Memories of Gerald Finzi - Kenneth Leighton
During my time as an Oxford student (1947-51) under the wise and generous guidance of my tutor, Bernard Rose, there were many musical highlights, and some of these remain in my mind as deep and vivid experiences. In spite of extensive classical studies during my first two years at Oxford, I was steeped in music and particularly English music. Rubbra was there and came along specially to hear me play a new piano Sonata. Then there was a chance to hear V.Ws new symphony (No.6) in the Sheldonian. But perhaps the most ‘intimate’ discovery I made was in playing through the songs of Gerald Finzi, often in the company of fellow students and even with croaky attempts to sing them myself. I loved them all and I particularly recall the deep impression made on me by ‘Channel firing’. This song opened up for me a new dimension in Finzi’s musical thought: I never had any difficulty in responding to the pure lyricism which imbued not only the vocal line, but top, bottom and middle of the accompaniment too. It was the pathos, I think, and the compassion which spoke to me more intimately than the work of any of the other English composers of the time. And there was also the wonder and the ecstasy of Dies natalis which has always been a peak for me. Much later I conducted performances of both this and the Cello Concerto in Edinburgh.
To be introduced to Finzi in the flesh (1949) was therefore a thrilling event. It happened through Bernard Rose who asked Finzi to look at the score of my Symphony for Strings Opus 3 which I composed in the winter of 1948-49 while I was still reading Classics. I was really quite astonished when the next thing was an invitation to attend a rehearsal of this work by the Newbury String Players under Finzi, and I remember that bright sunny afternoon and the warmth of the string tone as if it were yesterday. It was certainly one of the most thrilling events of my musical career, to hear an orchestral work of mine played by such good musicians, and rehearsed with such care and understanding. Gerald was immensely kind and enthusiastic he took me aside to explain how certain little passages could be scored in a ‘slightly safer manner’, and he also expressed a sense of disappointment that the tension of the music should be so quickly defused at the passionate climax of the slow movement. Such was his insight that he had immediately touched on points of self doubt deep in my own subconscious.
From that time forward until his death, I knew that I had in Gerald a most wise and firm source of encouragement. My next major work, Veris Gratia, was composed specially for him and the Newbury Players and contains, I think, in its final movement, a clear though unconscious tribute to his melodic style. I remember the full performance (with Anna Shuttleworth and Tony Danby) vividly, and it was clear that Gerald loved the piece. Later he performed it with Jacqueline du Pré as an amazingly powerful cello soloist, and brought VW along to hear it in London with the Kalmar orchestra. After that, Gerald and sometimes VW came to listen to almost all my London performances, including my more ‘advanced’ Violin Sonata. As a result of my year in Italy with Petrassi, the style of my music had changed considerably, but Gerald’s interest and enthusiasm burned as brightly as ever, and his letters were always packed with sound advice and a deep understanding of the real problems which face a young composer. The main thing for him was to search always after one’s true self and to avoid taking too much notice of the current fashion or ‘ism’. When deeply cast down by the harsh words of a review, he first taught me to recognise the completely shallow and ephemeral nature of newspaper criticism. As for his belief in the search for self, I hope that I have shared this all my life.
In the years that have passed, I have come to appreciate even more the beauty of Gerald’s music, particularly in the larger works such as the Cello Concerto. As a man, he was for me the symbol of all that was best in English music, and it is a privilege to have known him and to have witnessed so intimately his complete truthfulness and glowing artistic integrity.