Last weekend I visited the village of Ashmansworth to take part in the Finzi Friends‘ day of activity commemorating the 60th anniversary of Finzi’s death. The tiny church outside which Gerald and his wife Joy are buried (left) is just big enough to cram a baby grand in next to the font and still leave room for a select audience. Accompanying me in recital was Libby Burgess, and we were joined by composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, who spoke to the assembled Friends about the skill of word-setting and the treatment of text in sung works.
I always like to include work by living composers in recital programmes when I can, and Cheryl had transposed her Two Shakespeare Songs into a mezzo-friendly key for us to perform. The current Chairman of the Finzi Friends is another composer, Martin Bussey, whose setting of Church Romance by Thomas Hardy is a favourite of mine – its narrative about the meeting and courtship of the poets’ own parents formed a perfect programming bridge into the jazzier idiom of Richard Rodney Bennett’s A History of the Thé Dansant, whose texts are also about the romance of the composer’s (and poet’s) parents in the 1920s. Our programme therefore not only included songs by Finzi and Gurney (whose music Finzi championed), but nodded to the World War I centenary via Gurney, and marked this year’s Shakespeare anniversary.
However, the most intimate programming link to Ashmansworth was via our first Finzi song in his cycle To a Poet. James Elroy Flecker’s poem of the same name was felt by Finzi as a sort of personal artistic statement and he buried an early draft of the song under the porch of Church Farm, the house he built at Ashmansworth. The current owners allowed us into the orchard and here am I with Libby and Cheryl, in her magnificent apple-print dress, marking the fact that Finzi was also a keen apple-grower and saved a number of rare English varieties from extinction.