Thursday, December 10, 2009

And on Earth, Peace...Gerald Finzi's In Terra Pax

Tonight is the Cantata Chorus dress rehearsal for Saturday's concert And on Earth, Peace. This concert--with members of the Virginia Symphony and a great quartet of soloists--opens with Haydn's beautiful & pastoral Missa Sancti Nicolai (St Nicolas Mass) and ends with Vaughan Williams festive Fantasia on Christmas Carols. In between is one of my favorite works for this season, Gerald Finzi's cantata In Terra Pax. Below are notes I wrote for a performance several years ago in Connecticut. If you are able, I hope you'll join us Saturday at 3 pm at Trinity Episcopal as part of the FREE Olde Towne (Portsmouth) Holiday Music Festival.

(We are also listed on the Finzi society's website: under the "performances" tab)

Gerald Finzi's In Terra Pax stands alone among his later works in being wholly un-commissioned. The work was written for the local community orchestra he founded and led, the Newbury String Players, and premiered in 1955. As we shall see, Finzi's life was marked by tragedy. In Terra Pax can be viewed as one of many noble responses throughout his career. Begun in 1951, he re-worked and completed the score in 1954, after having being diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, an illness which led to his death in September, 1956 (just three weeks after conducting this valedictory work at the famous Three Choirs Festival).

Born of Italian-Jewish parents assimilated in London, Finzi–youngest of five–lost his father and three brothers between 1909 and 1918, his closest brother having been shot down during World War I. Moreover, his composition teacher and friend, Ernest Farrar, was killed in action the same year. Finzi followed in the stylistic footsteps of Elgar, Holst, and Vaughan Williams, as a 'pastoral' British composer (opposed to the 'modern'–though not avant-garde–composers like Britten and Tippett). He is known today for a mere handful of works–the cantata, Dies Natalis, a Magnificat, several cycles of Thomas Hardy poems, and among a few orchestral scores, a striking Clarinet Concerto.

Finzi remarked to a fellow composer, "most do not know the difference between choosing a text and being chosen by one." Finzi proved up to the task when 'chosen' by poems, and In Terra Pax is a telling example of his gift for both finding a poetic line and weaving it into musical fabric. Juxtaposing the familiar account of the angels and shepherds from the Gospel of St Luke with Robert Bridges meditation, Noel; Christmas Eve, 1913, is a remarkable enough gesture itself. Finzi finds succinct musical phrases to wed the two texts, and the relationship of these two simple motives unifies the work. The first phrase (heard in the lower strings and harp) is a pair of descending, interlocking fourths, reminiscent of church bells the composer recalled from adolescence. The second motive, immediately following, is a melodic fragment from the refrain of the carol, "The First Nowell." The bell-ringing music will find its apotheosis in the climactic setting of the angels' song: "Glory to God in the highest," and the second phrase offers a denouement fittingly attached to the words, "and on earth peace, good will towards men." A male soloist frames the Bridges stanzas–with exquisite musical prosody fitting the text like tailored gloves–around the choral declamation of the Gospel text. The soprano soloist is, appropriately enough, the "angel of the Lord" who announces the nativity. Her music yields to the aforementioned choral outburst, "Glory to God..."–the chorus divided and stacked canonically, representing the "multitude of the heavenly hosts." That an agnostic composer of Jewish descent should write so particular a sacred work, after being diagnosed with a fatal illness, springing from neither professional necessity nor apparent occasion, gives one pause. Perhaps the reason is in the composer's own words, a propos the Newbury String Players premiere of the work:

“I did rejoice to think that agnostics, Roman Catholics, Anglo-C's, Jews, Chapel, and Church of England were all gathered together, seeing a beautiful sight, listening to decent music and with all their ridiculous differences dropped for at least an hour.”

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