Thursday, 22 January 2009

Berkeley and Berners

Peter Dickinson, biographer of Berkeley and Berners, compares their aristocratic muses in this piece written for the Lennox Berkeley Society Journal. He and the Society have kindly allowed us to reproduce the piece here:

In The Music of Lennox Berkeley I mentioned that Berkeley had told me that he was introduced to his principal publisher, J. and W. Chester, by Berners. Berkeley thought it was ‘probably in 1933’ that he went to dinner at Berners’ London house, 3 Halkin Street, SW1. Nadia Boulanger was there too, and it is likely that Berkeley, who idolised her, was invited as her most significant British student. Berners would have known Boulanger from his visits to Paris, when he met all the composers grouped as Les Six in the early 1920s.

France was important to both composers. Berners’ scores were published with French titles and his opera Le Carosse du Saint Sacrement was produced in Paris in 1924 – so far not in England. Poulenc admired the opera, and became good friends with Berkeley when the younger English composer arrived in Paris in 1926. Twenty years later Berkeley dedicated his Five [de le Mare] Songs to Poulenc and his friend and collaborator, the baritone Pierre Bernac; following Poulenc’s death he set Apollinaire’s Automne in his memory and in 1978 he orchestrated Poulenc’s Flute Sonata.

Twenty years older than Berkeley, Berners had very little formal musical tuition, but, like Berkeley, he came to maturity abroad. After leaving Eton early, he spent time in France and Germany preparing for the diplomatic service. (His memoirs, The Chateau de RĂ©senlieu and Dresden, dealing with the years around 1900, tell this early part of his life story in inimitable fashion.) After that he studied in Paris and elsewhere on the Continent, but failed to obtain a Foreign Office post until he went to Constantinople in 1911. Two years later, in Rome, he started composing seriously, under the spell of the Italian Futurists and composers such as Alfredo Casella and Gian Francesco Malipiero. Stravinsky was a personal friend and held Berners’ music in high regard. Berners also knew Diaghilev, whose designers Michel Larionov and Natalia Gontcharowa illustrated some of his sheet music published, at his own expense, by Chester around 1920.

Berkeley was first published by Chester in 1934 (Sonata No 2 for violin and piano; Polka, Op 5) but, unlike Berners, he then had several other publishers – Boosey & Hawkes, Schott and OUP – before becoming exclusive to Chester after 1940. The light blue covers to his sheet music – not the dark blue that might be expected for an Oxford man – were a Berkeley trademark for many years.

But what of their music? Berners had an obsession with waltzes, and Berkeley too has examples in the last movement of the Sonatina for violin and piano, Op 17; the second movement of the Concerto for Two Pianos, Op 30; and the late Palm Court Waltz, Op 81. But waltzes are nothing like as pervasive in Berkeley as in the Berners ballet scores or the earlier Valses Bourgeoises for piano duet. Berkeley would have known of Berners as a British modernist in the 1920s who, like him, turned his back on the British musical scene by living and working abroad.

Both composers were affected by Stravinsky. The works dating from the period of The Rite of Spring form the basis of Berners’ earliest avant-garde style, and Berkeley’s Paris reports for the Monthly Musical Record indicate how much he himself admired Stravinsky’s neo-classical works, especially the Symphony of Psalms.

Berners, however, diversified his creative life in the 1930s by painting and writing memoirs and novels. Berkeley, in his few articles and reviews, wrote stylishly, but, unlike Berners, he was a composer pur sang. In later life he told me he didn’t want to stop composing because he didn’t know what else he could do!

Knowing of Berkeley’s ancestry, reviewers have often used the term ‘aristocratic’ to describe his music. If by this they mean ‘fastidious’ and ‘poised’ – like the music of Mozart –then fair enough. Berners’ work was similarly ‘aristocratic’ in that he approached everything he did with dedication, and with what Lord David Cecil has called a ‘graceful, easy understated accomplishment’. Additionally, both composers wrote film scores.

But finally the comparison breaks down. Berkeley was modest to the point of self-effacement, while Berners defined himself with a high degree of eccentricity, and relished celebrity. Even more crucially, the spiritual dimension so central to Berkeley and his work was missing in Berners, who thought religion was simply a talent he didn’t possess. These are differences more profound than the patrician breeding they shared - Berners as a real peer, and Berkeley who just missed it.

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