Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 1. Vocal music

by 5:4
15 minutes read

Composers habitually form relationships with performers and ensembles, but less often with record labels. And while various labels have put out one or two releases featuring the music of Michael Finnissy, only one, Metier, part of the multi-faceted Divine Art Recordings Group, has shown substantial long-term commitment to his output. To date, Metier has devoted no fewer than 12 albums to Finnissy, comprising a whopping 18 hours of his music, the earliest, Folklore, released in 1998, the most recent, Singular Voices, earlier this year. So to continue my celebrations of Finnissy’s 70th birthday, over the next few months i’m going to take a look back at this diverse collection of discs, beginning with those featuring his vocal music.

The Seven Sacred Motets were completed in 1991 and are a cycle concerned with, as Finnissy puts it, “telling the life of the Virgin”. The texts, all in Latin, combine excerpts from the biblical gospels of Luke and John with passages by the Venerable Bede, the no-less venerable Hildegard of Bingen and two of the well-known Marian antiphons. Anyone only familiar with Finnissy’s instrumental work will likely find the entire compositional demeanour of the Motets to be something of a shock. Their tone is unequivocally influenced—permeated, in fact—by the soundworld of chant, not just Gregorian but also alluding to the more varied melodies found in Ambrosian chant, with one or two elements of folk music as well. Everything is extremely clearly demarcated, from the episodic character of each motet—changing gear as it follows both the verse structure and the narrative of each text—to the use of the choir, where male and female voices are employed in a mutually supportive capacity but for the most part avoiding simultaneous interaction.

Drones are a recurring feature, usually at the close of a phrase which then extends through the answering phrase from another voice. The opening motet, Hymnos sacrae quos virgini, employs this approach initially as a kind of slow, stylised hocket between men and women, developed later such that it occupies extended episodes in each respective register. In In mense autem sexto Finnissy excitingly uses a similar approach within the context of rapid two-part counterpoint (enlivening otherwise somewhat humdrum narrative), interrupted by tutti refrains for the words spoken by the angel Gabriel, and a beautiful, ecstatic melisma for Mary’s own words. Similar melismas over sustained pitches occur in the Ave Regina, alternating with a lovely melodic line articulated in octave unisons, whereas in Stabant autem iuxta crucem they are answered by a gorgeous four-part coda that sounds impossibly new and ancient simultaneously, laden with pained suspensions. Salve Regina takes the dronal approach to the extreme, dividing the music into two layers, an omnipresent drone that continually changes in make-up but not in its pitch focus, around which a constant stream of short melodic phrases twirl and spiral. One of the most movingly effective is Et cum factus esset, recounting Jesus’ first youthful teachings, where slow, patient, highly lyrical but restrained counterpoint (again uniting the voices, but only a couple heard at a time) moves through a harmonic space that’s entirely fluid, continually alighting on new ‘tonics’ that last but a few moments before drifting out of focus. The concluding motet, O Virga, floriditatem tuam, is full-blooded and passionate, pushing its melismas to the limit in terms of altitude and decoration, overlapping them and thereby causing acute but exquisite glancing dissonances. As they progress, the initial ostensible similarities to conventional ecclesiastical chant become more and more implausible, Finnissy’s writing somehow encapsulating austerity alongside deeply heartfelt, emotional word-painting. The performances, by the nine-strong Voces Sacrae directed by Judy Martin, are utterly spellbinding, a recording from the late ’90s that still sounds incredibly vivid.

Composed from 2001-3 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of St Mary de Haura church in Shoreham-by-Sea, on the south coast of England, This Church is an hour-long work for mezzo-soprano and baritone soloists, two narrators, choir, organ, handbells and ensemble. It’s more a kind of church parable than anything else, but instead of drawing on biblical sources, uses an extensive collage of texts that encompass the lifetime of the church (the earliest, again from Hildegard of Bingen, dates from the 12th century), predominately drawing on the words of local people directly connected to the building and its immediate environs. There is a tone of celebration in This Church, but it’s an implicit one, only becoming apparent over time. For arguably the message that resounds loudest and clearest is how close the church came to structural collapse and spiritual bankruptcy.

