Robin Tritschler on Lennox Berkeley's ‘Five Housman Songs’

Tenor Robin Tritschler, who has just made the first complete recording of Berkeley’s ‘Five Housman Songs’, explores their complex emotional relationships.

Lennox Berkeley’s friendship with Benjamin Britten blossomed after they met at the 1936 festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music in Barcelona. Despite very different approaches to composing they helped each other and even collaborated. Berkeley, ten years older than Britten, lacked the younger man’s confidence in his own music-making but meeting Britten caused, in the words of Berkeley’s biographer Tony Scotland, a ‘tremendous imaginative release’ in him.

The two men grew close and decided to try living together. Berkeley hoped this signalled a move to a romantic relationship. But Britten may only have wished for companionship and someone to share the burden of running a house, for though he was fond of Berkeley, their differing sexual tastes made for an unfulfilled relationship.

Eventually Britten found the Old Mill in Snape and bought it alone. Berkeley was, in essence, a tenant. While the Old Mill was renovated Britten moved into a London flat with a new acquaintance, the tenor Peter Pears. Berkeley and Britten moved into the Old Mill in April 1938. They lived together easily but in separate bedrooms. However Britten continued to maintain the flat in London. While planning a trip to America with Berkeley, Britten began to spend a lot of time with a young German named Wulff Scherchen. They had first met in Italy when Wulff was 14 years old. He was now 18 and at school in Cambridge. Berkeley knew of Britten’s feelings but perhaps did not believe the younger man could supplant him. Britten’s infatuation soon grew into an obsession.

By December Berkeley had lost all hope of any romance with Britten. He decided not to spend Christmas at the Mill as Britten had invited Wulff, Pears, and Britten’s sister Barbara. The ever-mannerly Berkeley wrote to Wulff, ‘I’m sorry not to see you…in any case I don’t think it would be any fun at all the three of us being here together. It’s a pity, because, strangely enough, I like you.’ To Britten he wrote ‘ … I can’t think of anything but you … It’s a sort of illness which I suppose I shall recover from some day …’.

Britten, though, soon began to feel uncomfortable; Berkeley and Wulff were encroaching too much upon him. This was a time when he was still coming to terms with his homosexuality, and yet to decide how he would live. He needed to escape. Just before departing for America he told Berkeley his place on the trip had been taken by Pears, and he told Wulff they should try to forget each other. Both men left behind were devastated by the rejection.

During the sea crossing and their first few weeks in America Pears slowly replaced Wulff in Britten’s heart. By mid-June 1939 he had cemented his place by Britten’s side. They remained together for the rest of their lives.

The wounds may have been raw but Berkeley began to come to terms with the loss of Britten and expressed his feelings in music. The poems of A.E. Housman (1859–1936), which had been extremely popular amongst composers of an earlier generation, may appear an odd choice for the urbane, civilised and forward-thinking Berkeley. But both composer and poet knew the pain and disappointment of unrequited love and its associated abandonment. A.E Housman called the love he held for Moses Jackson, the straight friend whom he loved for thirty-five years, ‘unlucky love’.

Berkeley completed four songs by January 1940, later adding a fifth. As Tony Scotland says, these songs ‘laid the ghost of his love for Ben’.

In April 1940 Berkeley wrote to Britten ‘I’ll send you a copy of my Housman songs – perhaps Peter might like to sing them’. Needless to say neither Britten nor Pears was keen to revisit such recent history. The songs were put away and lay undiscovered for over thirty-five years until Pears gave the manuscript to Peter Dickinson. On 25th September 1978 tenor Ian Partridge gave them their first performance, and they were published in 1983.

The half-moon westers low

In 1922 Moses Jackson died in Canada. His final letter was cherished as a relic by Housman until his own death. For Housman, only death could reunite the two men and many of his poems relate to that theme.

As ‘the half-moon westers low’, two men are separated not just by distance but by life. One is not aware he is dead, the other alive but equally lost and alone. In Berkeley’s accompaniment, both hands play in unison an octave apart, like the two men walking a path together, close but separate. The vocal line slowly rises, expanding toward the climax and the certainty of one’s death; he is sound asleep. The final chord sees the right and left hands finally diverge and the voice completes the chord, singing the 5th, further compounding the isolation of the man still living. For Berkeley’s own lovelorn situation this poem must have been as painful to set as it was for Housman to write.

The street sounds to the soldiers’ tread

Housman had a complicated attitude towards soldiers. His admiration of their courage and sacrifice, and his compassion for soldiers who died young yet perfect, lay equal beside the sexual allure of a uniformed soldier. In this poem, a man salutes a detachment leaving town and sadly waves farewell to the lost potential of their future lives. He singles out one particular soldier. Through their shared gaze, they recognise their interest in each other. Divided by society, class, and soon distance, they are unable to explore each other beyond that look.

