Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Gerald Finzi's "God is Gone Up" - an anthem for Ascension

The Feast of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, also called Ascension Day, Ascension Thursday, or sometimes Holy Thursday, commemorates the Christian belief of the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven. In Christian belief Ascension is on the 40th day after his Resurrection (Easter being reckoned as the first day), this year falling on Thursday 21st May. Jesus' final moments with his disciples focus on the commission that will shape their lives as apostles, as they spread the gospel beyond those who encountered Christ in the flesh to those who believe based on testimony. This culminates in St. Paul using the term "the body of Christ" to describe the Church.

There are many well known anthems composed for Ascension, Stanford's "Coelos ascended hodie" is another favourite of mine, and our choir have recorded Byrd's "Non von relinquam orphanos" remotely this week. See bottom of this post.)

Finzi's "God is Gone Up" Op. 27b was written in 1951, the same year in which he learned he was suffering from Hodgkin's Disease, from which he eventually died in 1956. The text is taken from a longer poem by Edward Taylor (c1642-1729) and is the second of his three opus 27 anthems. It was written in 1951 for a St Cecilia's Day Service at St Sepulchre's Church in Holborn. This anthem has rightly become an integral part of the choral repertoire, and is probably Finzi’s most well-known piece of sacred music.

Gerald Raphael Finzi (14 July 1901 – 27 September 1956)

Finzi was a British composer who became one of the most characteristically "English" composers of his generation.

He is best known as a choral composer, but also wrote in other genres. Despite being an agnostic of Jewish descent, several of his choral works incorporate Christian texts.

Finzi spent his early childhood in London, but his father died when he was just seven and following the outbreak of the First World War Finzi moved with his mother to Harrogate, in Yorkshire. There Finzi was able to study composition with the composer Ernest Farrar (pupil of Stanford) and from 1917 with Edward Bairstow at York Minster. Finzi tragically lost his teacher Farrar and three brothers at the Front during WW1, which affected him deeply.

Finzi found solace in poetry, setting poems by Thomas Hardy and Christina Rossetti to music. During his lifetime he amassed an extraordinary library of some 3000 volumes of English poetry, philosophy and literature and 700 volumes (including books, manuscripts and printed scores) of 18th-century English music.  In 1922, Finzi moved to Painswick in Gloucestershire where he began composing in earnest. His first Hardy settings and the orchestral piece "A Severn Rhapsody" were performed in London to favourable reviews.

In 1925, at the suggestion of Adrian Boult, Finzi took a course in counterpoint and then moved to London, where he was introduced to Holst, Bliss and Vaughan Williams, who obtained a teaching post for Finzi at the Royal Academy of Music. Finzi later relinquished his teaching post when he married artist Joyce Black in 1933. The couple moved to Aldbourne, Wiltshire, where he devoted himself to composing and apple-growing, saving a number of rare English apple varieties from extinction.

Sadly his promising career was temporarily thwarted by the outbreak of the Second World War, causing the cancellation of his song-cycle ‘Dies Natalis’ (1925-39) at the Three Choirs Festival. It was a performance that could have brought him to prominence sooner.

The Finzis worked tirelessly to support other composers in particular Ivor Gurney, who had been gassed in the War and spent the last 15 years of his life committed to an institution. Finzi and his wife catalogued and edited Gurney's works for publication.

In 1951 Finzi learned that he was suffering from Hodgkin's disease and had at most ten years to live. He died in 1956 after developing a rare complication of shingles whilst receiving immunosuppressant  treatment.

Read more on the official Gerald Finzi website.

St Mary le Tower sing's Byrd's "Non von relinquam orphanos:-

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