While it isn’t, in fact, hastily done, Finnissy makes the narrative progression of Part I feel precipitous, and its opening anthem in praise of the virgin Mary precarious; deliberately distant (literally), as a joyful act of consecration and commitment it’s far-off and somewhat dimly-perceived. The music then launches into something of a sharp parabola, in the hands of the baritone, first passing through a strange duet with a slip-sliding microtonal flute, extolling the church “flooded with the light of God”, leading to slightly askew bit of chorale preludery. And then we crash back to earth, in a stern, lengthy diatribe from the baritone—punctuated with wincingly sharp twists from a ratchet—denouncing how “All godly ceremonyes & good usys were taken out of this Church” during the reign of Edward VI, when Protestantism was established in England. It’s an impressive, intimidating solo, pulling the rug from under the piece less than 10 minutes in. Part 2 opens with tightly-woven ensemble counterpoint accompanying a narrative account, now a century later, of St Mary’s having fallen into a state of disrepair. There’s a curious attractive queasiness to the music, made ominous in another baritone solo (this time accompanied by wild turns from a wind machine) declaiming a violent storm that fell upon the town. The implication and spiritual metaphor is clear: that these are the desserts of desertion, becoming dilapidated and lashed by the elements. But now Finnissy finally starts to turn things around; over a dance-like folk melody accompanied by handbells (their clarity and beauty almost overwhelming at this point), the choir celebrates the founding of the Charity School, a fresh start for the community, reinforced by a subsequent prosecution of the previous minister for a lengthy litany of “misdemeanours”. It concludes with a fascinating baritone aria, encapsulating the tone of Part 2 in a soliloquy on the vulnerability of faith, using words by John Wesley that bespeak determination and bewail struggle.

By the start of Part 3, now in the 19th Century, the music, like the building, has become altogether more secure and solid. It opens with a riposte to the start of Part 2, the ensemble creating a lyrical backdrop for a bold account of the church’s key features, articulated by the narrators with the kind of over-earnest zeal one usually encounters from volunteer guides at National Trust properties. A momentary injection of austere poetry from the baritone (“This church, full in the eye of the cynical, discomfortable moon staring from the fading sky”) is answered by a gentle, even fragile, congregational moment bringing to mind the simple beauty of equivalent moments in Peter Grimes. This spurs the baritone to greater confidence, launching into a text by Swinburne, by turns demonstrative and wistful, singing the praises of a place now regarded as almost unassailable: “strong as time … its tower set square to the storms of air and change of season that glooms and glows”, after which we return to the congregation for a tender closing hymn. The final part expands the hitherto parochial view as far away as Melanesia, in a boisterous song, infused with log-drum and bass flute, sending greetings from a distant missionary. Following a pause, the piece then tilt-shifts again, Finnissy calling upon the unsettling combination of piccolo and double bass plus piano for a cold narration concerning the outbreak of war. This is music with its lifeblood drained away, vague and futile, mirroring the desperate hopes against hope for a peaceful outcome, in the process becoming ever more militaristic. As they did in Part 2, handbells again break the music free of the greyness that threatens to consume it, leading to an ever brighter conclusion. The baritone sings of the church’s spiritual attributes, the choir of its more prosaic but more immediately meaningful qualities, testifying to the importance of a place at the heart of the community. Via some rather wondrous organ dissonance, Finnissy brings the work to an end in a joyous final hymn (to George Herbert’s ‘The Elixir’), a dauntless display of bell-strewn unity and certainty. Appropriately, the recording of the piece took place within St Mary de Haura church, conducted by Finnissy himself, with the Ixion ensemble and soloists Jane Money and Richard Jackson. It’s a challenging and affecting work that says big things about both the fragility and tenacity of faith, hope and community throughout the ages of an ever-changing world.

The Seven Sacred Motets have their attention elevated entirely on matters spiritual, This Church is evenly balanced on both heaven and earth. Unknown Ground, completed in 1990, is as brutally down-to-earth as a song cycle can be. Continuing a theme explored in the piano piece Stanley Stokes, East Street 1836, written the previous year (and continued in his 1995 music theatre work Shameful Vice), Unknown Ground is concerned with the anguish and suffering of gay men, with the spectre of AIDS a dreadful, Damoclean omnipresence. As in This Church, the songs feature the honest, unvarnished words of ordinary people, interspersed with poetic texts by a trio of Russians, Sergei YeseninNikolai Klyuev and Mikhail Kuzmin (set in English). It’s tempting, before actually engaging with the music, to regard these as two separate strands, between which Finnissy is setting out to oscillate. But the opposite happens: the words of Nick W, Steve R, Philip X and Brent T, excerpted from interviews conducted with them, become a kind of grounding, a default position of stoic fear that occasionally, seamlessly, breaks free and entertains a brief excursion away from painful prose. They are united in use of the first person, prose and poetry alike continually reflecting back to the self as the reference point for everything. It’s infinitely understandable; when you’re staring at death—or, more likely, when death’s staring at you—one can imagine life becomes increasingly solipsistic.

