Gerald Finzi and our Choral tradition
St Mary's Church, Lent 2, 12th March 2006
Marking the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Death of Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
Music, St Mary's and St Peter's are synonymous. The streams of musical inspiration that have flowed down the aisles and through the hearts in both parishes run deep. We may privately argue in which they run deepest. We may hope and pray that that is not all we are known for. But, along with many other places of Christian worship around these islands, the bouquet, heard less often today than perhaps we might wish, 'Patron of the Arts' is one we may wear with pride, and more specifically 'Patron of the Art of Music' one that is in many ways uniquely applicable.
Why the Choral tradition?
The question of why that should be is an interesting one. In times when our inheritance of liturgical music is undergoing significant change, development and, for some people, is being severely undermined, it is also an important one. Music appears to have a significant place in the Temple traditions of the Old Testament. Lutes and harps, trumpets and clanging cymbals, strings and pipes and yes even tambourines and dance, heaven forbid, make their appearance – and that's only in Psalm 150. Paul tells us to admonish one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs – well he tells the Colossians that, anyway, and since we seem to think that everything he told one community must be immediately and infallibly applied to every other community (except wearing hats and women speaking in church and, eventually, slavery) then we like our forbears, should take note. But the Gospels don't say a lot about music in worship – I suppose the heavenly choir of angels above the Bethlehem hillside might count, and they all departed from the Last Supper having sung a hymn; not a lot else – no evidence that Jesus sang any part of the words of institution, or that there was a Communion Motet whilst everyone was sharing the bread and the wine. Other faith traditions also use music in worship to an extent, some more than others, but I do not think that they could claim the title 'Patron of the art of music'.
So why, why has the classical choral tradition become so important within the Christian tradition?
Gerald Finzi – Agnostic – and wrestling with God
In order to try to uncover something of an answer to that – and I do not think there is necessarily a straightforward answer to it – I want to refer to this weekend's celebrations, so wonderfully put together by Philip Collin and Howard Wong, and performed by them with John, the Choir, Peter.... an all the performers. I have an affinity with Finzi. It is not just to do with his music. Nor is it just because his two sons, Kiffer and Nigel were bounced on the same knee as I was as a small child – although that came as quite a shock when I opened Diana McVeagh's biography and discovered that the Finzi family's nursery maid in the mid-30s, Peggy Bendle, aged 14 was the same Nanny Bendle who was much loved by me some twenty or twenty five years later – and the houses in which we lived more or less backed on to one another. Nor that he was in large part responsible for a revival of interest in, among others, an eighteenth century composer, and forbear of mine, Richard Mudge.
There is in my life a wrestling with God that must be done. There is a need to distance myself from those who overbearingly must tell me that God is, and then describe with authority all God's attributes, as though they can walk around a museum case and point out to me God's love and God's majesty and God's every jot and tittle. I rejoice for them, I rejoice for you if that is the state of your knowledge of God. When I say I believe, I do. And I really want to be able to demonstrate that God really is like I believe him to be. And there are moments when I am absolutely convinced that he is, and there are other moments when I am not so sure. The Church, as an institution, is uneasy with that struggle – even though the Biblical narrative from Eden onwards tells of that struggle over and over again. It is, it seems, innate in the human condition. And history might suggest pretty strongly that it is when we become too certain that we have the truth that all the trouble begins.
Liturgy - an aid in the search
For me – and I know that I am speaking personally, and that this may be very difficult territory for some – liturgy must aid and support my search, my wrestling. Yes, it is wonderful to be able, from time to time, to put it aside and just join in a great Te Deum, a hymn of glory, and the Church in its calendar, helps me to do that at Christmas and Easter and so on; but I find it so difficult to be confronted week in, week out by the absolute certainty that Jesus is Lord. I want the space for my spirit to cry out that ancient prayer 'Yes Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief'.
And there is my much more fundamental affinity with Gerald Finzi, and for that matter with the atheistic Vaughan Williams, composer of that extraordinary G minor Mass, and who was able to take the old Folk Carol 'This is the Truth sent from above' and shroud it in mystery and uncertainty. And then there is the very unsure Herbert Howells, and the sort of vague spiritualism of Holst, who could still write the Hymn of Jesus. And that too is where I have my difficulties, despite the frowns I shall be receiving from the musicians dotted around the congregation this evening, with some others of their time and earlier, whose music fits only too easily with the bombastic certainty of elements of the Christian tradition. Even before you begin to listen to Finzi, to know that among his inspirations is, above all, Thomas Hardy, whose faith journey was very rocky indeed, or John Clare, who fitted so uncomfortably into late eighteenth, early nineteenth century society with all its seeds of early romanticism and Victorian moralism. And Finzi's own personal story must have fed his own questioning and his own yearnings – led, as with so many of his age, by the awful, awful slaughter of the First World War, which took from him a brother and his music teacher, Ernest Farrar; and having lost his two other brothers just before the war broke out; and, before then, when only eight, his father who had suffered so horribly in his illness. In Diana McVeagh's biography we read of Gerald's memory of his father's retort to his mother, who reminded him of God's beneficence in the midst of his illness, “He must be a very cruel God to make me suffer so much” - words that must, for a long time, have resonated deeply with that small boy's unfolding history.
Mystery or certainty?
Is it not true that for most of our lives we face questions, we experience deep longings, we yearn for understanding of the mystery that is human life, for answers about who I am, who we are and why? For me at least the idea that somehow someone repeating and repeating with an ever rising crescendo the same old certainties of Christian doctrine is going to convince me and convict me of the truth sent from above is really so not likely. We long that it may be true. Yes indeed, we long for the truth.
There is great irony in Finzi taking that great eucharistic hymn of the medieval master of scholastic philosophy, Thomas Aquinas. He defined for subsequent generations the exact nature of Jesus's presence in the elements of bread and wine in the Mass, and thereby ensured Christian disunity too; and even when translated by the 17th century Richard Crashaw, an inveterate questioner and pilgrim in faith who began as a Puritan and ended as a Roman Catholic in days when that was far from easy the text is surprising. [Lo the Full Final sacrifice.] The wonderfully tentative mystery with which Finzi clothes those extraordinary words we have just heard the choir sing really comes close – for me – to answering the original question. We are led on a journey, a journey of the spirit which has no predictable end, indeed it is an endless question mark. A signpost by which to continue the quest. A rocky journey perhaps, but an exhilirating one nonetheless. And those who know Finzi's music well, and the great triumphant shout of 'God is gone up', written just a couple of years before he died, might just suggest that perhaps Gerald Finzi did uncover the hint of an answer for himself. Or did he? Will we ever know? God only knows.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.