip Halling, from Wikipedia
In the early 90s I spent a few days in Herefordshire, where three churches that would feature in my top ten are to be found (Abbey Dore, Kilpeck and Shobdon). One evening I listened to a play on the car radio about Gerald Finzi, a composer I'd heard of but otherwise knew nothing about. Nevertheless it held my attention because it told a good story and referred to several places I already knew quite well, the cathedrals of the Three Choirs Festival, and Ashmansworth church, Hants. In the play Finzi and his wife also spent a lot of time picnicking, talking and relaxing in a place they called Chosen Hill. I took this to be their own private pet name for a favourite, chosen spot.

The next day I set off to drive back to Herts. As usual when driving alone, I had the relevant Pevsners on the passenger seat for quick reference. Somewhere in Gloucestershire I stopped at some traffic lights, and while waiting for them to change, luckily remembering the name of the town I was passing through (Churchdown), I found the relevant volume and the right page to see if it was worth stopping.

Pevsner's* description of the church begins: 'Situated on the skyline on the steep edge of Chosen Hill'. Had I not stopped at those lights, and had they changed before I'd had time to locate the entry, I might still be unaware that Chosen Hill is a real place and not merely a feature of the private geography of Gerald and Joy Finzi.

Naturally, I went to visit Churchdown church, perched at the summit of Chosen Hill (which in my memory is much steeper and more impressive than the photo at the top of this page suggests). Sadly it proved to be locked, though the view partly compensated for this. 

Churchdown church, Glos. Photo by Derek Harper, from Wikipedia

View from Chosen Hill. Photo by Brian Robert Marshall, from Wikipedia
Despite this nudge in the ribs from the Fates, I didn't investigate Finzi's music for quite some time. I think I bought the Naxos CD of the Clarinet Concerto and other orchestral works soon after it was issued in 1998, and this was enough to make me regret having not sought out his music years earlier. He's not a major composer in the way that Britten or Tippett (let alone Bach or Mozart) are; his emotional range is rather narrow, for one thing, and he seems happiest working on a small, intimate scale (though oddly enough he wrote very little chamber music). So not a great composer, but an entirely loveable one.

Gerald Finzi (1901-56) is best-known and best-loved as a composer of vocal music. His masterpiece is generally acknowledged to be Dies Natalis, an orchestral song cycle for soprano or tenor and string orchestra; in it Finzi sets poems by Thomas Traherne, the 17th century poet and mystic, written from the point of view of a newly born child. Finzi attains a kind of restrained ecstasy that's enormously powerful and moving. I'm especially fond of his smaller scale (i.e. just voice and piano) song cycles, especially those which set my favourite poet, Thomas Hardy. 

One of his most well-known and popular pieces is the Five Bagatelles, for clarinet and piano, Op.23. This was completed in 1943 but, like many of his compositions, took shape over a period of years (which is one reason why he reached only opus 40). He dismissed it as a 'trifle' and was almost annoyed by its success, feeling that it was getting the attention due to his more serious pieces. I can't imagine a better introduction to his work, though, and you can hear a live performance of it on Youtube** here. It's in five short movements and lasts about 15 minutes. I defy you to listen to it without humming the tunes. If you have only three minutes to spare, try the fourth movement, 'Forlana', which starts at 10.20. It's also been arranged (not by Finzi) for orchestra (the Youtube link to which doesn't work properly), and string quartet (listen to the last three movements here).

The picture below is of Laurence Whistler's engraved glass window in Ashmansworth church, Hants, celebrating English composers and especially Finzi. I shall write more about it in my next post.

* I'm using 'Pevsner' here as a generic term, as the 1st and 2nd editions of the Glos volumes are by David Verey.

** I've expressed my reservations about Youtube and other sites which give away music for free before. If you, dear reader, or I did some work, wouldn't we expect to be paid for it? I assuage my conscience by buying lots of CDs and concert tickets.

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