Gerald Raphael Finzi
For St. Cecilia

Born: 14 July 1901 in London
Died: 27 September 1956 in Oxford

{Biography} {For St. Cecilia}

I hadn’t planned on writing an entry for this piece (it’s not exactly a choral blockbuster), but the other day the wonderful local classical station, WXXI, was playing Finzi’s The Fall of the Leaf when I turned it on.  Given that Finzi’s music is not in heavy rotation on any radio station in the world, that seemed like some sort of sign from St. Cecilia or somebody in charge, so I thought, “why not?”  Besides, by that time For St. Cecilia had grown on me considerably.  So here goes.


Gerald Finzi was born to Jewish parents but was himself agnostic, and a pacifist to boot.  His music studies were with Edward Farrar (from 1914 to 1916), Sir Edward Bairstow (from 1917 to 1922) and finally R. O. Morris in 1925.  He taught composition at the Royal Academy of Music between 1930 and 1933, after which he and his wife moved to the country for a simpler life (that included overseeing an orchard of rare apple trees of more than 350 varieties).  He endured his share of tragedy; his father died when he was a child, and his teacher Farrar was killed in the first World War; his three older brothers died as well.  In 1951 Finzi was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease and given ten years to live.  Taking a walk during the 1956 Gloucester Festival with Vaughan Williams, Finzi and the older composer were exposed to chicken pox.  The disease had no effect on the 83-year-old Vaughan Williams but was too much for the weakened immune system of Finzi, who passed away on 27 September of that year.

I encountered Finzi’s music when my first real boss gave me a record of Janet Baker singing “An Anthology of English Song” (sadly, most supervisors do not deliver such enjoyable presents.  But I worked in Arts Management).  The record (also my introduction to John Ireland, Peter Warlock, Ivor Gurney, and others) included two Shakespeare settings by Finzi.  Many years later I acquired the complete cycle that contained those songs, Let Us Garlands Bring (Op. 18), on a Bryn Terfel CD featuring Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel.  The Finzi works are attractive songs, just as For St. Cecilia is an interesting piece.  In consulting various writings about Finzi, I haven’t run across any real list of “Finzi’s Greatest Hits,” though The New Grove calls his song cycle Dies natalis “a minor masterpiece of English music” and Stephen Banfield is quoted in The Clock of the Years as saying that the choral work In terra pax is “perhaps his most perfect work.” What we’ve got here, then, is a composer who writes interesting and appealing music that’s worth getting to know, even if it doesn’t inspire us to grab strangers in the streets by their lapels and babble incoherently about a freshly-discovered masterpiece.  We musicians need all sorts of compositions in our aural diets.

For St. Cecilia

For St. Cecilia (subtitled “Ceremonial Ode”) was commissioned by, appropriately enough, the St. Cecilia’s Day Festival Committee (says the excellent Boosey & Hawkes vocal score that we are using, though the copyright date of 1942 is an error) and premiered in the Royal Albert Hall on 22 November 1947, St. Cecilia’s Day (Cecilian works by Purcell and Handel were performed as well).  The performance put Finzi on the map as a composer.

Clocking in at “approx. 17 minutes,” the work calls for a full orchestra of 2 flutes, a third flute or piccolo, 2 oboes and an English horn, 2 Bb clarinets and a bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and a contrabasson, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 3 players for additional percussion including xylophone, celeste, harp, strings, and “an adequately large chorus.”  Interestingly, Stephen Banfield (in his book on Finzi) sees the work as modelled in numerous places on Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens.

The substantial text is by British writer Edmund Blunden, a poet sufficiently important to have been made a C.B.E. by the monarch.  He was also author of several poems that Finzi set, and the two became good friends.  Blunden’s text introduces the Catholic saint, patron saint of music, as a “delightful Goddess,” thus paganizing her.  The poem includes two lists, one of saints and one of English (or sort-of English) composers.  Finzi nixed a third list of musical instruments.


The saints are listed in their chronological order of the calendar year: St. Valentine (February 14), St. George (April 23), St. Dunstan (May 19), St. Swithin (July 15), all feasts observed before that of St. Cecilia on November 22.  The Roman St. Valentine is associated with lovers (despite the rather murky biographical details surviving about this martyr).  The military martyr St. George is the patron saint of England, whose story is also rather light on historical fact, including the 12th-century slaying the dragon part.  In contrast, St. Dunstan was a real tenth-century English monk whose talents included both music and metalwork; he is the patron saint of goldsmiths.  Curiously, the section in his bio about clipping the nose of a woman who was really the devil in disguise remains to be verified.  As for St. Swithin, another real English saint, his body was “translated” (moved) from his grave outside the Old Minster in Winchester to a shrine inside on 15 July 971.  According to English lore, if July 15 (St. Swithin’s Day) is fair, the next 40 days will be as well, but rain on the 15th forecasts 40 more wet days.

