Music Spotlight: “Five Bagatelles” by Gerald Finzi

One of my favorite composers is Gerald Finzi. He writes the most beautiful melodies and his phrasing is superb. I find that his music is never boring and that every phrase is a new adventure of sorts. Although Finzi is best known for his vocal music, his output also includes a piece for oboe and string quartet, a violin concerto, a cello concerto, and two works for the clarinet.

With his primary output being vocal and choral music, it seems to make sense that he wrote for the clarinet since the clarinet is the closest instrument to the human voice! Finzi’s experience as a composer for vocals is very apparent in the style of his clarinet compositions. The lines are some of the most lyrical ones in the clarinet repertoire. You may find that the melodies in the slower movements of the Five Bagatelles lend themselves well to singing.

Finzi’s music tends to be thickly scored and complex. He also explores plenty of key signatures and meters. There are no boring moments in his writing and he apparently enjoyed playing with his ideas.

Five Bagatelles is a wonderful work with five contrasting movements:
I. Prelude
II. Romance
III. Carol
IV. Forlana
V. Fughetta

Approximate duration is 14 minutes.

Cover tiny file
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Five Bagatelles, Op. 23 (Clarinet and Piano)
(Clarinet and Piano). Composed by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). For Clarinet, Piano (Clarinet). Boosey & Hawkes Chamber Music. Classical. Set of performance parts. 21 pages. Boosey & Hawkes #M060030253. Published by Boosey & Hawkes (HL.48009725).

Movement I: Prelude

Marked “Allegro deciso” with the half note at circa 84, this movement starts out in 3/2 time in the key of D Major (C Concert). In ABA form, the melody is fairly simple and motivic in nature. It begins in a marcato style and explores a fairly wide range of the clarinet in the first phrase alone.

Finzi plays with the feel of the line by placing it on different beats. For example, the line initially begins on count 1, but later he places the same line on count 3, and later in a different meter! Rhythmically, it is not difficult, but rethinking the lines because of where they lie in the meter becomes necessary; this, along with the key explorations, is why the music is so interesting.

The interplay between the piano and the clarinet is absolutely perfect. The piano supports the clarinet in some places and compliments it well in others, often in a fugue-like manner. There is a constant flow of eighth notes through nearly the entire A section of the movement.

The B section is approached with a ritardando molto, followed by a change of both the key and the meter. Now in 4/4 time and concert Eb Major, the music is a little less moving, marked dolce (sweet), and with a less busy piano part. There are new rhythmic ideas, mainly in the use of triplets and syncopation.

A very interesting point is that the piano is in E Major for the first half of the movement, whilst the clarinet is in concert Db Major (Eb), though accidentals in the clarinet solo make up for the difference in key. The reason for this is somewhat unclear, and the piano part changes key to Db Major to match the clarinet right after the poco ritard at the a tempo (before rehearsal 5).

Building in intensity to the end of the B movement, Finzi brings back the original motif, now in 4/4 time with a whole new feel, climaxing with a rise to a trill on clarion G.

The A section returns, now in the key of concert Bb Major (C), but back to the 3/2 meter it started in. The clarinet line is a repetition of the original A section, with a few embellishments and other small changes in the piano part, up through most of the section at Rehearsal 7.

To finish out this exciting movement, Finzi goes back to the key of D major (C concert), builds up with some repeating patterns and finishes the Prelude with a definitive ending, well emphasized by the piano part.

If you don’t have fun playing this movement, there is something seriously wrong!

II. Romance

This movement is a gently flowing line with frequent meter changes between 3/4 and 4/4 and starting out in the key concert Eb (F). Much slower than the first movement (half the tempo, in fact), this Andante tranquillo in ABA form seems to depict a lover dreamily contemplating the complex emotions that are often felt when one falls in love. The music seems to be asking questions with its mini swells on quarter notes and rises and falls in the lines. The piano is mostly supportive in the A sections, playing chords and occasionally a bit of the melody, but is much more involved and interactive in the B section.

In the A section, Finzi again takes to using the same ideas and moving them around, playing with the key and the timbre of the clarinet’s registers, all the while keeping the dynamic range between ppp and p except at the end of the A section.

The B section is faster, marked Poco più mosso (a little more motion) with the quarter note set at circa 108. The piano introduces the new idea, echoed by the clarinet four bars later. What appears to be a repeat of the initial phrase in the upper clarion register turns out to be more a development of the new idea with a growing intensity.

