Christopher Brown on Bach and Lennox Berkeley

The composer Christopher Brown, a student of Berkeley, writes about his teacher’s music and teaching methods – and the influence of Bach on both of them.

Composer Christopher Brown
Composer Christopher Brown

In September 1965, fresh from three years of study at Cambridge, and newly enrolled as a post‐graduate student at the Royal Academy of Music, I walked the short distance from Warwick Avenue tube station to the Little Venice home of Lennox Berkeley for my first composition lesson. At that time I was not really familiar with his music, although I knew the wonderful Horn Trio from the Denis Brain recording, and, in 1964, as a choral scholar at King’s, had sung in the first performance and recording of his exquisite carol I sing of a maiden. So, feeling nervous, slightly shy, and very uncertain as to what I would find behind the elegant front door of No. 8, I rang the bell and waited. It was soon opened and I was ushered into the sitting room, offered a cup of tea, and asked to wait, as Lennox was busy in his study. In due course Lennox walked in, and, within a few short moments, I was made to feel entirely welcome and at ease.

In that first meeting I can, with all humility, say that we hit it off famously. Two years later, in a letter I received from Lennox before I left to complete my studies in Germany, he said about those student years: ‘I too greatly enjoyed our times together, and felt an affinity with you – perhaps more than just musical. I shall miss you.’ That affinity was entirely mutual, and throughout my studies with him I enjoyed many happy hours in his company, and the company of Freda and the boys.

At the time I was singing as a member of both the London Bach Society (with Paul Steinitz) and the Tilford Bach Choir (with Denys Darlow), and, in that first lesson with Lennox it did not take long to get round to the subject of J. S. Bach, and very soon he was pulling down the heavy full scores of the old Bach-Gesellschaft editions of the cantatas. Discussing these works (often the ones that I was singing with the two Bach choirs) became a regular part of our meetings. We would ‘bash’ through (I use the term advisedly, as I have no great pianistic skills) choruses and arias as piano duets, score‐reading (not always accurately) the array of ‘old‐fashioned’ clefs, and marvelling over Bach’s counterpoint, his word‐setting, and vividly characterful vocal and instrumental lines. One word above all was a thread through all my discussions with Lennox: craft. His years of study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris before the Second World War had instilled in him the fastidiousness of his craft as a composer, a facet of his work that shines through every piece that he wrote. In addition, Boulanger helped to cement his love of Bach and his huge admiration for Bach’s control of both structure and counterpoint, both of which play a central role in his own writing.

During those two years with Lennox I remember him being occupied with two specific works – the one‐act opera Castaway (written for the Aldeburgh Festival as a companion piece for Walton’s The Bear ) and Signs in the dark (settings of Laurie Lee poems for choir and strings for the Stroud Festival). He was happy to share with me the work‐in‐progress manuscripts of both pieces during our lessons, and it was fascinating to see and discuss his processes. We talked a lot about word‐setting (he was particularly puzzled, I remember, by the difficulty of setting the word ‘cucumber’ in one of Laurie Lee’s poems!), and also his careful use of musical motifs in these and other works. Lennox was not in any way a dogmatic teacher (a view with which most of his students, from Richard Rodney Bennett and Nicholas Maw to John Tavener and Sally Beamish, amongst many others, would readily concur); in fact when he looked through my own works his comments rarely focused on anything except the things that he positively liked in the writing.

That encouragement, and constant talk about attention to detail, and about clarity of structure and texture, have remained central to my own approach to writing ever since, and never more so than in the writing of my recent 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano (2011–19 to be recorded by Nathan Williamson on Lyrita). Formal fugue is not, I believe, an important part of Berkeley’s writing, but clearly organised counterpoint certainly is. It is found most obviously in the choral music, but also in much of his instrumental and orchestral music. In writing my preludes and fugues I found myself time and time again thinking about Lennox, and asking myself if he would have stamped his seal of approval on the writing, both in the precision and structuring of the music (in the preludes as well as the fugues), and in the clarity of the part‐writing and overall sense of momentum in the music. If I have achieved those things, to even a very small degree, I am happy.

To return to the Bach theme, a couple of stories may be of interest. In 1966 Denys Darlow commissioned a choral work from me for the Tilford Bach Choir, and the resulting piece (Woefully Arrayed – later renamed Crucifixus pro vobis ) received its first performance at a concert in the Victoria and Albert Museum in a programme book‐ended by Bach cantatas. Lennox and Freda kindly came to the concert, and he was immensely enthusiastic about my work, and its Bachian influences, shown not only in the scoring (flute and oboe d’amore obbliggati and strings, with tenor solo and chorus) but in the considerable use of contrapuntal textures. A few years later I was commissioned by Paul Steinitz to write a cantata for the London Bach Society, and my Three Medieval Lyrics was performed in London and on the choir’s subsequent tour of the USA in October 1973. Two days after the premiere I received a letter from Lennox:

Dear Christopher, I saw that your work was being played; unfortunately I’d arranged to go away for the week‐end and couldn’t come. I saw a favourable notice in the ‘Telegraph’ and hope that there were others. I much regret that I could not be there … I was very happy to know that you heard my ‘Sinfonia Concertante’; as you will have observed, I continue to write tonal music quite unashamedly. It is the individuality of the music that matters – not the idiom. I’m sure that you too continue to be yourself musically.

In February of the following year I received a further letter in which he wrote:

I was so pleased with your letter – it’s a great encouragement to know that you liked the ‘Orlando Gibbons Variations’ so much. The piece was written for Aldeburgh years ago [1952]. I can’t remember why I never got it published, but I heard it again when Paul [Steinitz] recorded it for the BBC a little time ago [with the London Bach Society], and I must say I liked it a lot myself, which is by no means always the case with old things that turn up again! I’d love to hear it on a record with your ‘Medieval Lyrics’ and hope the project comes off. [It didn’t!]

The Gibbons Variations is a beautifully crafted work for tenor solo, chorus, strings and organ, and I am pleased that I was able to persuade Chester Music finally to publish the work in 2000, prior to a performance I conducted with the New Cambridge Singers in Cambridge.1 I feel immensely privileged to have been a small part of the Berkeley circle during those two years of study. His great kindness to me, reflected in invitations to his home for musical and also purely social events, as well as his continuing support of me as a composer for many years after finishing my formal studies, are memories which I cherish.

Nevertheless it is a sadness to me that his reputation as a composer has to some degree been overshadowed by others, mostly especially, of course, by that of his close friend Benjamin Britten. His music has an intimacy and lack of showiness that belie the quality and thought that lie behind every note, and his writing richly rewards repeated listening and study. His marvellous grand opera Nelson is long overdue a production worthy of the writing and concept (but good, nevertheless, to have the excellent 1983 BBC recording recently issued on a two-CD set by Lyrita [SRCD2392]), but the smaller one‐act operas also deserve to be more regularly staged.2 Perhaps the forthcoming 120th anniversary in 2023 of his birth, might prompt a wider re‐evaluation of his music, and bring to a new audience the extensive range, beauty, colour and imagination of his music. It is the least such a major composer and important figure in British 20th century music deserves.