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• About the author, Peter Dickinson
Sir Lennox (Randall Francis) Berkeley was born at Boar’s Hill, Oxford, on 12 May 1903 and died in London on 26 December 1989. As an English composer from the same generation as Walton and Tippett he was not obviously related to the British national traditions represented by them or by Elgar and Vaughan Williams earlier. This is partly because of his French ancestry and connections which make him seem closer to Faure, or to Ravel and Poulenc who were both personal friends. Berkeley admired Mozart above all, then Chopin, Ravel and neo-classical Stravinsky. His personal idiom is built from a genuine melodic expression, usually rooted in tonality, allied to a fastidious command of harmony and orchestral texture. Religious subjects in particular gave a spiritual intensity to Berkeley’s vocal music, as well as to his instrumental slow movements.
Berkeley was born into an aristocratic family. His grandfather was George Lennox Rawdon, Seventh Earl of Berkeley and Viscount Dursley (1827-88), who married Cecile, daughter of Edward Drummond, Comte de Melfort, a family of French and Scottish origin. The composer’s father, Captain Hastings George Fitzhardinge Berkeley, RN (1855-1934), was the eldest son, but since he was born before his parents were able to marry he was legally unable to inherit the title and estates to which Lennox Berkeley, as his only son, would otherwise have succeeded. Berkeley’s childhood was spent in or near Oxford and was affected by access to his father’s collection of piano rolls; visits to the family of his mother, Aline Carla Harris (1863-1934), who lived in France where her father had been British Consul at Nice and for Monaco; a god-mother who had studied singing in Paris at the turn of the century; and an aunt who was a salon composer. Berkeley went to the Dragon School, Oxford; Gresham’s School, Holt, where he was followed by W.H.Auden and Britten; and St. George’s School, Harpenden, where one of his first compositions was performed. In 1922 he went to Merton College, Oxford, where he read French, Old French and Philology, was cox of the College VIII in 1925 and graduated in the following year. At this point he had the opportunity of showing some of his scores to Ravel, who suggested he should study with Nadia Boulanger, so he went to Paris and was based there until 1932. In many ways Berkeley was the quintessential Boulanger pupil, responsive to her passion for music and her rigorous demands in strict counterpoint: with her he started a professional training for the first time.
In 1928, in this context, Berkeley became a Roman Catholic, which profoundly affected both his life and work. But after the prolonged influence of Boulanger the next landmark was his meeting with Benjamin Britten at the Festival of the ISCM held in Barcelona in 1936. They immediately collaborated on the orchestral suite, Mont Juic, and became close friends as well as colleagues. Even though Berkeley was ten years older the two composers found they had much in common and they influenced each other. During the Second World War Berkeley worked at the BBC in London as an orchestral programme builder and it was here that he met his wife, Elisabeth Freda Bernstein. They were married in 1946 and their extremely happy domestic life became the ideal background for Berkeley’s creative work. The eldest of their three sons is the composer and broadcaster, Michael Berkeley.
From 1946 to 1968 Berkeley was a Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he exercised an influence on later generations which was no less significant for being unobtrusive. His later pupils included David Bedford, Richard Rodney Bennett, William Mathias, Nicholas Maw and John Tavener. They have all paid tribute to his sensitive guidance and personal generosity. As a man Berkeley was universally loved and as a composer the first performances of his works were notable events in British music for almost fifty years. His honours included the CBE (1957); the Cobbett Medal (1962); the Ordre de Merit Culturel from Monaco (1967); an Honorary D.Mus. from Oxford (1970) followed by Honorary Fellowship of Merton College (1974); the Papal Knighthood of St. Gregory (1973); Knighthood (1974); President of Honour, the Performing Right Society (1975-83); Honorary Professor, Keele University (1976-79); Honorary Fellow, The Royal Northern College of Music (1975); President of the Cheltenham Festival (1977-83); Honorary Member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1980); Honorary Member, GuildhallSchool of Music and Drama (1980); Honorary Member, Academie Royale, Belgium (1983); Honorary D.Mus., City University (1983).