But the singer, a baritone (Richard Jackson again), is not alone: Finnissy supplies company in the form of violin, cello and piano. Their relationship with the voice is a supportive and somewhat reverential one; in opening song ‘I don’t think of death’, for example, the cello—muted—is overtly tentative, sitting on drones through the baritone’s lengthy, irregular reflections, only prepared to offer its own counterpoint in between them. ‘A patch of blackened earth’, which follows, is similar, featuring a quietly shocked piano preoccupied with spare, tolling low octaves, opening up slightly when the voice ends (and when it does, it’s profoundly moving). And in the third song ‘I was afraid of not being able to see the garden grow’, the white hot intensity of the baritone is responded to with cool vibrato-less dyads, which later become dull, repeated pizzicati, dazed and lifeless. The fourth and fifth songs afford some semblance of duet, in the form of cello filigree and rather sinister slowly rising, grinding violin glissandi respectively. The sixth, ‘Trapped in crystal’, reverts the instruments to hesitance and reticence, but the baritone’s resigned acceptance (a kind of inverted keening) that “everything is uncertain … nothing lasts for ever” triggers a hitherto unheard audacity, a sequence of huge, impassioned eruptive climaxes that bring the cycle to an end as though with deep physical cuts to the heart. Even for Finnissy, always a fearless composer, it’s brave to explore musically words that are not merely tragic, but defeated. Yet their quietness intimates an all-powerful, boundless rage and fury that’s heartrendingly real and immediate and authentic and true. Richard Jackson’s performance is simply astonishing; the occasional resemblance of his voice to Peter Pears only adds extra emotional weight to the multiple layers of exposed, open wounds; and the New Music Players are impeccable in their understanding of when, and to what extent, to keep their distance.

The other two works on the disc are non-vocal but equally substantial (both well over 20 minutes). In Kritik der Urteilskraft (2001) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, the ensemble displays a similarly restrained attitude, placing notes carefully into the air to form slow, sustained chords. We’re back in the landscape of drones and melodies, although the latter are for the most part germinal seeds of melodic potential, suspended as if in a liquid. The cello, in particular, takes a lyrical lead but the overall effect is strange, giving the illusion of progress within what amounts to a stasis. Which then, without warning, falls apart, fracturing into a disjunct collection of brief utterances. Is anything connected any longer? The absence of the piano (an absence that only gradually becomes apparent) makes one wonder if it was the glue holding everything together. Upon its return, some minutes later, balance and coherence are restored, and with it a united sense of calm and maturity, the music no longer supported by drones but now a more substantial, though just as delicate, counterpoint. The piano trio Á propos de Nice, completed in 2002, could hardly be more different at its outset, rambunctiously playful, with a Shostakovich-like rapid rhythmic momentum. But it stalls almost as soon as it’s got going, becoming altogether more reflective (even borderline ponderous). And then it’s off again, propelled by a torrent of material from the piano, only to fall back again into spare wisps of sound. From a dramatic perspective it’s quite extreme in its volte-face behavioural twists, and while it speaks with a somewhat aloof kind of expressiveness, it remains lyrically strong, impelled by a tacit but always apparent emotional subtext. Recorded in the summer of 2003, it took ten years for this CD to see light of day, but it was worth the wait, a disc demonstrating both the rawness and convolution of Finnissy’s musical language.

Which brings us to 2016, and Singular Voices, an album focusing on Finnissy’s songs with clarinet and piano, which i reviewed at length a few months ago. i’ll recap my deeply impressed conclusion: “Singular Voices is a beautiful collection of modern songwriting, one that forms a vital part in the ongoing understanding and appreciation of Michael Finnissy’s music. And while all three players are overwhelmingly sensitive to the considerable shifts in tone and manner presented in these pieces, Clare Lesser deserves especially high praise for a performance that’s so varied and nuanced it seems scarcely credible. It’s fantastic that these recordings have finally made it into the world.”

Michael Finnissy’s writing for voice, as heard in this fine quartet of discs, is revealed above all to be profoundly personal. Whether enunciating prayers to the skies or denunciating the pain and rejection of everyday life, Finnissy finds an honest, heartfelt lyricism that manages to avoid any hint of pomposity, where no word or note is wasted, where one voice or many, and the players alongside them, are enabled, as one, to sing.

The lovely folks at Divine Art have extended a special offer to readers of 5:4, enabling a 20% discount on all purchases from their website, so you can pick up these Finnissy discs—and anything else you might fancy—for a (forgive me) song; simply enter the code DA16MAG at the checkout to get the discount. Clicking on any of the album covers above will take you to the relevant page on the Divine Art website, and the complete Metier catalogue is here.

i’ll be continuing this retrospective of Metier’s Finnissy releases later this year with an exploration of his chamber music.


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William A.P.M.

Great post! I’ve gone ahead and ordered as much as I could of these vocal releases. It’s amazing to see that so much of his music has been recorded in the last 10 years – so much to listen to. Keep up the great work!

[…] use of melodies becoming drones beneath other melodies is a touch over-familiar (bringing to mind Michael Finnissy’s much earlier, similar approach) but effective in the bold, declamatory context in which Grigorjeva employs it in the second […]

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