Christopher Trundle on the richness and beauty of some of the seventeenth-century writings set to music by Gerald Finzi
Somehow I have always associated the choral music of Gerald Finzi (1901–56) with the summer.
Whether this has to do with the nature of the music itself or its liturgical significance I am unsure; certainly the favourites, God is Gone up, Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice and Welcome, Sweet and Sacred Feast, are clearly appropriate for feasts like the Ascension, Easter and Corpus Christi.
Finzi was a remarkable character, an agnostic of both Italian and German Jewish descent, who succeeded in writing some of the most moving Christian choral music in the Anglican repertoire. His music is often thought to be characteristically English, lyrical and pastoral, although the choral works suggest something rather more distinctive.
Their popularity lies not only in Finzis own skill, but also in the beauty of the texts he chose to set. The words of Richard Crashaw (1613–49) and Henry Vaughan (1621–95) among others place this music firmly within the Anglican Catholic tradition.
Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice was written by Finzi for the fifty-third anniversary of the consecration of St Matthew’s, Northampton; a reflection on the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the text is taken from Crashaw’s poetic translations of St Thomas Aquinas’s hymns, Adoro Te and Lauda Sion Salvatorem. The theology is wholly Catholic, and the imagery wonderfully moving. Similarly, the text of Welcome, Sweet and Sacred Feast is from Vaughan’s The Holy Communion, another Eucharistic meditation.
There is not space to reproduce the full texts here, but I offer two brief excerpts:
O soft self-wounding Pelican!
Whose breast weeps balm for wounded man.
All this way bend thy benign flood
To ’a bleeding heart that gasps for blood.
That blood, whose least drops sovereign be
To wash my worlds of sins from me.
The Hymn of St Thomas in
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament
Was’t not enough to lose thy breath and blood
By an accursed death,
But thou must also leave
To us that did bereave thee of them both
These seals the means that should both cleanse and keep us so,
Who wrought thy woe?
Henry Vaughan The Holy Communion
Words so rich and meaningful must have appealed to Finzi, and his skilled treatment of the cadences of the English language seems made for them. But there is also something visionary and almost mystical about these texts. Crashaw and Vaughan are both known as metaphysical poets, and were formed by the tumultuous period of the English Civil War and ensuing religious arguments. Their words still witness to the unbroken Catholic devotion of the English church even through difficult times.
Crashaw actually died a Roman Catholic, but began life as the son of a strongly anti-Catholic divine. He spent much of his life in Cambridge, where he was priest of Little St Mary’s and a friend of Nicholas Ferrar, and later in Oxford. He was ejected from that University in 1644 having refused to conform to the protestant Covenant and fled to France. He was never re-ordained, and died at Loretto.
Vaughan, a Welsh physician, lived a rather longer life, most of which was lived near Brecon, apart from some time at Oxford and London and military service during the Civil War. He credits his conversion to George Herbert. The effects of the turbulent period he lived in were strongly felt by Vaughan and his village community, most notably when Anglicans and Royalists were expelled during visitations by the Puritan government; it seems that Vaughan himself became homeless as a result. Despite this, the strength of his faith is evident in his poetry; ‘moriendo, revixi’ was his motto – ‘dying, I gain new life’.
The Anglican tradition has certainly endured many times of difficulty, not least during the seventeenth century, but the lasting work of individuals like Crashaw and Vaughan demonstrates that patient faith and deeply Catholic Eucharistic devotion have been characteristics of English religion for centuries – may they continue to be so for years to come.
Live ever Bread of loves, and be
My life, my soul, my surer self to me.
Crashaw, The Hymn of St Thomas
O rose of Sharon!
O the lily of the valley!
How art thou now, thy flock to keep,
Become both food and shepherd to thy sheep.
Vaughan, The Holy Communion ND