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To a Poet Op.13a

Gerald Finzi (1901 - 1956)

To a Poet, Op.13a

It is appropriate, therefore, that the first song on this disc should be his setting of James Elroy Flecker’s ‘To a poet a thousand years hence’. It sums up Finzi’s philosophy, that art may speak across the ages quietly and privately, or be obscured by chance, but represents truth and continuity more than any other sum of human achievement. (Finzi, Jewish by birth, was agnostic and did not allow religion this role.) As if to prove the point, he wrote the song early in his career, rewrote it later, and still kept it in a drawer: it was only heard, with the rest of To a Poet, in 1959 and not published until 1965. The second song in this poetic miscellany, ‘On parent knees’, is as concise as ‘To a poet’ is discursive, and couches an affecting poetic conceit, of weeping and smiling, birth and death, within a single musical strophe of gently contested relative major and minor no more than 16 bars long. ‘Intrada’ sets the very opening of Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation, a metaphysical source Finzi quarried for Dies natalis, of which this arioso song could well have been an original part. ‘The birthnight’, a de la Mare setting, sounds in its Db richness very much like certain songs by Ivor Gurney, also fond of this poet, though Finzi, to express the transcendent surprise of new life, does what Gurney would never have done when he ends away from the tonic key. ‘June on Castle Hill’, making a surprisingly common link between two topics, war and the countryside (Finzi’s setting was written in June 1940 on the cusp of the Battle of Britain), ends very much in its tonic, G minor, but an octave lower than it began, deeply expressive of ‘that sullen hum’ of the passing bee that ‘Whispers of wars to come’. Last comes ‘Ode: on the rejection of St Cecilia’, written in 1948 as a response to an abortive BBC project involving six new poems commissioned for six composers to set to music without knowing who they were by. Finzi found them ‘all appalling from the musical point of view’ but chose George Barker’s because of its ‘fury and magnificence’, for which his own melodramatic lyricism is a good match. The other composers all reneged on their task. With the wrecking of Europe in the second world war scarcely at an end, this elegy for the guilty power of music furnishes a striking though only posthumously arranged conclusion for To a Poet.

© Stephen Banfield

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