Tea and Bagatelles with the Finzis

In the Summer of 2000 I had the great pleasure of meeting James Gillespie, editor of The Clarinet Journal, during the International Clarinet Association (ICA) convention in Oklahoma. James asked me if I would like to contribute a regular column. These personal reflections are now reprinted with his permission. The following ‘Letter from the UK’ was first published in September 2001 in The Clarinet Journal, the official publication of the ICA. 

Readers of my previous letter may be begining to think that I spend much of my time having tea with musical celebrities! A few weeks ago, I took a pupil to play Gerald Finzi’s Five Bagatelles to the composer’s son, Christopher. The Finzi family has been living in Church Farm – a wonderfully sprawling house designed by Gerald himself – for years. The book-lined room where Jonathan performed was the very one in which the work was written and our pianist accompanied on the very piano Gerald used to compose the music. This is Finzi’s centenary year and his music is, deservedly, receiving a great many performances, with over twenty professional performances of the Concerto and at least a similar number of the Five Bagatelles programmed over the next few months alone. There will undoubtedly be others.

The Bagatelles were written over a four-year period and Boosey & Hawkes did not, at first, intend to publish them as a set. The Prelude, Romance, Carol and Forlana were given their first performance by Pauline Juler and Howard Ferguson at the National Gallery in London on January 15th 1943, at one of the famous war-time concerts there. The Carol was probably written first; the Fughetta was added later that year. Gerald may have used the title ‘Carol’ in its old English meaning of a song, or perhaps he intended it as kind of Christmas carol without words. Whichever, it is a delightfully charming miniature full of imagery and subtlety: is that the clock striking six – or seven? – at the end, heralding the dawn of Christmas Day? The Prelude is a substantial movement and, in the words of an early review in The Times ‘shows that a diatonic scale may still be used as the basis of a vigorous theme’. Finzi’s use of counterpoint and imaginative textures in this and indeed each of the movements, guarantee that this piece is more than just an occasional trifle – a mere bagatelle – there is always much for the musical intellect to savour. 

The Romance is full of delicious melody and countermelody and the middle section, for me at least, is quintessential Finzi. The appearance of the Forlana on exam syllabuses in the UK (from shortly after its composition) has ensured its familiarity to practically every British clarinettist. Evidently the title gave Finzi cause for concern. He couldn’t decide whether it was a ‘Forlane’ (a type of Neapolitan dance) or a ‘Berceuse’. His friend, the composer Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) suggested (with tongue firmly in cheek) that he might consider ‘Berlane’ or ‘Forceuse’! For those with an analytical bent, it is full of fascinating compositional devices.

The Fughetta came last and caused Finzi some anxiety; ‘It has turned out to be rather larger in scale and more difficult than the others and I only hope that it’s not outside the Bagatelles’ radius’, he wrote to his friend Howard Ferguson. He needn’t have worried; it is a fitting and balanced finale. 
Jonathan’s performance of this lovely work in the intimate surroundings of Gerald Finzi’s music room was a very special experience. The ‘mini-recital’ also included Howard Ferguson’s ‘Four Short Pieces’ – a work that sits very closely in style to the Bagatelles. Written a few years before the Finzi, and perhaps of slightly lesser stature, they make a perfectly delightful concert item.

After the concert, Jonathan had his picture taken sitting in a chair that once belonged to George Washington! (I can never remember the details of how the Finzi family came by this wonderfully historical piece of furniture, but there was a link in the families that goes back many years.) The garden boasts two very fascinating features. One of these is the apple orchard: Gerald loved growing apples, and one can still find (and enjoy!) many of the varieties he cultivated. The second is the well. It is perhaps the deepest well in England and we were treated to an exciting fireworks display as Christopher lit a newspaper and dropped it down...

In composing the Five Bagatelles, and, some years later, the wonderful Clarinet Concerto, Gerald Finzi probably never imagined what lasting pleasure he would give to clarinet players and audiences alike. It is a small, but very important legacy.