Lennox Berkeley and the nocturne

Rob Barnett explores Lennox Berkeley’s ‘Nocturne’ and his recurring use of night music.

In their diverse ways the names ascribed to pieces of music raise expectations about structure or mood or both. Some – like the symphony, sonata, mazurka, gavotte and waltz – have implications as to form and tempo. Other titles – such as lento, scherzo and adagio – point towards the speed at which music progresses. That said, it is obvious that composers are rarely hobbled by such matters and are free to allow their imaginations the loosest of reins regardless of titles.

Some titles have subtexts that are more accommodating, mercurial and pliable: poem, ballade, prelude, serenade and epilogue incite freedom and encourage the music to take untrammelled wing. The nocturne falls into that last category. It implies darkness, closing of the eyes, absence or shading of light or visual stimulation. As such, while there is a danger in over-thinking such things, the removal, or attenuation, of the visual element leaves the auditory element in splendid, undistracted isolation.

Lennox Berkeley used the nocturne form so often that perhaps it was this very isolation of sounds, undisturbed by the visual, which attracted him; and it may be that it was the similarly ‘isolated’ medium of radio, concentrating on sound alone, that attracted him to work for the Third Programme (from 1942 onwards). Music, in its liveliest form, manifests itself through sound, so it is no leap at all to conclude that the nocturne, and associated darkness, opens up a quintessential route for music.

Lennox Berkeley’s ‘Gallic connection’ is often spoken of – and borne out in many ways. His mother was brought up in France and was French-speaking and he too was raised at least partly in France and was bilingual. His paternal grandmother was French too, though his other grandparents were English, Anglo-Irish and German. At Ravel’s suggestion Berkeley pursued musical studies with Nadia Boulanger over a six-year period (1926–32); she remained his life-long friend. Berkeley felt that French music and culture were eminent factors among his affections. He had a small Paris apartment and in that city struck up a friendship with Poulenc¸ a composer whose two-piano concerto shared a Prom programme with his own orchestral Nocturne in 1946.

One of the masters of the nocturne form was Chopin, a composer Berkeley liked. Indeed he contributed an essay, ‘Nocturnes, Berceuse, Barcarolle’ to Alan Walker’s Frédéric Chopin: profiles of the man and the musician (London, 1966, pp. 170-186). However it was the Polish composer’s mazurkas rather than the nocturnes that he took as his focus in 1946 for his own Three Mazurkas, Op. 32 No. 1, of which the first, an allegro, he entitled ‘Hommage à Frédéric Chopin’.

Berkeley’s work-list is sprinkled with evidence that the idea of the nocturne and night attracted him during most decades of his musical creativity. Various of his songs refer to the night, including his Songs of the Half-Light for tenor or soprano and guitar, with texts by Walter de la Mare: I ‘Rachel’, II ‘Full Moon’, III ‘All That’s Past’, IV ‘The Fleeting’ and V ‘The Moth’. This song cycle was commissioned by, and dedicated to, Peter Pears, partner of Benjamin Britten, a lifelong friend of Berkeley, and himself a composer of many works with night-time inspiration – not least the cycle Nocturne. Scene 3 of Berkeley’s opera Ruth is set in the stillness of the night, and it may well be that some of his other works were inspired by, or are bound up with, the night even though they do not carry titles that explicitly flag up the hours of darkness.

Berkeley’s Nocturne for Two Pianos is the middle panel in a diminutive trilogy, Polka, Nocturne & Capriccio, published by Chester’s just before the war. During the war Berkeley worked for the BBC, in a Reserved Occupation, building orchestral programmes by day and serving as an air-raid warden at night – darkness coming to the fore, once again, with nocturnal fire-watching duties.

Lennox Berkeley, 1943 (Photo BBC).
Lennox Berkeley, 1943 (Photo BBC).

An early work, the Divertimento in B Flat Op. 18 (1943), one of Berkeley’s most played orchestral works, carries a dedication to none other than Nadia Boulanger. Commissioned by the BBC, it’s for a small orchestra of chamber proportions and includes, as its striking second movement, a ‘Nocturne’. This is followed by a ‘Scherzo’ and a ‘Rondo’. It was a work that had some early and sustained success. Its premiere came in a BBC broadcast from Bedford on 1 October 1943 in a performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Clarence Raybould. It was also the first of Berkeley’s orchestral pieces to be recorded (Decca K1882-3). Funded by the very enlightened British Council, the London Chamber Orchestra conducted by Anthony Bernard recorded it on 23 March 1948 at the West Hampstead Studios. Some 25 years later the composer himself conducted a recording for Richard Itter’s Lyrita Recorded Edition with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (SRCD266).