Berkeley lacked confidence in most of his early works written whilst he was studying with Boulanger and many of them disappeared, some to be rediscovered later. But his first published composition was written at Oxford, a polished song in G major with piano, D’un Vanneur de Blé aux Vents (Joachim du Bellay). Soon after he reached Paris his style changed — Tombeaux, five songs to poems by Jean Cocteau, draw on bitonality of the kind then fashionable amongst the composers of Les Six. Berkeley had opportunities for performances of works on a larger scale since his orchestral Suite was premiered in Paris as early as 1928 and given at the Proms the following year. Other works, some still lost, were given several performances but Berkeley came into greater prominence with his oratorio,Jonah, when the BBC broadcast it in 1936 and it was given at the Leeds Festival the next year. The score is permeated with Stravinskian neo-classicism — in some ways it seems to anticipate The Rake’s Progress - and its set number construction derives from the Bach passions and cantatas. Jonah, which was conducted by the composer, got a mixed reception although it was much admired by Britten, who went to Leeds to hear it. Berkeley withdrew the work but it was revived in London in 1990.
Berkeley’s first unqualified success was a work for string orchestra, the Serenade, Op.12, which has become a classic in the British repertoire along with Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, written just before, and Tippett’s Concerto for Double String Orchestra just after. Berkeley’s four movements are written in styles which are contrasted, but not as diverse as Britten’s. The opening Vivace is an exhilarating moto perpetuo recalling the rhythmic energy of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos; the following Andantino is a melancholy serenade with pizzicato strings suggesting guitars; and the third movement is a kind of scherzo where, as often in Berkeley, he continues to develop his material rather than merely repeat it. The final Lento strikes the most personal note. Berkeley began the Serenade at Snape in Suffolk, where he shared the Old Mill with Britten. By the time he was writing the last movement the war had started and the colleague whom he idolised had gone to America with Peter Pears, circumstances which seem to be reflected in the music.
In 1940 Berkeley completed his Symphony No.1, Op.16, a spacious four-movement work lasting half-an-hour, but perhaps more characteristic is the Divertimento in Bb, Op.18, for small orchestra, commissioned by the BBC and one of several works the composer dedicated to Boulanger. The layout of the Divertimento avoids the formalities of symphonic design by opening with a Prelude in extremely compressed sonata form; following with a Nocturne, which is a beautiful piece of lyrical pacing, leading to the emotional climax of the whole work; and then having a Scherzo of larger proportions than either of the two outside movements. The vivacious Finale seems to cross Haydn with Poulenc in Berkeley’s own way.
By the 1940s Berkeley had achieved real maturity with some of his finest works. In particular a pair of sacred pieces and two concertos involving the piano, as well as a solo sonata. The Four Poems of St. Teresa of Avila, Op.27, for contralto and string orchestra, were first sung by Kathleen Ferrier (a recording from private sources has been released) and their religious intensity always makes a strong impression. The Stabat Mater, Op.28, is a work of comparable distinction, written for Britten’s English Opera Group, but unfortunately it is rarely heard. The many piano works from all periods include the extended Sonata, Op.20 — a landmark in British contributions — as well as the Six Preludes, Op.23, a kind of Mikrokosmos of Berkeley’s personal compositional technique. The Concerto in Bb for piano and orchestra, Op.29, is one of Berkeley’s most successful works in a form which particularly suited him. The thematic layout of the first movement has a Mozartian elegance and the second subject shows a blues influence which can be traced back to the Parisian 1920s and surfaces in his melodic idiom at most periods. The second movement, Andante, is again vintage Berkeley in its introspective tranquillity and objective passion. The Finale combines the pawkiness of Prokofiev with the high spirits of Les Six but again the result could only have come from Berkeley.
In the 1950s Berkeley bravely followed the lead of Britten and went into the theatre. He wrote three operas — the grand opera Nelson, Op.41; a one-act comedy, A Dinner Engagement , Op.45; and a biblical tableau, Ruth, Op.50. Nelson was well received at Sadlers Wells in 1954 but not revived until a concert performance in London in 1988. By comparison, A Dinner Engagement is staged regularly and its sophisticated wit invariably comes across. Ruth is an expansion of the serious language of the Four Poems of St. Teresa into a touching sacred drama. Again Berkeley seems to have been more at home in something less ambitious than grand opera, something more in keeping with his personal reserve. He wrote Castaway, Op.68, as a one-act treatment of the story of Odysseus and Nausicaa and at the end of his life Berkeley struggled unsuccessfully against illness to complete the first act of a new grand opera, Faldon Park.
