Michael Finnissy

SFinnissy_©RichardBramMichael Finnissy
Horn Trio

World premiere, May 14, 2015
Darnell Linwood, horn / Muge Buyukcelen, violin / Miranda Wong, piano
Selections from LOVE
World premiere, May 14, 2015
Helen Pridmore, soprano / Christopher Butterfield, baritone
Shady Love
Canadian premiere: Sept. 10, 2011
Casual Nudity
Canadian premiere: Sept. 11, 2011
North American premiere: Sept. 9, 2012 w/ Helen Pridmore (soprano), Michael Finnissy (piano)


Michael Finnissy: “I was born just after the second world war. My family were neither a dynasty of musicians nor wealthy or well-connected. There was, quite typically for those times, a piano in the parlour. When I went to the Royal College of Music (1965) I had been composing since I was four and a half years old, initially guided by my great aunt Rose Louise but otherwise without formal instruction. I listened to the radio (not dumbed-down at that time) and visited the library. My composer heroes were Ives and Satie, and I was (underage) a regular visitor to the National Film Theatre (avant-garde silents from the 1920s and the Underground cinema of Brakhage, Markopoulos, Jack Smith and Warhol were highlights). I did not then appreciate the influence of my father’s politics (Marxist socialism), his profession (documentary photographer) or his disgust with the “buy cheap and sell expensive” aspect of British commerce.

The Royal College of Music held several shocks in store. I knew very little about classical music, and nothing of its techniques and aesthetic. It was hard to knuckle down to sixteenth-century counterpoint studies after the intoxications of ‘Die Reihe’. Very few of the students or staff knew anything about contemporary music, they were indifferent or disparaging rather than condemnatory. Even the more conventional music (Mahler,
Szymanowski) that I revered was considered eccentric or unplayable.

I sought refuge, most afternoons, in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In the more despairing moments there seemed then (and now) to be no need for new music or new composers, we were buried up to our necks in old music. It was in the V & A that I planned my ‘secret agenda’ – to create a small musical culture of my own, historically complete (if viewed from odd angles), eventually taking in all genres – which would provide plentiful and exciting material for research. It would be a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ like those collected by enthusiastic adventurers. To a certain extent I kept to the plan, in no particular order. I wanted to bring divergent things together in the same composition, I wanted to work with ‘found objects’ (the influence of Duchamp) and to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Influential composers would be celebrated and named: Grieg and Schoenberg, or works (for example by Machaut) would be re-written, elaborated, corrupted. Folk music of all types would also be included, primarily because I felt it was a deep undercurrent somewhere in the sensibility, the sound-world and how this represented people ‘from far away’, exoticism or possibly eroticism.

In my view, a ‘good’ musical text is one that is susceptible to a large number of readings and de-codings, not just one. Complexity: nearby where I live are the open fields and woods of the Sussex downs. At the edges of the fields plants grow in seasonally varied tangled abundance. This exuberant natural ‘tangle’, dependant on sunlight, would be MY image for MYcomplexity – rather than (pace Ferneyhough) the increasingly claustrophobic and dark architecture of Piranesi’s prisons, or the densely crowded surface of Matta’s paintings.

Horn Trio

“This work was written for Darnell Linwood, and its opening is modelled on late 19th and early 20th century chamber works: Brahms and Schoenberg. This intense, quasi-symphonic music is gradually transformed: stretched, smudged, scratched over, erased, re-punctuated, yielding to other memories of other music (Bruckner, Fauré), and eventually a different mode of discourse. The second half of the piece is a kind of loose ‘conversation’ between the players, without exact vertical alignment, reviewing and revisiting the earlier material.” – Michael Finnissy

Selections from The Undivine Comedy

“Zygmunt Krasińsky’s play [Nie-Boska Komedia] was written in 1833, and actually reflects on the French Revolution, Napoleonic Imperialism, and – most immediately – the Tsarist Repression of1831, although it might just as pertinently be reviewing contemporary events. It satirises the historical specifics to expose, allegorically, an eternally flawed Idealism – always drawing some people towards an unquestioning adherence to tradition, approved values, and retreat into esoteric fantasy, and others towards total renewal from ground-zero, actually resulting in material and moral vacuity and destruction, albeit sheltered behind the vagaries of crowd-pleasing rhetoric.

