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Composer Gerald Finzi cultivated English roots, literally

Gerald Finzi’s hobby was growing rare British apples such as Baxter’s Pearmain. He planted nearly 400 varieties at his home in  Ashmansworth.
Gerald Finzi’s hobby was growing rare British apples such as Baxter’s Pearmain. He planted nearly 400 varieties at his home in Ashmansworth.(The National Fruit Collection)

On Wednesday, the Boston Conservatory Conductors’ Choir presents a concert of British repertoire concluding with works by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956), a late standard-bearer of a kind of unmistakably British music: unfailingly lyrical, reticently lavish, attuned to subtle fluctuations of melancholy. This week also, according to Robert Hogg’s formative 1851 survey “British Pomology,” brings the first harvest of Baxter’s Pearmains, or perhaps Haggerstone Pippins, or scores of other winter varieties of British apples — varieties Finzi knew well.

Finzi’s hobby (the word hardly does his efforts justice) was growing rare British apples. He was inspired by Philip Morton Shand, a critic, aesthete, and playboy (and grandfather to Camilla Parker-Bowles, duchess of Cornwall) whose epicurean bent led him to make BBC-broadcast appeals for enthusiasts to locate and preserve unusual species of apple. What was once a cornucopia — an inaugural National Apple Conference in 1883 had gathered and identified more than 1,700 different kinds of British apples — was being gradually homogenized away.

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Finzi eventually planted nearly 400 varieties around his house at Ashmansworth, sending samples off to the Royal Horticultural Society’s National Fruit Trials (now the National Fruit Collection); numerous trees at the NFC’s Brogdale Farm arboretum — the Baxter’s Pearmain and the Haggerstone Pippin included — originated in Finzi’s orchard. (Finzi also supplied the NFC’s exemplar of the Roxbury Russet, first bred by Joseph Warren just outside of Boston in the 1740s.)

Perhaps Finzi’s apple-growing reflected his determination to make himself as English as his music, a determination that led him to avoid any advertisement of his Jewish ancestry; some of his friends were not even aware Finzi was Jewish until they read his obituaries. (Musicologist Byron Adams, regarding Finzi’s apples, wrote of “the astonishingly literal way in which Finzi went about planting his roots in English soil.”) Finzi’s biographer, Diana McVeagh, linked his pomological enthusiasm to his attraction to lost, neglected things: poets, composers, works cast into historical shadow but deserving resurrection.

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But Finzi also felt keenly the passage of time and traditions. He knew his style was unfashionable compared to the prevailing modernism, but pursued it hoping that future connoisseurs would appreciate it. He lived his last years under the shadow of death, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma (before effective chemotherapy was developed), but simply carried on writing — and planting — as before. Finzi’s music was like his apples after all: not the most popular variety, but carefully cultivated to ensure that it would bear fruit after he was gone.

Matthew Guerrieri

The Boston Conservatory Conductors’ Choir presents music of Vaughan Williams, Britten, and Finzi on Wednesday at 8 p.m. in Boston Conservatory’s Seully Hall. Free, www.bostonconservatory.edu.


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.