I had a college professor who proclaimed himself to be an Anglophilophobe: a person who fears people who love England. God knows there were plenty of Anglophiles in New England at that time; you could see that English fever in churches with inordinately complicated liturgies. smoky naves, and choirs of men and boys who sang music by composers with stuffy names like Bairstow and Sumsion. English music can be stuffy at times, but, at others, it can be sublimely beautiful. And, believe it or not, one of the most sublimely beautiful of all English composers is someone you probably haven’t heard of.
Gerald Finzi’s inspiration for his Christmas cantata was a tower full of bells in a Gloucester parish church. He combined a bell peal with the descending scale of “The First Noel”. The themes come together right at the start, low and slow, like a foggy memory. Finzi was of a generation of English composers who sought beauty in the midst of the death and destruction of two world wars. Low and slow isn’t the only game Finzi has to offer with the piece; the choir sings “Glory to God in the highest” with that same tower-bell theme, firing off high A-flats with unrelenting enthusiasm – are these angels or fireworks? Hundreds of composers have set these words to music, but has any one of them done so more accurately than Finzi? Could this be exactly what a choir of angels sounded like?
His setting of Mary’s Magnificat is a similar instance of setting words to music that already had been set by so many composers. Was he the first composer to set “He hath put down the mighty” with a descending musical line? Definitely not. Is his descending line somehow more wonderful than that of any other composer? Yes, it is. He seems to delight in every detail of the text; “holy is His name” somehow sounds like incense wafting in a smoky church, and “forever” seems to fade away in some kind of infinite loop.
I invite you to come to the Love Feast service this year and indulge in music that likely will be new to your ears but will also feel somehow familiar, warm, and nostalgic. There will be the usual Moravian buns, cocoa, carols, and delightful conversation accompanied by bits of The Nutcracker. 6:30 on Sunday, December 15.
Doug Brown has led our Love Feasts since 2004, except for December 2009 when he traveled to Peru to adopt his daughters.