And what about St. Cecilia?  She was a third-century Roman noblewoman who converted her husband and brother-in-law to Christianity before being martyred through heat suffocation (I will spare you the various icky details; Chaucer spells them out in “The Second Nun’s Tale.”)  And music, you ask?  Was she playing or singing as she was being tormented?  Did she establish a choir school for orphans?  Invent a new system of tuning the lyre?  Revise the ancient Greek modes?  Perform Yankee Doodle in retrograde inversion while standing on her head?  Something—anything—to warrant her being the patron saint of music?

Nope.  At least not during her supposed lifetime.  A few centuries after her death, though, she’s introduced in a story of her life as a member of the celestial choir—got that?  she’s a choral singer!!!  Later on she gets loaded up with an organ or lyre to let people know she’s a musician, but she started out like each of us, as a singer!  (or at least as far as we can tell from the convoluted stories attached to her; nothing’s really clear).

Before we move on to the list of composers in the piece, we’ll take a brief detour to explain why a lot of Protestants are enamoured of a Catholic saint by providing A Brief History of the Origin of the Anglican Church.

The Anglican Church

In the mid-fifteenth century, fresh off losing the Hundred Years’ War to the French (1337–1453; no, they couldn’t count), the English needed something else to fight about, so they started the War of the Roses.  This was about who was going to be King of England: a member of the House of York (white rose as their symbol) or a member of the House of Lancaster (red rose)?  The House of York had the better claim, but Lancastrian Henry Tudor won the war.  He promptly married Elizabeth of York and founded the Tudor dynasty of English monarchs, with the combined white and red roses symbolizing Tudor loyalty.

Henry (now Henry VII) had two sons: Arthur (older), and Henry (younger).  Through a diplomatic alliance, Arthur married Katherine of Aragon.  Sometimes spelled Catherine, the real name was Catalina, and she was the youngest child of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.  Arthur died in 1502, just a few months after his marriage, leaving Katherine in limbo/England.  Her status was not resolved until 1509, when she married the new king and her erstwhile brother-in-law, now Henry VIII.

Many pregnancies followed, few leading to live births.  And of those few live births, only one girl, Mary, survived infancy.  Mary was useless to Henry; English law (unlike Spanish law) required a male heir for the throne, which had never been all that secure for the Tudors in the first place.  Henry became increasingly convinced that his failure to produce a legitimate male heir (there were several bastard sons about) was God’s punishment for his marriage to his brother’s widow (despite Katherine’s claim that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated).

Around 1526 or so Henry’s roving eye settled on the bewitching young Anne Boleyn, who managed the almost unbelievable feat of stringing him along for seven years, supposedly refusing to bed him until they were married (or close).  For years Henry tried to get the Vatican to annul his marriage to Katherine; for years the Church refused.  He finally lost patience and declared himself head of the church in England, the new Anglican church, put Katherine aside, married Anne (she was probably pregnant), and confiscated all monastic possessions in England, making himself rich and many others poor.  He didn’t care.

Thus, the Anglican church was founded not as a result of theological inquiry, as were the Lutheran and other Protestant churches, but because Henry believed he needed a male heir.  This is why the Anglican church (in America, the Episcopalian church) is closer than any other Protestant sect to the Catholic church in its liturgy, music, and veneration of saints.

Just in case you don’t know how this all turned out, Anne’s baby was a girl (Elizabeth), so Henry had her (Anne’s) head chopped off (her invented crimes included adultery with her lutenist, because you know those musicians...).  Henry married the pious Jane Seymour, who managed to produce the long-desired male heir before promptly dying in childbirth.  Henry—cruel, greedy, and powerful (a terrible combination)—married three other women and treated them badly as well.  His son, Edward VI, was a sickly child who reigned for a mere six years and died at the age of 16 (he’s the “prince” in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper).  He was succeeded by his half-sister Mary, who reigned for an even shorter period of time.  But her successor was Anne Boleyn’s child, the great monarch Elizabeth I.  Her 45-year reign saw an incredible flowering of literature, theater, and music, which brings us back to that composer list.


