Jennifer Bate on Lennox Berkeley’s Organ Works

Extracts from the forthcoming autobiography of the organist, the late Jennifer Bate, recalling her first meeting with the composer Lennox Berkeley.

Early in 1983, I wanted to record all the organ works of Sir Lennox Berkeley as part of his 80th birthday celebrations. 1 Lennox and I had met in the mid-1970s, when I programmed his two larger pieces in concert and for broadcasting. In order to do them justice, I made an appointment to bring Lennox up to St. James’s [Muswell Hill] from Maida Vale [Warwick Avenue], so that he could hear me play them. On the day, I arrived at his house, to find him in a terrible state. He thought he was behind on a commission and flatly refused to come, despite his wife Freda encouraging him to go with me.

I used the emotional ticket. Knowing that he was a family man, I explained that my father was waiting at the church and that after all the rehearsals, we would both be terribly upset if he did not come. Much against his better judgement, I bundled him into the car and broke the speed limit through Hampstead.

At first, he was agitated and distracted, but at the end of the first piece, Fantasia, he was intrigued and asked to hear it again - not once, but twice. Then he came up to the organ and said that he had abandoned the piece as a failure, mainly because it had an unfortunate first performance at the Royal Festival Hall. Apparently, I had just fulfilled his original intentions and he was fascinated to rediscover it. I then went on to the Three Pieces, which I had re-written in part, so that it was less pianistic and sat more easily on the organ keyboards. I showed him what I had done, and he was absolutely thrilled. My father and I took him back to the house, by now, apparently completely relaxed about the time away from his commission.

Eventually, he said that he must return, so I set off at breakneck speed. Much to my amazement, he told me to take it much more gently, and a mile from his home, he asked me to let him out to walk the rest of the way. I thought that my driving might well be the reason, but instead, I had one of the greatest compliments of my entire career. He said that listening to me had unlocked the block on the work in progress, and that if he walked home from that spot, the whole of the composition would be finished in his head. 2

This was still the era of LPs, and there was not enough music written by Lennox to fill a side. One of his greatest friends was Peter Dickinson, and I already had more than enough of Peter’s music in my repertoire to fill the other side of the LP. Peter came up with a wonderful solution. In 1945, Lennox had written a glorious Festival Anthem, at the centre of which is a haunting treble solo. Lennox had already transcribed this for cello and piano, and Peter persuaded him to let me make an organ version, to fill the Berkeley side of the LP.

Jennifer Bate