Saturday, November 7, 2015

Autumnal Classics - The Fall of the Leaf by Gerald Finzi

Last time I inaugurated this month's theme of Autumnal Classics with a gorgeous Elizabethan number by Martin Peerson called The Fall of the Leafe.  I mentioned that the piece served as inspiration for a much later work by a better-known British composer, and today we're looking at that piece, a much revised elegy by the singular Gerald Finzi, one of the most distinguished of England's Pastoralist composers.  A shy, careful and deeply earnest composer, Finzi is second only to the much-lamented George Butterworth as the candidate for England's chief Autumnal composer.  Certain composers' works fit certain seasons (such as Milhaud's music capturing all the byzantine vitality and contrast of summer) and even when Finzi is writing about spring one can feel the weight of the forest's lost youth on his shoulders.  

Untroubled by financial worries and perpetually drawn away from hectic urban life, Finzi never let a wrong note leave his grasp and often revised, repurposed and discarded works until they were either perfect or buried, and the most extensive example of the former two acts can be seen in the evolution of a never-completed triptych.  In 1920 Finzi wrote a Prelude that he intended to be part of a chamber symphony, but as that project fell away he revised it with the hopes of it becoming the first part of a triptych on the seasons called The Bud, the Blossom and the Berry.  He completed and performed a two-piano version of the "Bud" movement, and when the triptych didn't come through as planned he rewrote it in the Prelude version for string orchestra with the intention of adding a contrasting movement.  He never wrote the other part, and the Prelude languished until receiving its premiere the year after Finzi's death, conducted by his son Christopher.  While I'm not reviewing the Prelude I can't help but include it as reference for what is to come, as well as by its own virtue of being a lushly wrought pang of melancholy.

While I can't speak for the "Blossom" movement of the triptych, the "Berry" movement did get some substantial work done on it before transforming into a separate work, The Fall of the Leaf, op. 20, drawing its title from the Peerson piece.  The piece doesn't directly reference Peerson's work or Renaissance music, but I feel that Finzi simply felt a kinship with a man who embellished a standard form of his day with unexpected poetic depth on an eternally haunting theme.  Much like the Peerson piece Finzi's Leaf is bound to a preexisting form, subtitled "Elegy", here foregoing real formal structure in favor of a soliloquy on death.  As graceful as the title may sound The Fall of the Leaf contains some of Finzi's most dramatic, volatile music, shifting keys without warning and plunging into dissonant outbursts, though not without Nature's beating heart at the center of it all.  Finzi is the rare composer where every piece of his in unmistakably his own, especially with his signature melodic writing that pulls the heartstrings along perfectly crafted stepwise motion.  The piece underwent more revisions than almost any other work in Finzi's oeuvre, and his desire to perfect it kept him from completing the orchestration of the final version of the piece before his death.  His longtime friend and colleague Howard Ferguson finished the orchestration and the piece received its premiere the same way the Prelude did, dutifully conducted by Finzi's son as a memorial to his father's gifted soul, and like many of Finzi's most beautiful works it serves well as a memorial.  Sometimes people write their own epitaphs in an instant, other times across decades, and it can be assuredly said that The Fall of the Leaf was well worth the wait.


1 comment:

  1. i keep discovering what a craftsman Finzi was .Keep finding his gems. I usually prefer more caustic 20th century music but his autumnal somberness sits me just fine !