Berkeley sets a confidant march but the inclusion of the 9th is uncomfortable. Everyone is on the move to an uncertain future. The right hand of the piano accompaniment mirrors the voice and slinks to a more legato figure as the men’s heads turn to each other. As their eyes meet Berkeley halts the march and time stands still. The two men are locked in a private moment over a sensual chord of A flat. But the moment must pass. The march returns but now a slur in the left hand bass recalls that lingering look. As the two men fall out of step, the vocal figure is now echoed in the accompaniment.

In an attempt to reach out to each other the left hand rises towards the right and stops marching. Briefly they are in unison, sharing a private moment again. It lasts just one bar before the march rips them apart. The heartbeat of the man left behind is heard in the right hand, but it is slightly irregular, skipping a beat. The word ‘Soldier’ in the last line is a final cry of anguish for the departing man as the incessant march drives him into the shrinking distance.

He would not stay for me

In 1885 an incident occurred between Housman and Jackson which soured their friendship. Perhaps Jackson discovered the extent of Housman’s affection. We only know they remained friends, but at a distance. In 1887 Jackson got married. He left to work in India, and later moved to Canada. Housman felt this loss for ever.

Berkeley must have known that feeling all too well, as Britten pursued Wulff before leaving for America with Pears.

The first phrase of this song is a template for the rest. The slow pulsed introduction seems peaceful, perhaps even calm, but the diminished 7th and augmented 5th belie a deeply-felt seething torment. ‘He would not stay for me; and who can wonder?’ Berkeley seems to question his own self-worth by including a crescendo over ‘who’ – was he ever good enough for Britten? In the interlude the three falling 6ths seem to suggest an acceptance of the situation. But a brief touch of skin in the handshake causes the blade of pain to twist in his guts until a scream bursts forth as the melody continues to employ awkward 7ths and 5ths. This last-ditch effort to be noticed and re-live the brief but searing contact leads to a sorrowful acceptance that he must go on alone. The chords only slightly resolve, sitting in second inversion. The lingering 7th hints at the bitter residue left on his heart.

Look not in my eyes

‘Look not in my eyes’ – for there you will see my naked emotion and desires. Housman must have feared showing any signs of his love for Jackson beyond friendship. But something happened between them that forced Housman to move from the house they shared to another area of London. Perhaps Jackson finally saw the longing in Housman’s lingering glances. History does not tell us.

For Berkeley this too must have been a fear, or perhaps a torture. Maintaining a cordial nature, continuing some contact, and championing Britten’s music was the defence Berkeley employed to endure after Britten left.

On first hearing, this song has a perky rhythm which disguises the melody and the emotional text it portrays. But the odd phrasing of quavers (2 / 3 / 3 / 4 / 5), the prosody and the ignored bar lines hint at the uncomfortable reality of the moment. The strength of the attraction of one man for the other is such that no-one else has a chance. The only release or escape is death.

Because I liked you better

This poem recalls the painful episode when, as Jackson and his wife Rose emigrated, Jackson asked Housman to forget him. Housman never could, and perhaps never seriously tried. Instead their friendship endured. Rose Jackson and Housman became friends, and Housman was named godfather to one of their children. [Ed: Berkeley and Britten remained lifelong friends too – and Britten became godfather to Berkeley’s first son, Michael.]

At the time of this song’s composition, Berkeley was in a difficult relationship with Peter Fraser, a 20-year-old airman who lied and was unfaithful. Perhaps not the ideal relationship Berkeley hoped for. Whatever its state, Berkeley cared deeply for the welfare of his companion. ‘How would Peter manage without him …?’

Both Housman and Berkeley maintained friendships with Jackson and Britten respectively for the rest of their lives. The strength of their character places emotional affection above any romantic or physical love. They would rather have the person in their life than strike them from it.

The opening note in the piano slowly rises in small steps; a tone, a 3rd, even a 4th, but always within easy reach, much as the two friends may have felt. Not until one man walks among gravestones is a melody heard. As he stands by the grave of his former lover, the comfortable 3rds of the opening return. ‘Think of me then as a faithful friend who had your trust’, this seems to say. A single right-hand D is doubled in the left as the two men’s thoughts are reunited again.

It took several years, but Berkeley did manage to find someone else, someone more permanent, stable and sharing. He married Freda Bernstein in 1946. She encouraged her husband in his compositions, and his music took on a more relaxed style. His doubt seemed to ease. He was now secure in himself as a composer, a husband and father, and no longer feared comparisons to Britten.