Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Lennox Berkeley: An early appreciation

I recently came across this article in the Monthly Musical Record about a very young Lennox Berkeley.

V. Lennox Berkeley by Gordon Bryan (1895-1957)
Lennox Berkeley was born in 1903, and was educated at Greshams and Merton College, Oxford. He now lives in Paris, and is studying under Mlle. Nadia Boulanger, a brilliant and deservedly popular teacher of composition.
His nearest relatives also prefer France to England, and as Berkeley himself is bilingual, this almost dual nationality (his grandmothers were both French) had had a considerable effect on his music. He frankly declares himself out of sympathy with English musical life, in which he finds a regrettable lack of interest in the newer developments of the art.
While still an undergraduate he composed various songs, among them one very charming example- D’un vanneur de blé aux vents - a setting of a poem by Du Bellay, which has been published by the Oxford University Press. It was composed in October, 1925. It has a straightforward melody three times repeated; the varied piano accompaniment shows the restraint and delicacy of string-quartet writing, and, indeed, it might easily be arranged for that combination. If the composer of this charming trifle had pursued this vein of unaffected melody he would have won considerably more renown that he actually has.
Since that time he has passed through successive and concurrent phases of Ravel-worship, Stravinsky-worship and Hindemith-worship; and admirable thought such enthusiasms may be, they become a hindrance to originality. The personal note has, however, made itself felt more and more in his recent works. Berkeley’s skill in orchestral colouring and particularly his clever writing for wood-wind as witness the solo part in the clarinet sonata- has always been remarkable.
It should be mentioned that Ravel has taken an interest in the young composer’s development, and by his encouragement and recommendation, some years ago, did much to confirm his choice of a musical career.
Although it is only since October, 1926, that Berkeley has been composing seriously, ha has been so fortunate as to hear much of his music performed under the best possible conditions. His very first orchestral work, an Introduction and Dance for small orchestra, was produced by Anthony Bernard at the Chenil Galleries in April, 1926, and from this performance the composer learnt much. It was a brief but effective little work –the past tense must be used, for the composer now disowns it altogether.
Under the same auspices, at a concert at the Contemporary Music Centre, first appeared the Concertino, also for small orchestra, in April 1927. This has been repeated at Harrogate and Hastings by Basil Cameron, and at Bournemouth under the composer’s direction. Its success led to a request from Walter Straram, the Paris conductor, for a Suite, this time for full orchestra, which was given at the Salle Pleyel in February, 1928. It has not bee heard in England, but a performance is probable shortly under Ansermet.
These two works follow the neo-classical pattern favoured by many modernists –of course, with the wide harmonic resources of the present day. Both are concise and well-knit. The Suite consists of four movements –Sinfonia, Bourrée, Aria and Gigue. It is classical both in form and feeling, though free use is made of modern methods of harmonization and orchestral colouring. The slow movement (Aria) is especially fine.
A “Prelude, Intermezzo (Blues), and Finale,” for flute, viola, and piano was first heard in London in October, 1927, and was subsequently repeated in Oxford and Paris. It contains many skillful instrumental effects, and audiences have received it with favour; but the later Sonatina for clarinet and piano (1928) marks a definite advance. Though here Hindemith’s influence is apparent, the general effect is novel and striking. The work was submitted by the British jury for the recent Geneva Festival, but the international committee did not endorse the selection. Two other Sonatinas- for violin alone and for piano – were completed this year. The former has already been played in Paris. All three Sonatinas are conceived in much the same spirit and all are in three movements. In the first two considerable use is made of “bi-tonality” – for example, the slow movement of the Clarinet Sonatina which continues almost the whole time in C major against G flat major in the upper parts. The result is much less discordant that might be imagined and presents no difficulty to those accustomed to modern music. The Violin Sonatina naturally contains practically no harmony; nevertheless in another sense a similar system is followed- that is to say, a definite tonality is established in that a phrase begins on a certain note and comes back to it again, but the scale which that note would suggest is not necessarily adhered to. This procedure has been much exploited by Hindemith.
Jan Smeterlin included three short piano pieces (composed in 1927) at a London recital a little time ago. There are also five songs, to poems by Cocteau, entitled Tombeaux, which have many flashes of wit. They were broadcast in March, with orchestral accompaniment, under the direction of Anthony Bernard. The composer’s most recent work is a Sinfonietta for small orchestra.

The last three years show a steady output of increasing importance; and as Berkeley’s technique and self-confidence alike develop, we may expect an ever-growing personality. But while Paris at present no doubt affords more opportunities than London for the study of contemporary music, it is no less true that much he has heard there has had the effect- enthusiastic musician though he is – of narrowing his outlook into what may be styled anti-diatonicism.
An experiment which might have useful results (but which is quite unlikely to be carried out) would be to prevent him for six months from attending any concerts where music other that that of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries was performed. At the same time all scores of any later date should be removed from his reach. His reaction to this treatment would be extremely interesting, and his compositions would show considerably more originality than he has, as yet, allowed himself to attain. A remark once passed by Haydn is to the point. He wrote of his enforced isolation at Esterhàzy’s country residence of Esterhàz: “I was cut off from the world; there was no-one to confuse or torment me, and I was forced to become original.”
The Monthly Musical Record June 1 1929

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