Berkeley’s remarkably intense eleven-minute Nocturne for full orchestra (1946) has been desperately neglected and should have been recorded commercially long ago, as I wrote in my article about it in last year’s Journal. This work takes another, and very individual, step into the idea of night. In just eleven minutes of music it breathes deeply the gloomy introspection of films like Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep. The Berkeley Nocturne stands alone; not a component of a bigger work, but a dark and brooding presence, to which it adds a definite brass-lofted climactic definition. Moody cinematographic intensity and andante pacing make for an atmospherically distinctive piece. Its world premiere fell in Prom 28 on 28 August 1946 at the Royal Albert Hall. It was the second piece in a BBC Symphony Orchestra programme, conducted by Adrian Boult, which included the Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor by Berkeley’s friend from his Paris days, Francis Poulenc. The pianos were played by Rae Robertson and Ethel Bartlett, to whom Berkeley had dedicated his Polka for Two Pianos in 1935. The orchestral Nocturne bristles with emotion and vitality, but, rather like Berkeley’s 1930s Cello Concerto and the 1935 oratorio Jonah, its fortunes have been hampered by the lack of a commercial recording.

The Nocturne for harp Op. 67/2 is Berkeley’s only work for solo harp. It was written in 1967 for Hannah Francis, who gave it a BBC Radio 3 broadcast and also played it at Aldeburgh. The work takes the form of an expressive flourish – a dream subsiding into satiated tiredness and rounded with a sleep. The piece found its way into the exam repertoire and most recently has been recorded by Sandrine Chatron for the Aparte Music label (AP140).

There’s more night in Berkeley’s pre-war song, Night covers up the rigid land, setting lines by his Oxford friend, Wystan Auden. Britten had set this same poem a few months earlier, and Gwyn Parry-Jones, writing about the two versions for MusicWeb International, has pointed out that ‘Berkeley creates a dream-like atmosphere, with a recitative-like middle section, while Britten uses uneven compound time and seems to see a more turbulent, even sinister meaning …’.

In 1967 Berkeley set four poems by Laurie Lee for chorus and orchestra: Day of These Days, Twelfth Night, The Three Winds, and Poem for Easter, giving them the title Signs in the Dark which comes from the second poem, starting ‘No night could be darker than this night …’. The work was commissioned by the Stroud Festival, dedicated to the composer’s wife, Freda, and given its first performance at the festival in October 1967.

Six years later Berkeley wrote another isolated night piece, Voices of the night Op. 46 (1973) running to about ten minutes. It was written for, and commissioned by, the Three Choirs Festival where it was premiered by the CBSO directed by the composer in Hereford Cathedral on 22 August. In a programme note Berkeley wrote, ‘It gave me an opportunity to write a Nocturne that I had long had in mind. The piece is impressionistic in character. I tried to give expression to the mystical atmosphere of the night and to reproduce the heightened romantic feelings that it can arouse more powerfully than day.’ Berkeley also revealed that the piece was associated with a passage from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself beginning, ‘I am he that walks with the tender and growing night / I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.’

The composer was present in the Royal Albert Hall to hear Sir Adrian Boult conducting Voices of the Night on 4 September 1975. While it may lack the acuity of drama that marks out the 1946 Nocturne it certainly evinces a Gallic impressionistic mystery with subdued commingled whispering from the woodwind and strings. The manner takes something from both Berg and Ravel. It is very much a darkling charcoal sketch relieved by shafts of light from mordantly emphatic brass interjections and high silvery strings. It has been recorded by Chandos on CHAN 10167.

Nothing is rule-bound or prescriptive, but the mood of a nocturne might suggest¸ inspire or invoke sleep, dreams, amorous relaxation, reflections, night imagery, darkness, miasma, the sinister or the macabre. It can be seen as the result of the triumph of a lullaby, or as a painless ante-room to death. Perhaps it is significant that a piano nocturne was the piece of music which brought consolation to Berkeley in his declining years, as Tony Scotland revealed in his book, Lennox & Freda: ‘He [Lennox] became obsessed with a piece by Poulenc, the Nocturne No 4 in C minor, sub-titled “Le bal fantôme”, which he played over and over again till his fingers could no longer follow his mind’s instructions.’ Ultimately pneumonia released Berkeley from what his son, Michael, has called ‘the tyranny of dementia’.

With its immediate origins in French, the nocturne perhaps freed Berkeley to pursue his musical instincts in a focused darkness.