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Earth and Air and Rain Op.15

Gerald Finzi (1901 - 1956)

Earth and Air and Rain, Op.15

Earth and Air and Rain, published in 1936, is not a song cycle in the sense of telling a story or anthologising a theme, though the opening melody of its first song is subtly echoed in the closing one of its last, reminding us that nature’s cyclic renewal is topic enough to bound this superb set of ten songs, Finzi’s best in terms of vivid characterisation and contrast, rich tonal feeling, bold imagery and overall representation of Hardy’s scope—his vocabulary, metres, conceits, ballad fantasies and profound epiphanies. Every song is an essay in some musical genre or another. ‘Summer schemes’ offers a kind of miniature sonata allegro, expanding and then reined in in each stanza. ‘When I set out for Lyonnesse’ is a ternary march and trio. ‘Waiting both’ explores something older and more ceremonious, the early baroque idea of contrapuntal ritornello. ‘The phantom’, emotional centrepiece in that it sets to music one of Hardy’s great memorial poems to his first wife, Emma, takes on Wagner’s symphonic weaving of motivic fabric (in this case a galloping figure for the ghostly horsewoman) as analogue to psychological recognition. ‘So I have fared’ is a simulacrum of village psalmody, ‘Rollicum-rorum’ of a traditional drinking song. ‘To Lizbie Browne’, as Elgarian as ‘The phantom’ is Wagnerian, is perhaps the most memorable song in the set, its refrain on her name, 18 times repeated, like so many clock chimes yet with no two identical. ‘The clock of the years’ is a kind of nightmare cadenza, a mad scene of considerable harmonic pathos, while ‘In a churchyard’ restores equilibrium with a delightful vision of the grave’s gentle dance or ride of ‘diurnal round’, martial fanfare deliberately suppressed for the restoration of the 6/8 metre before the song’s end, nature’s indifference preferable to God’s compunction in the eyes of the poet. ‘Proud songsters’, a wonderful song, is quite sui generis, two musical strophes of aviary tango (the first for piano alone) interlocking with the two stanzas of the poem whose second is therefore a freestanding coda, quiet but firm in its difference: we go, others come, it seems to say.

© Stephen Banfield

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