Who was Gerald Finzi? It is a more important question than it might initially seem for Stephen Banfield in his recent biography of the English composer. The author asks it as part of an attempt to evaluate Finzi's cultural identity as well as artistic attainment in a life that was too short but filled with significant music.
For the classical music lover of more than average discernment, discovery of Finzi's work casts him in the role of visionary. The world can seem forever changed after a first listening to Finzi's vocal works (above all the superb Dies Natalis). He is that remarkable rarity, a relatively unknown composer who provides something like a gift of divine revelation.
For the official histories, on the other hand, he is usually little more than a second- or third-rate member of the English pastoral tradition (less kindly known as the "cow-pat school") that asserted itself between the two world wars, the big names in which were Holst, Vaughan Williams, and Delius. Seen from this more detached viewpoint, Finzi was a close friend of Vaughan Williams as well as a familiar of Bliss, but a composer of nowhere near their abilities -- most characteristically, a man who did small things well, as in his settings of poems by Hardy, Wordsworth, and Traherne.
In this first major biography of Finzi, Banfield (who has a long record of devotion to researching the composer's career for musicology publications) does an excellent job of attempting to place Finzi into perspective between the two views of him from the small and the large ends of the telescope.
Banfield also attempts, more notably, to come to terms with Finzi's peculiar position as a member of an impressive family with ancient Italian Jewish roots (yes, probably related in some way to the Finzi-Continis of movie fame) who made the personal choice to mix with nationalistic English musicians, even arguing in print for the virtues of embracing a strong English cultural identity.
Those who find themselves intrigued by current debates about the role played by ethnic culture in determining personal identity will also be interested by Banfield's treatment of Finzi's dilemma.
But it is to those of us who see Finzi through the magnifying lens, and who have come to feel personally touched by his music, that Banfield has most to say.
How did Finzi live his life? (Quite well, as a person who seemed almost saintly in his abilities to rise above the usual pettiness and indecorous weaknesses of most notables in the arts.) Who did he rub shoulders with? (Many, many fascinating figures in the early twentieth century revival of English music, though not all are well known.)Why should he be remembered at all, beyond the Hardy songs and Dies Natalis? (Among the many activities that this compulsive conservator undertook, he almost single-handedly revived forgotten English composers from the era of Handel.)
And finally -- for fans of the film "Hilary and Jackie" -- was he any relation to the dashing Kiffer Finzi who swept Hilary off her feet? (Indeed, Gerald Finzi was Kiffer's father, though you'd never know it from the film's silence about the father's big cello concerto.)
Personal note: as one of those collectors of English music who have never forgotten the moment of revelation as Dies Natalis (conducted, incidentally, by Kiffer Finzi) made the transition to the turntable after discovery in an obscure record bin, I find it an indispensible service from Banfield to have all the personal lore about the composer between two covers, and nicely written for the most part.
One small warning, though: this is one of those extremely conscientious studies of national musical figures that Faber and Faber do so well. That means that much of its 500-plus-pages bulk is taken up with detailed musicological analysis, for the most part closely woven in with the biographical narrative and tending to overshadow it. If you've allowed yourself to become rusty on your key relationships, or if you don't happen to have the complete run of Finzi recordings (or even more helpfully, the scores) at hand, the book will be slow going, even for dedicated page-skippers.
But the book should provide many new insights for the general reader with a curiosity about both musical matters and general English artistic life in the first half of the recent century (Finzi's dates were 1901-1956). And who, having discovered and then fallen in love with Finzi's rapturous vocal revelations, would not wish to have this thorough a portrait of him, crotchets and quavers and all?