PERFORMANCE TIP: It is important that the sixteenth notes just after Rehearsal 4 remain relaxed and steady, observing all the dynamics–it is easy to rush them and allow them to sound frantic.

The music returns to the A section with a long rallentando to the the original tempo, where it repeats the opening A section almost exactly.

III. Carol

The Carol is the easiest movement of the Five Bagatelles, though it still has an interesting meter: the meter is marked 3/2  6/4 and the tempo is marked with the quarter note at circa 92. There would be no reason to alternate the count, as the double time signature seems to indicate; I believe that the meter is given in two interpretations. Either way of counting works just fine for the Andantino semplice movement, but I prefer 3/2 since it seems to allow more freedom of flow for the lines.

This movement remains in the key of Bb major concert (C) from start to finish. Marked with long phrases (as is typical of Finzi), the timbres of the different clarinet registers are highlighted here by the repeat of the first long phrase one octave lower. Then a sort of mini-development of the initial phrases occurs before the movement ends gently and softly, fading into nothing.

IV. Forlana

A new meter is introduced, along with a visit to a new key in this Allegretto grazioso movement that sways along in 6/8 time at a comfortable pace of 60 on the dotted quarter. There is a sense of longing created by this music, or maybe it’s more like isolation or distance.

In ABA form,  Forlana plays along like a sonata between the clarinet and piano, exploring the range of the clarinet and trying out the melody on different notes. Initially in the key of Db major concert (Eb) but with a modal tonality, there is a shift to concert F major (G) in the B section, where the major tonality brings a cheerful new idea.

Most of this movement stays in the soft dynamics, with the only forte dynamic being the climax at the end of the B section, where octave Bs in the clarion register create a bit of a technical challenge (TIP: this is a good spot to check with the tuner!)

PERFORMANCE TIP: The grace notes that occasionally appear should be played as gently and smoothly as possible, without the slightest hint of an accent.

V. Fughetta

Time for some real fun!

Allegro vivace at 138 on the quarter note, this technically challenging movement in the key of concert F Major (G) starts out with a bang and builds all the way from the low end of the clarinet up to an altissimo G in just the first 6 measures! After the flashy introduction that so many clarinet students fear (but shouldn’t), a very pleasant and bouncy melody enters in the clarinet, joined by the piano in fugue three bars later.

Plenty of accidentals, dynamics, and varied articulations will keep you on your toes. After a bit of excitement, a dolce section offers a little relief, but it doesn’t last long! And don’t worry, there is another key change, as you’ve surely come to expect by now. Off to concert Db major again and back off on the happy fugue in the upper clarion register. A meter change for a bar and back to the key of concert F as the fugue melody carries on a bit longer, then the introductory material is revisited for a couple of bars before the final descent on the fugue’s melodic ideas.

You may expect this movement to end with a bang, much as it started, but Finzi does quite the opposite. The final eight bars are like a long diminuendo, starting at fff and working all the way down to an almost cute ending at ppp.

Gerald Finzi does a fine job of using the clarinet’s abilities to “sing” much as the human voice does. The Five Bagatelles, Op. 23 is a fine work that could be performed in whole or part. The movements all stand alone as fine solo works. If you have not yet done yourself the favor of working on this beautiful art, buy yourself a copy today and get practicing!

Cover tiny file
look inside
Five Bagatelles, Op. 23 (Clarinet and Piano)
(Clarinet and Piano). Composed by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). For Clarinet, Piano (Clarinet). Boosey & Hawkes Chamber Music. Classical. Set of performance parts. 21 pages. Boosey & Hawkes #M060030253. Published by Boosey & Hawkes (HL.48009725).

I love to hear from you, so please leave your comments or questions below.

As always, Practice with patience and perseverance.

Erika

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3 thoughts on “Music Spotlight: “Five Bagatelles” by Gerald Finzi

  1. I have to be honest here. I have no idea what a lot of what you said on your home page means. I am completely musically illiterate. While I love music, I am completely ignorant of the inner workings and structure. I do however, have a 16 year old grandson who would understand every thing you said. Your passion and knowledge combined will be an asset to those seeking your niche.

  2. I’ve been in orchestra and band for my entire life and I’ve never heard of Gerald Finzi… or maybe I have and I just didn’t realize it. I might have since he did right some violin pieces. I played the violin for seven years and the flute for 4 years. Never the clarinet though. I tried to play it but wasn’t a big fan of using the reed.

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