Intimations of Immortality - Gerald Finzi (1901 - 1956)


A series of tragedies profoundly affected Finzi in his early years. His father died just before his eighth birthday, and by the time he was eighteen he had lost his three elder brothers and his much-loved teacher, Ernest Farrar, who was killed in action. This dreadful sequence of events, and the appalling losses of the First World War that formed the backdrop to his adolescence, gave Finzi an acute awareness of the impermanence of life, further heightened when at the age of fifty he discovered that he was dying of leukaemia. These experiences may well explain the underlying hint of melancholy in his music, heard particularly in the many fine Hardy songs, the superb cantata Dies Natalis, for solo voice and strings (a setting of words by Traherne), the Seven poems of Robert Bridges and the Ode Intimations of Immortality.

Finzi led a solitary life until his mid-twenties, finding peace and quiet satisfaction in the countryside and immersing himself in poetry and literature. He was exceptionally well read and over the years amassed a valuable collection of some 3 000 volumes of English poetry, literature and philosophy, now housed in the Finzi Book Room at Reading University. His favourite writers were Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Traherne and in particular, Hardy, in whose introspective verse he found a kindred spirit. In 1926 Finzi moved to London, where he quickly became part of a group of composers that included Vaughan Williams, Holst, Arthur Bliss, Edmund Rubbra, Robin Milford and, most importantly, Howard Ferguson, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship.
Finzi’s music springs from his love of literature and the English countryside - the same sources that inspired Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Like them he found writing songs and choral music particularly satisfying. In Finzi’s case, however, the instinctive feeling for words is exceptional, the natural speech-rhythms and cadences of his musical lines complementing perfectly each chosen text. In fact about two-thirds of his works are either for chorus or solo voice, and all of his music is immediately recognisable by its yearning melodic lines and wistful harmonies. 
Intimations of Immortality was first performed at the Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester, in September 1950, conducted by Herbert Sumsion. It is one of Finzi’s most substantial works and is scored for full orchestra, tenor solo and chorus. Wordsworth’s Ode, subtitled ‘from recollections of early childhood’ is a lament for the lost joys and intuitive wonder of childhood. The work begins with an ethereal horn call, representing the ‘intimations of immortality’ themselves. A second, broad theme forms the musical basis for the first and second verses. An animated allegro orchestral passage introduces verses three and four, with their dancing images of spring. The horn call is heard again before verses five, six and nine (Finzi omitted Wordsworth’s seventh and eighth verses), in which the central theme of lost innocence is addressed, and hope offered. The earlier allegro returns for the tenth stanza, followed by the broad theme heard early on in the piece. The final section concludes with a poignant reiteration of the horn call, which then fades away into contemplative silence. Finzi uses the tenor solo, chorus and orchestra in many subtle combinations, rather as an artist might mix his colours in varying shades, reflecting the constantly changing nuances of Wordsworth’s evocative poem.


John Bawden


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