Synopsis of the seventeen scenes:

  1. The poet, seeking a wife, visits a friend for advice, finds someone and marries her.
  2. The wife is pregnant, the poet now ignores her, preoccupied with the Poetry of the Future.
  3. The friend offers the poet other diversions.
  4. The poet returns home to find his wife has gone.
  5. He discovers that she is in an asylum.
  6. He visits her, and she tells him she has also become a poet, and his equal.
  7. A son is born to the couple, he is blind. The wife dies in childbirth.
  8. The poet and his son visit the wife’s grave.
  9. The Leader of the Revolution announces the New Republic.
  10. The son is lost in his visionary world, as his father departs to oppose the Revolution.
  11. The poet, his friend, and the leader meet.
  12. The revolutionaries pass by in procession.
  13. Neither poet nor leader can compromise their ideals.
  14. The weapons are assembled.
  15. The son describes the voices he hears from the dungeons.
  16. The leader claims a potential victory.
  17. The possibility of a reconciliation.

There are several references in the score, from the pre-Revolutionary French court music of Lully (his ‘L’Amour Malade’), and plainsong ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ in the first six scenes, to Polish folk music in scenes 7 to 11, and revolutionary songs and anthems in scenes 11 to 14.

To date (May 2015) only scenes 2, 8, 10, 15 and 17 exist in a completed state.

This is the second time I have set parts of this play for the theatre, the earlier version (1986-88) used five singers and a different instrumental line-up, and the material is no longer extant. Only the (symbolic) use of the ‘Veni Creator’ is common to both versions. The new translation uses material from a version by Martha Walker Cook, published in 1875. The poet’s writing is drawn from Hölderlin’s unfinished ‘trauerspiel’ ‘The Death of Empedokles’ (2nd version – 1799), and the leader’s diatribe in scene 9 is from the 5th dialogue of ‘La Philosophie dans le Boudoir’ (1795) by D.A.F de Sade, a section of which initially gained wide circulation as a political pamphlet.

The current version is being written for Aventa Ensemble, Helen Pridmore (the wife and the son) and Adam Delacour (the friend, an entirely silent rôle).” – Michael Finnissy


“Whitman was begun in 1980 and went through several versions – some with piano, others with instrumental accompaniment. It was finally overhauled, rewritten and re-shaped, in 2004-5.

The text is drawn from the various editions of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855-97), including manuscript variants where I found these preferable to the printed version, interspersed with excerpts from Specimen Days (harvested from diary-jottings and other memoranda in 1882). Together these form an autobiography, in which both singer and pianist are Walt Whitman at various stages of his life: reporting directly, quoting, enlarging with enthusiasm or tenderly recollecting his experiences.

The work refers several times to two musical sources mentioned in the text: the hymn On Jordans stormy banks as set by T.C.OKane, and both prayer (Saint bien heureux) and berceuse (Du pauvre seul ami fidele) from Acts 3 and 4 of Aubers opera Masaniello (La muette de Portici – 1828); there are also allusions to three other quaint old songs: Beethovens setting of the Scottish folksong Faithfu Johnie Op.108 No.20, Schuberts Das Weinen D.926, and the very ancient and anonymous Irish air Bonny Portmore.”
– Michael Finnissy
Reproduced with the permission of Oxford University Press

‘Shady Love’ is a title I stole from a Robert Rauschenberg painting. I liked the idea of embodying something ‘darker’ about love in a piece of music…there’s an allusion in
the piano part to Schubert’s song’Ganymed’, and Jupiter’s illicit love for Ganymede would still appear distinctly ‘shady’ to a lot of people.

‘Casual Nudity’ is a title from American Underground film, worked up as a kind of over-arching musical
journey in which the material is gradually denuded of pitch, so the final couple of minutes are all percussive. The actual percussion includes the rather lewd sounds made by a greased-up sink plunger.

‘Mr.Punch’ is a straightforward setting of the rough-house domestic and political drama, still played to English children at the seaside. It’s very graphic and brazen in tone, not at all subtle (except perhaps for the scene with the hangman). The lecture will indeed propose the idea of the imaginary musical ‘museum’, or more accurately, ‘cabinet of
curiosities’. It is an idea that has already been used by Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell, in their ‘collections’ and ‘assemblages’. Three hundred odd years ago, travellers would take a large suitcase (more like a chest of drawers) with them, into which they would pack souvenirs of the places they visited. Scientific and archaeological curios as well as jewellery and postcards! Of course this notion will not particularly appeal to those who like the idea of perfection and singularity in Art.”