Like many of the greats of classical music, Gerald Finzi is no longer with us. He left behind a dreadnought of choral music filled with intense emotions.
“Lo the full final sacrifice” was composed by Finzi in 1946 and the piece was commissioned by the Reverend Walter Hussey for the anniversary of the consecration of St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton, England. The piece is categorized as a “festival anthem,” a piece that represents a particular occasion much like this piece does and is written for chorus and organ. Finzi also rearranged the accompaniment for orchestra for the piece’s performance at the Three Choir’s Festival in 1947.
The piece’s narrative subject is the celebration of the Eucharist in the Christian religions. Finzi took the poetry used in the piece from the English poet Richard Crashaw, one of the so-called Metaphysical poets. He combined two poems of Crashaw’s with selected stanzas from to form the text sung by the choir.
The piece is truly a great masterwork despite its short length. The piece only runs approximately 14 minutes or so, but those 14 minutes are jam-packed with every ounce of expressivity that Finzi can squeeze out. The piece’s musical material is conservative, but the piece does change keys quite often. The provides an essential function of novelty for the listener as Finzi works through the text. The piece primarily leans on the chorus to deliver the text, but he also allows soloists to peek out from the ensemble occasionally.
The piece’s text features a noteworthy metaphor about the medieval legend of the mother pelican wounding itself to help feed its young in times of strife. Crashaw’s original text is in fact a paraphrase of the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. This striking image of the pelican, often depicted as merely a non-descript bird, is an obvious allusion to the crucifixion story of Jesus Christ. Throughout medieval Europe, the connection between the bird and sacrifice was well established with even Queen Elizabeth wearing a pelican trinket around her neck in one of her portraits. This charged bit of text is first delivered by a tenor soloist which does a great job of isolating this peculiar phrase. The connection between the seafaring bird and Jesus has not persisted to this day and Finzi to highlight this is an important moment in the piece.
The piece is nearly entirely syllabic, meaning that each syllable of each word is set to a single note, apart from repeated text that is common in choral music. This is true for all the piece, save for the final chunk, the “Amen.” This closing section is markedly different because of how stable it is. The rest of the piece is characterized by changes in key in rapid succession but the Amen remains firmly in the final key and utilizes beautiful voice leading to conclude the piece in full eight-part counterpoint. The voices overlap one another until the final chord where the entire piece settles.
“Lo the full final sacrifice” by Gerald Finzi is a piece that both classical music enthusiasts and novices alike should be able to enjoy. Its beautiful presentation strikes at the heart of the listener. “Lo the full final sacrifice” receives an A rating.