Lennox Berkeley and the guitar

Guitarist Declan Hickey salutes Berkeley’s guitar repertoire, in particular the ‘Songs of the Half-Light’.

Guitarist Declan Hickey (left) with tenor Samuel Kibble, RAM,  23 February 2023
Guitarist Declan Hickey (left) with tenor Samuel Kibble, RAM, 23 February 2023

There is a satisfying completeness to Berkeley’s guitar literature. In five works, one can trace an evolution from his student days at the Boulangerie to compositional maturity, exploring the guitar's potential as solo instrument, accompaniment to the voice, and occupant of the concerto limelight along the way. Over the past year I have had the pleasure of performing much of this repertoire; most recently, the Songs of the Half-Light, Op. 65, with Samuel Kibble at the Royal Academy of Music, where Berkeley taught composition between 1946 and 1968.

An audio recording of the Op. 65 premiere in Aldeburgh has thankfully been preserved. It is as much a challenge to the modern interpreter as a valuable resource, so indelible is the combined force of Peter Pears and Julian Bream. With this sound in our ears, it felt almost audacious to stray from their interpretative decisions – taking ‘The Moth’, for example, at a sprightlier, unsettled tempo to approximate the poetic subject. This difficulty will come as no surprise to performers of the Bream-Pears repertoire.

The special charm of these songs is Berkeley’s faithfulness to Walter de la Mare’s ethereal poetry. The guitar’s gentle arpeggiation in ‘Full Moon’ is the perfect fit for the text’s ‘silent skies’. As de la Mare’s ‘March winds wake’ in the third song, Berkeley’s pizzicato quavers spring to life. These textual evocations are a unique pleasure in Berkeley’s otherwise instrumental output for the guitar. Long may the Songs of the Half-Light occupy a central position in the guitarist’s song repertoire.