Friday, January 9, 2015

Gerald Finzi: An English Composer

Musical Names

Linguists and other non-professionals interested in languages can often trace a person’s ancestry by his or her name. At times, names get changed, reflecting the local spelling and culture, the original name getting lost in translation so to speak. At other names, the name remains the same, but individuals willingly forget its heritage or ancestry and adopt all of the local customs and traditions. This was the case with Gerald Finzi, the 20th-century English composer. Prof. George Jochnowitz writes: “If we concluded from Finzi’s surname that he was Jewish, Finzi would no doubt have felt we were wrong. If we concluded that he was Jewish because his mother and father were Jewish, Finzi would still have felt we were wrong. Finzi considered himself simply English—by culture and citizenship. He had no religion.”

by George Jochnowitz

Gerald Finzi: An English Composer
by Stephen Banfield. London and Boston: Faber and Faber,
xiv + 571 pp., $25.

Finzi is an Italian Jewish surname. Those of us who don’t live in Italy probably did not learn that fact until 1971, when Vittorio De Sica’s Oscar-winning film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis appeared. The book was based on the novel by Giorgio Bassani (another Jewish surname), which was first published in 1964 in the original Italian and entitled Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini.

Gerald Finzi (1901–56) lived and died in England long before the movie and the book existed. His contemporaries, outside of his own family, didn’t recognize Finzi as a Jewish name, and Gerald Finzi didn’t tell them.

What’s in a name? The composer Gustav Holst, born Gustavus Theodore von Holst, was English; his mother and maternal grandmother were English. His father’s family had migrated to England in 1807 from Baltic Russia (probably Latvia or Estonia) and was of Swedish ancestry.1 If we concluded from his name that he was German, we would be wrong.

If we concluded from Finzi’s surname that he was Jewish, Finzi would no doubt have felt we were wrong. If we concluded that he was Jewish because his mother and father were Jewish, Finzi would still have felt we were wrong. Finzi considered himself simply English—by culture and citizenship. He had no religion.

Finzi's parents were English Jews, his father’s family from Italy and his mother’s from Germany. Finzi never mentioned his ancestry, not even to his lifelong friend, the composer Howard Ferguson. In 1938, Finzi carried on an epistolary debate with composer William Busch about Hitler’s policies.

Finzi argued well and passionately about how wrong Hitler was to segregate Jews from German life but never spoke about his own connection to the issue. “There is no Jewish race & no Jewish type, except where environment has made it,” he wrote. (p. 268) He wrote those words because he believed them, and he said nothing about himself because he was terrified that Hitler might win the war and that his ancestry might be discovered. Already in 1938, he seemed to know what was going to happen to the Jews of Europe. He spent three days in his mother’s house destroying her papers. (p. 259)

Finzi understood the magnitude of the danger that faced the Jews of the world. The New York Times, on the other hand, as late as July 2, 1944, did not quite take understand the enormity of what was happening. It buried on page 12 the news “that 400,000 Hungarian Jews had been deported to their deaths so far and 350,000 more were to be killed in the next three weeks.”2

Although Finzi was frightened and perhaps embarrassed about being Jewish, he never converted to Christianity. Composer Gustav Mahler, on the other hand, had to convert to Catholicism in order to become the director of the Vienna Court Opera and was baptized in 1897.3

A composer’s work is part of his life. Stephen Banfield has combined two books into one: a biography of Gerald Finzi and a musical analysis of his compositions. Finzi devoted his life to his wife, Joy, and his sons, Christopher and Nigel; to his passion for pomology, especially the preservation of different varieties of apples; to editing and publishing the works of other British composers; but most of all, to his music.

Finzi is best known for his vocal music, for example, Intimations of Immortality, a setting of the poetry of Wordsworth, and his music for winds, especially his Clarinet Concerto. A major part of Banfield’s book is a description and critical evaluation of the melodies and harmonies of Finzi's pieces, including numerous musical illustrations from Finzi’s scores, which will no doubt be of greater interest to the professional musician and the Finzi lover than to the general reader.

My only complaint about the book is a technical one: the index is very hard to use. When I was listening to a CD of a Finzi composition and looked up the title in the index in order to follow an excerpt from the score, what I found was the page listing for every time the work was mentioned in the text. Tracking down the illustration was quite a job.

Banfield’s book about Finzi is detailed and technical but always interesting. The story of Finzi’s life makes us eager to hear his music; hearing his music makes us curious about his life.
1. Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (3rd edition, 1935), Vol. 2, p. 657.
2. David Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews. New York: New Press, 1998, p. 321, note.
3. The Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11, p. 726.


George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at

Copyright ©2015. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. This essay originally appeared in the January 2001 issue of Midstream. It is republished here with the author's permission.

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