Music, musicology and the lives of the composers are subjects dear to Faber Finds, and among our growing list of first-rate titles is Stephen Banfield’s splendid biography of Gerald Finzi. For an informed appreciation of what Banfield achieved in his study of Finzi’s life and works I’m delighted to welcome a guest poster to this blog: Andrew Burn, Head of Education and Ensembles of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, and a writer and speaker whose specialist area of interest is 20th century British music (in particular the works of Finzi and Arthur Bliss) as well as British contemporary composers. Andrew is also a member of the Gerald Finzi Trust, the excellent website of which may be found here. What follows are his thoughts on the Banfield tome:
Since the late 1960s the music of the English composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) has enjoyed increasing attention, partly through recordings, but gradually also from performances, leading devotees clamouring for an in-depth exploration of the composer’s life and music. To address this omission, the Finzi Trust commissioned Stephen Banfield (Stanley Hugh Badock Professor of Music at Bristol University and an acknowledged authority on 20th century British music) to write this first full-length study. With reference to the composer’s copious correspondence and other primary source documents (such as the journal of Finzi’s wife Joy), and consistently complemented by generous music examples and photographs, Banfield succeeds in writing a book that appeals equally to the reader who wishes to learn about Finzi the man, as well as to one seeking analysis of the music.
When the book was first published in 1997, to universally warm critical praise, some critics nevertheless posed the question whether a composer of comparatively small output and of modest stature warranted this attention. Their affirmative response that Finzi is indeed worthy of such study is due to the quality of the masterly musicology and impartial scrutiny that Professor Banfield brings to bear in analysing the composer’s legacy. In particular he examines Finzi’s Jewish background in depth, a racial and cultural heritage upon which Finzi consciously turned his back, preferring to create for himself the persona of the archetypal minor English poet, composer or man of letters.
Banfield explores Finzi’s lifelong passions: his identification with the poetry of Thomas Hardy and the metaphysical poets, primarily Thomas Traherne; his building of a remarkable library of rare editions, especially poetry, from the 17th to 20th century; his active promotion of neglected composers – Boyce and Mudge of the 18th century, Parry (unfashionable in the first decades of the 20th century) and Gurney, whose cause Finzi espoused with a single-minded ruthlessness; and, not least, Finzi’s dedication in saving from extinction the rare varieties of English apples he planted in his orchard. Friendships with composers – including Vaughan Williams (whom he revered), Howard Ferguson (his closest friend), Robin Milford, William Busch, Edmund Rubbra, Herbert Howells and Arthur Bliss, as well as the poet Edmund Blunden – are all celebrated. Finzi’s marriage to the remarkable, charismatic sculptor Joyce Black (who became a foil and driving presence behind the blossoming of his career in a similar way to Elgar’s wife) is charted, together with the tragedy of his final years struggling against terminal disease.
Finzi’s life and music are explored in tandem in each chapter, so that his journey from a raw yet gifted composer of the 1920s struggling to find techniques that would enable him to express his emerging individual voice, to that of a confident mature artist who at the end of his life was contemplating a symphony, is analysed in sequence as the works appeared. Banfield’s research breaks new ground in revealing how in his twenties Finzi was strongly influenced by the ethos of the Arts and Crafts movement, while the musical analysis (invariably revealed through Banfield’s illuminating turns of phrase) is particularly engrossing in discussion of Finzi’s Hardy song settings, arguably the composer’s most important legacy to 20th century British song.
This superb book, with its outstanding scholarship will appeal not only to admirers of Finzi, but to anyone interested in the history of British music in the first half of the 20th century.