Music Stories: September 27th (1956)

The Death of Gerald Finzi

Malte Hemmerich
Malte Hemmerich

The English composer Gerald Finzi had already begun preparing for his departure from this world in 1951. At the age of 50, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of lymphatic cancer which could not be treated at the time. His doctors gave him 10 years, but things turned out differently.

Gerald Finzi was surrounded by death throughout his entire life. By the age of ten, he had already lost several of the people closest to him, including his father and brother, while his teacher and mentor died during the First World War. Not long after the war, the young and talented composer befriended Holst and Vaughan Williams and moved to London. 

Finzi was a very shy and retiring person, something of a lone wolf. The English capital simply wasn't right for him. He soon quit his teaching post and moved with his wife to the countryside. Aside from his output as a composer, which remained modest, he kept himself busy with his apple orchard.

Gerald Finzi

Gerald Finzi smoking his pipe.

(Image: Public Domain)

Finzi, whose father was Italian and whose mother was German, was especially fond of composing small works. He found material for his songs in his vast personal library, and was especially fond of poetry. It was only after receiving his diagnosis that Finzi began composing concertos. His piano and violin concertos both remain fragments. However, he did complete his Cello Concerto in A minor, whose fitful first movement is permeated by a strong sense of melancholy. 

The first movement from Finzi's final concerto.

Finzi's sudden burst of creativity came to an abrupt close. In the end, it wasn't the cancer that killed Finzi. Rather, of all things, this nature-lover fell ill with chickenpox while out hiking, which led to encephalitis. On September 25th 1956, Finzi's wife turned on the hospital radio so that he could listen live to the premiere of his Cello Concerto. Two days later, he was dead. 

It turned out that the composer had far less time left than his doctors had originally forecast. Yet with unwavering determination, he had put every last minute of it to use in the service of his art. ¶

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