<< -- 4 -- Adrian Williams JOHN RUSSELL FRCM (1916-1990)
This must be as good a moment as any to talk about John's close association with Gerald Finzi,
which began shortly after the second world war.
In the early eighties John and I talked about the possibility of publishing an article about
'Russell and Finzi'; John very much wanted to write something himself, but an incident
shortly after Finzi's death made him reluctant.
On 7 June 1981 John wrote a little about it:
A horrible thing happened after Gerald died. The local paper asked me for a piece about
Gerald and me, so I wrote an aide-memoire about the work we'd done together -- which they
printed verbatum! Then people wrote and said cruel things about 'JR's conceit' ... etc. So
that's why the last twenty five years have found me silent, except for such people as your
dear self who have approached me.
From my reaction to this letter it seems that John had been chewing over the possibility of
writing an article about Gerald Finzi and himself for some time, but hadn't now the courage to do so.
I was slightly impatient and wrote the following insolent note to John the same day I think
twenty five years is too long to stay in one's shell. The Finzis have behaved welcomingly
towards you ... I wish you'd do the same and move towards them. Then write that blasted
article!! So shut up ...
But on August 24th John wrote:
Adrian, the more I think about the Finzi memoir (him and me, I mean) the more I'm convinced
that it should be by someone else, in the 3rd person. The 1956 episode was VERY HURTFUL
INDEED. The last one wants is for people to assume that here is an upstart
clinging on to the back of a neglected composer (as he then was), and I thought that the
only thing to do in my misery was to keep on playing his music ('Fall of the leaf',
'New year music', Clarinet Concerto, etc), but keeping absolutely clear of personal
association. (The Finzi family made no move to get in touch at the time.)
Why do YOU not do a GF-JR piece? You, of the next generation, are nearer to me
and Gerald's music than anyone else I know. You are in the picture, and I could give you
yet more details than we have so far talked about.
I don't recall having received 'more details', but on September 7th John came up with a
short history of his association with Finzi:
'Here are a few pathetic scribbles. Let the article speak via A Williams'
John Russell, the conductor and pianist, heard Gerald Finzi's music for the 1st time by accident -- it was the cantata Dies Natalis at the 1947 Three Choirs Festival. He had recently been released from six years of war service with the RAF, and was out of touch with the world of music. These radiant sounds led to a lifetime of devotion to Finzi's music.
They met (also quite by accident) later that year, and the following nine years were a constant adventure. Finzi was a widely-read, cultivated man, whose activities in addition to his own composing produced scholarly editions of eighteenth century works by Stanley, Boyce, Mudge and others. His sensitive response to poetry revealed itself in song-settings of words by Traherne, Wordsworth and Hardy. Russell felt a bright new world opening out to him, his moderate musical talent growing in range and in depth. In 1948 Finzi recommended him for the conductorship of the Newbury Choral Society, a post he was to occupy for thirty years. In one season he persuaded the committee to agree to an entire programme of Finzi's music -- the Ceremonial Ode 'For St Cecilia', 'Intimations of Immortality', 'Dies Natalis' and an unusual work, the Grand Fantasia and Toccata for piano and orchestra, fierce, discordant and dramatic. Russell played it and the composer conducted it. Such was the success of this concert that Russell was emboldened to repeat it at the Royal Festival Hall, with the LSO, and the BBC Choral Society, with Richard Lewis and Peter Katin as soloists.
Thus one life was touched by the magic of the man and his music.
In addition, Russell's growing family were glad to take the advice of the family of Gerald and Joy Finzi as to which type of schools they should send theirs to ...
Copyright © 14 September 2003
Adrian Williams, Herefordshire UK