Pairing: John Constable and Gerald Finzi

Old Sarum (1834) by John Constable

If I were to have a soundtrack for John Constable‘s (1776 – 1837) English landscapes, particularly his well-known sketches and paintings of clouds dominating the landscapes of East Anglia, I would choose the English pastoral compositions of Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). In fact, I would choose Eclogue for Piano and Strings and have that deeply moving piece playing as I gazed at the subtle, masterful, fascinating brush strokes that Constable used to reflect the singularly majestic theme of the English landscape: Oh, those Constable clouds.

John Constable was, perhaps, the more irenic of the two great masters of English landscapes in the early 19th century. The other artist, equally gifted, but more fiercely competitive, and at times even petty in his relationship with Constable, was the English master, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). My family and I had the privilege to stand within inches of original Constables and Turners at the Tate Britain Gallery in London this past summer. I believe that the singularly most notable painting of Turner is “The Angel Standing in the Sun.” That is, of course, a matter of taste. For one could point to his works while on an Italian tour or his Welsh tour. All are splendid, with shipwrecks and wild winds and waves, or Cambrian mountains and valleys, and even sea monsters. He was a child prodigy, exhibiting a work at the Royal Academy of Art at age 15 and then being inducted as a full member at age 27 (and later protesting the inclusion of Constable into the Academy). Angel in the Sun is every bit as eccentric as Turner became, and as mysterious and moving. The Angel Standing in the Sun is a visage of this celestial creature caught in flight before the raging rays of the sun allowing for Turner to work with his favorite theme of wild splashes of golden light coalescing with blinding, arresting yellows and whites to draw the viewer into thinking that the impressionistic painting is alive. The painting also revealed Turner as L’enfant terrible that could never be tamed. Yet I call your attention to the erratic but brilliant Turner to calm you with the relatively quieter soul and, for many, a more accessible creativity of his contemporary, John Constable. Whereas Turner dazzled with his imagination expressed in golden themes on canvas, Constable’s work was quintessentially natural. Yet Constable’s realism, if we may call it that, achieves such status without losing the soul or the shadow of the subject. Constable was thoroughly committed to recreating what he saw in creation and with utmost attention. Yet the image he produced displayed a depth of obvious personal response that defies the harsher critique of an older realism. He moved quickly with the brush, because he often was seeking to capture a sky at a certain time of the day. The fleeting light itself caused him to accelerate his strokes. He was thus driven to rapid strokes of the brush by nature itself than by any philosophical commitment to irrationality. Quite the opposite must be the case. His was a Romantic realism that actually captured the subtle impressionistic forms, which were, according to Constable himself, always lurking beneath the real forms we see. He became, of all things, a father of English impressionism.

I shall never forget seeing The Opening of Waterloo Bridge seen from Whitehall Stairs, (June 18, 1817 [c.1832]) at the Tate Britain, London in our trip there this past year. It represents to me the powerful interplay between man and his industry in a compatible co existence with creation. Constable did not rage against progress but placed it in context.

John Constable was born in Suffolk. His paintings of the landscape in his own region would affect others, perhaps recalling his Dedham Vale of 1802, so that one day people would name that East Anglia region of England, “Constable Country.” Many a quaint English home will have a reproduction of The Hay Wain in a hallway or a Mill Stream in the dining room. Yet when he removed himself from his native East Anglia for the coast of Brighton, seeking an improvement of health for his ailing wife, he painted some of the most sublime images of the sky and sea (e.g., “The Downs Near Brighton”). Yet it was always, for me, at least, his interaction with sky and land, cloud and country, light of the sun and shadows of earthly buildings that make Constable such a wonderful companion (I would suggest Edward Morris’ Constable’s Clouds: Paintings and Cloud Studies by John Constable (National Galleries of Scotland, 2006).

In his magnificent Old Sarum, a moving depiction of an Iron Age castle ruin, with a shepherd and his dog at the edge of the picture, the only living things, except for drifting clouds in a dramatic sky. Constable wrote of this watercolor, that the ruins were on a “once proud and populous city… traced but by vast embankments’ that had become a barren waste, ‘tracked only by sheepwalks’, and that ‘every vestige of human habitation, [had] long since passed away’ (Beckett, Discourses, pp. 24–25).

Constable must be viewed listening to the English country and church music of Finzi. Gerald Finzi, born to Italian and German Jewish parents became, ironically, the very symbol of that form of English folk music comparable to an Italian pastorale, and particularly, in the company of Edward Elgar and later Vaugh Williams, a master of English church music. He composed music that was as romantic, as dramatic, and natural as Constable’s clouds. His music is unpretentious, simple, as far from avant grade or innovation as Constable was from Turner, and yet, as in “Eclogue for Piano and Strings,” he was capable of composing deeply emotive music for the ear as much as Constable’s Old Sarum was emotive to the eye. Both are capable of causing ripples in the otherwise undisturbed places of the soul. I will never forget the first time that I heard “Eclogue for Piano and Strings.” I was in a rental car, in some town, somewhere, years ago, and listening to a classical music station. The announcer taunted the listener by saying that few would have heard what he was about to play, Finzi’s Eclogue (a musical phrase describing a shepherd crying out to another shepherd across the way; calling back and forth to each other to break the loneliness of their vocation), yet he believed that it might be the single most moving piece of music he had ever heard. He challenged the listeners to take notice. I did. It was. It remains wonderfully therapeutic for me. From the opening piano movement, where the shepherd walks alone (in my mind’s response to Finzi’s masterpiece), to the emotional climactic reaches of the rich and full strings, suggesting the emotional impact of a loneliness relieved, or a sky about to break into a storm over castle ruins, and whisking one away into another world. I cannot even begin to describe the pure charge and power of the music, made all the more startling, by the stillness at the beginning and the downward journey to a quiet conclusion.

Constable and Finzi. They are meant to be paired.

I listen to Finzi, I take in Constable, even as I recall my own experiences of the dramatic skies and expansive fields and ruins of England that I have experienced in our time there. The music and the artwork remind me that Constable reflected on his painting of Old Sarum and the Iron age hill fort ruins that marked time under the cloudy sky, through Roman, Saxon and Norman civilizations, and quoted the Word of God:

“here we have no continuing city…” (Hebrews 13:14).

All human hubris must, therefore, die before the ethereal and the eternal, the darkened sky surrounding the eternal cross and that forsaken hill.