Merbecke is first up.  Somewhat better known as John Marbeck (ca. 1505–ca. 1585), he is famous as being the composer of The Booke of Common Praier Noted (1550).  To create this, he took the text-only Book of Common Prayer itself (published 1549), which provided English-language texts for various components of the Anglican service, and provided simple plainchant settings for the texts.  These melodies, by the way, are still used in Anglican and other Protestant churches worldwide.  So Merbecke is the father of Anglican church music.

William Byrd (ca. 1540–1623) is next.  Widely considered the greatest English composer of the Renaissance, he was a staggeringly prolific composer in all the important genres of the day who also started the business of printing music in England in partnership with Thomas Tallis.  A Catholic composer when England was resolutely Protestant, he was protected in his “heresy” by none other than the Queen herself, who recognized his staggering talent.

Byrd is followed by two of my favorites, John Dowland (1563–1626) and Henry Purcell (1659–1695).  Dowland was a brilliant composer for voice(s), lute, and instrumental consort, and towers above his contemporaries in these realms.  Best known for his famous lute pavane (a kind of dance) called “Lachrimae” (“Flow my tears” is its song version), he also wrote one gorgeous lute song (song for solo voice with lute accompaniment) after another, as well as a terrific series of one-to-a-part vocal works.  He’s definitely one of those composers who falls in the “it’s all good” category, but if you feel like having your soul ripped apart, go listen to the ayre “In darkness let me dwell.”

Four generations later we have the prodigious Henry Purcell, who managed before dying at the age of 36 to write a slew of fantastic vocal and instrumental works, including the terrific little opera Dido and Aeneas, the wonderful birthday ode for Queen Mary Come Ye Sons of Art, the wrenching anthem Hear my prayer, O Lord, the—well, you get the picture.  He also wrote a trio of odes for St. Cecilia’s Day (Welcome to All the Pleasures; Laudate Ceciliam; Hail, Bright Cecilia!; note that Finzi’s work is also an ode to St. Cecilia) as well as a Song for St. Cecilia’s Day.

Handel needs no introduction, of course, but as a German composer who moved to England, he is identified in Finzi’s work as “friend and generous guest.”  And given that his fame far eclipsed that of other wholly English composers, England has been very happy to claim him as their own when possible.  He, too, wrote a Song for St. Cecilia’s Day. 

Interestingly, Blunden’s first draft of the text included theatrical composer Thomas Arne (1710–1778) and Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810–1876), called by The New Grove “the greatest composer in the English cathedral tradition between Purcell and Stanford.”  The original read:

Stand with us, Merbeck, and be Byrde close by,
And Arne, and Wesley, lift the theme on high,
Even let old Handel in the midst announce
Himself a Briton every inch and ounce!

Finzi vetoed Arne and Wesley in favor of Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625) and Purcell.  Gibbons eventually gave way to Dowland; Finzi even considered quoting Dowland’s song Time stands still with gazing on her face.  Blunden had to alter the Handel reference as well.  Finzi required a variety of other changes; that very nice “sing......out Cecilia’s name” at rehearsal 4 started as “speak but Cecilia’s name” (ugh).

The New Grove describes Finzi as “never a singer,” and it is true that various of the vocal lines in For St. Cecilia can benefit from a little wood-shedding on the singer’s part.  But the matching of word and rhythm is excellent throughout, underlay is almost universally syllabic, various clever bits of text-painting pop up (St. Dunstan whose red tongs SILENCE! clipt  SILENCE!), and the changing mood is ever matched by changing textures and harmonies.  My favorite part is probably the composer list, where, over ppp octave Bs in the orchestra we sing our own melody in octaves, a melody that shifts from 5/4 to 4/4 to 3/4 back to 4/4 and moves stepwise over a narrow range—all representing, of course, the chant-like antiquity of the oldest names of Merbecke and Byrd.  From that naked octave B we suddenly move with the orchestra to a full rich G major triad for Dowland, an e-minor triad for Purcell, and a b-minor triad for “high.”   That b-minor triad (B, D, F#) is then wrenched into Bb major (Bb, D, F natural—whew!) for Handel, beginning a phrase that eventually modulates to a shining D major to end our “choral zest.”  That move from the 16th to the 18th century covers a lot of musical ground, even if Finzi wanted the lines sung “on the same level—really like a monotone.” 

As I said, this is a work that grew on me over the months we worked on it.  Right around St. Cecilia’s Day this year it finally clicked, and now I have various sections of it running through my head throughout the day.  I’m eager to “sing out Cecilia’s name” and grateful for the opportunity to have experienced this work.

December 2017