The music of Gerald Finzi was a revelation to me when I first heard it in 1991. I was living in London, and was listening to music at the British Music Information Center when I came across a recording of the Eclogue for Piano and Strings. Upon hearing that opening, I was transfixed. Why did I not know the music of this remarkable composer? I listened to everything I could find, and it was clear that Finzi was a unique and extraordinary voice, with an almost unprecedented ability to set the English language to music. His knowledge of poetry, his sensitivity and the care he took with his texts and word setting were a revelation to me. Listen to his setting of Shakespeare's Come Away Death. This text has been set many times, by many composers, but for me the simple perfection of Finzi's version is ideal.
I have often wondered if my love for Finzi was related to an odd similarity of our backgrounds. Finzi was born two months to the day before my grandfather; both were born in England, and both my grandfather and the composer were brought up by assimilated Jews who were more English than Jewish. (my great-grandparents named their dog “Ladysmith” after the battle in the Boer War. Even owning a dog was something Jews of that time and place would have been unlikely to do). Finzi managed to hide his Jewishness, to the point that even people who knew him well were unaware of his origins. Of course, that was impossible for my family unless they were to change their name; but culturally, they were English, and were barely conscious of anything Jewish; like Finzi, they were not “culturally Jewish” in the manner of many non-religious Jews.
My great-grandfather was a violinist, and my grandfather a percussionist; like Finzi, they came from a family in the manufacturing business, but my great-grandfather and most of his children became musicians. Unlike Finzi, none of them became composers, although my grandfather wrote a song called “I whisper I love you” that was written to the tune of “Tea for Two” and was played by the Paul Whiteman band two years before the Vincent Youmans classic was composed. (in reality, I am pretty sure that is a coincidence).
Although my family celebrated a totally secular version of Christmas, Finzi, himself, like my grandfather a non-believer, went further; he wrote what is to me the finest piece of Christmas music ever written, “In Terra Pax”. This setting of gorgeous poem by Robert Bridges “Noel:Christmas Eve 1913” incorporates into the fabric of the poem passages from the Gospel of Luke at exactly the moment in the poem where the reference is appropriate. No other Christmas work has ever caught the spirit of magic, wonder and mystery of the Christmas season so beautifully.
The West Valley Chorale with soloists Robert Altizer and Carolyn Whitaker will be singing this masterpiece with the MusicaNova Orchestra at 7PM on December 6th at the Central United Methodist Church 1875 North Central Avenue in Phoenix. Please come hear us. Tickets here.