As he entered the 1960s Berkeley began to show a remarkable ability to extend his musical language. Other Boulanger pupils such as Copland and Carter had found it necessary to move away from neo-classicsm, not to mention Stravinsky himself. Copland began to work with 12-note rows and, in a much less systematic way, so did Berkeley. Aria 1 from the Concertino, Op.49, has a twelve-note ground bass: there is a similar use of all twelve pitch classes in Boaz’ recognition aria near the end of Ruth and the Lento of the Violin Concerto, Op.59. But the row at the start of the Sonatina for oboe and piano, Op.61, soon gets lost, although the Third Symphony, Op.74, derives much of its taut cogency from working with a twelve-note set divided into two hexachords. These connections with serial techniques were not fundamental — they were more like Walton than Britten in this respect — but, as with Copland, they had the effect of altering and extending Berkeley’s harmonic means. At a time when tonality was regarded as exhausted, this was a productive crisis for Berkeley. As a result the Windsor Variations, Op.75, has some of the abstract angularity of late Stravinsky, although Berkeley can still juxtapose tonal and atonal styles in song cycles such as the Chinese Songs, Op.78, as he did earlier in the Five Poems of W.H.Auden, Op. 53. The new style is at its most impressive in a pair of atmospheric orchestral pieces — Antiphon, Op.85, and Voices of the Night, Op.86, as well as Berkeley’s last concerto, for guitar, Op.88. Here he worked closely with Julian Bream and both performer and instrument were congenial and inspiring.
Berkeley, with his literary interests and melodic gifts, has naturally written outstanding songs to French as well as English texts. Tant que mes Yeux, Op.14 No.2 (Louise Labe) is perfectly realised and Berkeley’s French allegiances are also reflected in two sets of sonnets by Ronsard, Op.40 and Op.62. His choral music to religious texts is close to the core of the man and his faith, as with Poulenc, and is often heard in British cathedrals and churches. Berkeley defines his own terms at once in a simple anthem such as Look up sweet Babe, Op.43, No.2 (Richard Crashaw); a liturgical work such as the Missa Brevis; or something more ambitious such as A Festival Anthem, Op.21, No.2.
At all periods Berkeley has written outstanding chamber music, precisely judged for the medium and rewarding to play. The String Quartet No.2, Op.15, is an accomplished example from the 1940s — so is the String Trio, Op.19 — and the String Quartet No.3, Op.76, represents the later style. Berkeley had the opportunity to write for some of the leading performers of the time. The Horn Trio, Op.44, was written for Dennis Brain and the pianist Colin Horsley, who was much associated with Berkeley’s piano music. The oboist, Janet Craxton, gave rise to the Sonatina, Op.61, the Oboe Quartet, Op.70, as well as the Sinfonia Concertante, Op.84, for oboe and chamber orchestra.
Late in life Berkeley struggled against senile dementia and completed nothing after 1983, but there was a perceptible decline before that. His Symphony No.4, Op.94, lacked the concentration of his earlier orchestral works although late miniatures, such as the Sonnet, Op.102 (Louise Labe again), and choral pieces to sacred texts were still thoroughly typical. Finally, Berkeley was at his most distinctive in the 1940s and 50s but there were some notable achievements later in the extended language of the next two decades. Through his best works Berkeley remains an enduring voice in twentieth-century British music, which would be seriously incomplete without his cultivated and imaginative art.
Peter Dickinson has composed works for some of the leading international performers and his CDs include four on Albany Records — Piano Concerto/Outcry/Organ Concerto; Songcycles; Rags, Blues & Parodies; Pianos, Voices and Brass — and two on Naxos — Complete Solo Organ Works and Mass of the Apocalypse/Larkin's Jazz/Five Forgeries etc. His books include The Music of Lennox Berkeley; Marigold: the Music of Billy Mayerl; Copland Connotations: Studies and Interviews; CageTalk: Dialogues with and about John Cage; Lord Berners: Composer, Writer, Painter and Samuel Barber Remembered: a Centenary Tribute (forthcoming). In addition to a Patron of the Lennox Berkeley Society, he is an Emeritus Professor of the University of Keele, where he set up the Department and its Centre for American Music in 1974, and of the University of London. He was Head of Music at the Institute of United States Studies, University of London, until 2004.
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