Lennox Berkeley’s Six Preludes are some of the most performed and recorded works in his catalogue. There are at least of this work available, including those by Colin Horsley, Margaret Fingerhut and Len Vorster. This attention is certainly well justified. These Preludes are excellent examples of the ‘Gallic’-influenced style that permeated Berkeley’s works. Certainly, Poulenc never seems to be far way – and the spirit of Chopin is pervasive.
These Preludes were originally devised as ‘interludes’ to be used by the BBC on ‘under-running’ programmes. They were composed in 1944 for Val Drewry, who at that time was producing the BBC’s chamber music programmes. Unfortunately, these pieces were never used.
The first prelude is ‘toccata-like’ with ‘horns of elf-land’ predominating in the melodic pattern. This is intricate music that balances romanticism with a neo-classical perfection. The second is a brooding essay where, although the melody asserts itself it seems to be shrouded in the dark. We are back in the classical world with the third prelude which is full of a bubbling vitality: it is like a mountain stream. The fourth is a Valse Triste which could almost, but not quite, be played in the piano bar of the Savoy Hotel. It is certainly not pastiche – but it is a beautifully crafted exercise in writing a waltz. Number 5 had been described as a ‘whistling tune’ which suggests gaiety. Yet there is something darker in the middle section of this prelude. The last is in the form of a lullaby – and a ‘baby sings the blues’ one too. Perhaps this is the most memorable of the six?
These preludes are always approachable without being musically patronising or condescending.
The first broadcast performance was on the new BBC Third Programme on 13 July 1947 by the pianist Albert Ferber. This was a recording that had been made six days previously at the Concert Hall of Broadcasting House. The first public performance was at the Wigmore Hall on 29 October 1947, ostensibly by the pianist Eric Hope. Alas, Hope fainted at the keyboard just before starting the third Prelude. Lennox Berkeley, who was in the audience was called upon to complete the set.
In 1949, Colin Horsley made the first recording of the Six Preludes for HMV (C3940). It was a successful venture.