Few living composers have an output as large and as diverse as Michael Finnissy does. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, I’ve tried to reflect that in a little playlist, along with some brief thoughts on what I think makes his music special.
Those older than me who were at the BBC Proms premiere of Red Earth in 1988 (until this year one of only two Finnissy performances at the Proms) remember it as something special: a real statement piece.
The History of Photography in Sound, III: North American Spirituals
For all its diversity, Finnissy’s output is dominated by his piano music, and that by five major cycles: English Country-Tunes, Verdi Transcriptions, Gershwin Arrangements, Folklore, and The History of Photography in Sound. One is tempted to describe the last of these, at five hours in length, as Finnissy’s magnum opus, and it draws together many of the threads that run throughout his work – particularly modes of musical representation, the role of class in Western art music, the value and function of transcription, and the meaning of folk music. North American Spirituals, the third part (of eleven) is possibly the cycle’s most accessible entry point.
WAM: the tongue-in-cheek musicologists’ abbreviation for Western art music can likewise stand, as it does here, for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Composed of hundreds of scraps and micro-parodies of Mozart, Finnissy forces us to confront our relationship to music 200 years old, and what we are doing when we listen to it.
Gershwin Arrangements: They can’t take that away from me
For all his voracious ingestion of folk and historical classical musics, there is very little pop in Finnissy. The two sets of Gershwin arrangements might count as an exception, but even then they are as much historical as anything. Practices of transcription and arrangement run throughout Finnissy’s work, but always taking a liberal approach. Extensive re-harmonizations, elaborations of the melody, occasional departures, and the addition of new material are all common. Other transcriptions may take even more radical routes. The sources for the Gershwin Arrangements are identifiable enough, and strongly enough characterized in themselves, to make clear the sorts of things that are going on, and in They can’t take that away from me Finnissy applies a relatively light touch.
It was while studying at the Royal College of Music in the 1960s that Finnissy apparently planned that his future output would be dedicated to assembling a complete and personalized history of world music. He began writing works that explicitly engaged with national folk musics in the early 1980s (not just the usual European styles, but also Korean, Azeri, Australian Aboriginal, etc), many of them written for one or two instruments. Dilok for oboe and percussion is one of a number of Finnissy’s oboe works (including Âwâz-e Niyâz) to be based on Persian music. It also showcases Finnissy’s essentially lyrical approach to instrumental writing.
Grieg features more than once in Finnissy’s personalized history – the Quintettsatz is an accompaniment to Finnissy’s completion of Grieg’s unfinished Piano Quintet; he appears again, in his guise as a folk music arranger, in the first part of Folklore. The Quintettsatz takes Grieg as its starting point, but filters him extensively through Finnissy’s own language, a juxtaposition that produces one of his most touchingly affective works.
This Church: Part 2: On Christmas day, 1643, we went to Shoareham
For all the virtuoso demands his music frequently makes, Finnissy’s contribution to amateur and community music making is often overlooked. This Church was composed for a one-off performance, celebrating the 900th anniversary of the church of St Mary de Haura, in Sussex. Its text is a collage documenting and narrating the church’s history and its place in the community of New Shoreham since the 3rd century, and in the manner of Britten or Davies Finnissy sets amateur performers – bell ringers, church choir, speakers – alongside professionals to create a unique and quite extraordinary work.
Finnissy is unusual among avant-garde composers, again, in having converted to Christianity. Yet this hasn’t softened his touch: one of the most appealing aspects of his personality and his music is the priority it gives to humanity – and humanness – over ideology of any kind, and this includes religion. Nevertheless, works like Palm-Sunday, a refraction of centuries of sacred choral music as well as a personal expression of faith, have a sumptuous beauty of their own. EXAUDI, who sing here, are among a growing group of Finnissy performers – Ian Pace, Christopher Redgate, and the Kreutzer Quartet are others – dedicated to the very bet performances of his music.
This is the first Finnissy piece I remember hearing. Certainly the first that made an impression on me. I was probably in my late teens. Coming to it with expectations based (vaguely, and inaccurately) on associations with other composers whose music I knew better by then – Boulez, Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, Birtwistle – its glittering beginning, dewlike, curving in sunlight, blew me away. That opening, I know now, is based on Scottish highland bagpiping, in particular the ornament known as a Hinbare. As the piece progresses, Finnissy adds elements from Romanian folk tunes, a short homage to Christian Wolff, hints of the “Deep River” spiritual (via Michael Tippett), Chinese folk music (via Cornelius Cardew), and one tune from Finnissy’s home county of Sussex, “Let him answer yes or no”. It’s an extraordinary amalgam, whose layers one could unpick eternally, and an example of some of what I find absolutely best in Finnissy’s music.
Birthday Piece for Michael Finnissy
Perhaps nothing conveys the pan-optical vision of Finnissy’s music than the affection in which he is held by other composers, particularly in Britain, and in which he holds them. Crane and Finnissy make an unlikely pairing, coming from seemingly opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum but meeting at a point that if you can make it out tells you a lot about what contemporary music really is. Crane’s birthday piece was in fact written for Finnissy’s 50th; here it is, played by Finnissy himself as he returns the tribute.