Saturday, 16 June 2018

Lennox Berkeley: Donald Brook’s Pen-Portrait from 'Composer's Gallery' Part I

Lennox Berkeley Society

Donald Brook wrote a series of books presenting attractive short studies or pen-portraits of a wide variety of musicians and authors. Sir Granville Bantock endorsed Composer’s Gallery by insisting that it ‘will be welcomed by music lovers and the larger public throughout the civilised world.’ Clearly, he had met many of these people and had a chance to speak to them about their achievements and interests.
On a personal note, this was one of the earliest books about music that I bought (second-hand) in the days before the internet: it served as my introduction to a wide-range of composers and their music. 
Clearly, this study was written around 1943/4 when Berkeley was 40 years old. He lived until 1989, so many significant compositions lay in the future. This included three more symphonies, four completed operas and several concertos. He married Freda Bernstein in 1946.
I include several footnotes to Brook’s pen-portrait of Lennox Berkeley and made some minor edits to the text. 

LENNOX BERKELEY, I feel, is something of an enigma, and one cannot help wondering what place he will take in modern English music in the years to come. He was born at Boar's Hill, Oxford, on May 12th, 1903, and there is nothing of unusual musical interest in the details of his childhood. His parents possessed no musical ability, but his father, a naval officer, was sufficiently interested in the art to buy a pianola and an enormous library of rolls. It was by this mechanical means that Berkeley's interest in music was aroused during his early childhood.
At Gresham's School, Holt, and St. George's School, Harpenden, he learned to play the piano, but when he proceeded to Merton College, Oxford, he had no intention of making music his profession. He had only the vaguest ideas concerning his future career. He read modern languages, took his B.A., coxed the Eight, [1] and so forth; in fact, his University career was of the pleasantly conventional type enjoyed by the sons of those in comfortable circumstances. Music was an agreeable spare time activity taken rather seriously, it is true, but it was not until
he came down from Oxford in 1926 that he entertained the idea of making it his career. Then, however, the urge to devote himself entirely to the art impressed itself, and he went to Paris for six years to study with Nadia Boulanger. [2]
Residence in Paris [3] brought him wonderful opportunities of enjoying the company of the sort of people whose companionship, in small doses, can be an exhilarating stimulus to any artist intent upon finding his own soul and expressing it in his own way. His studies of counterpoint, fugue and orchestration were done in the congenial company of such dynamic young men as Aaron Copland and Roy Harris, whom we shall meet later in this book. Then there were occasional meetings with composers who had already established themselves or at least made a stir among the critics: Poulenc and Honegger, for instance; and with the two who exerted a dominating influence upon his development as a student, Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky.

Lennox Berkeley admits that he owes much to Ravel; he knew him quite well and received from him advice that has proved of great value in more recent years. The eminent composer was always extremely kind, and most willing to scrutinize and comment upon Berkeley's early works chiefly compositions of an immature nature which he has now withdrawn. Ravel, he tells me, was always very strict on technical efficiency, and thought that most of the young people trying to compose at that time were too amateurish too keen to dabble in music without troubling to master its technicalities. Incidentally, Nadia Boulanger was always most insistent that her pupils should have a thorough grounding in the classics before attempting to write on modern lines.
Berkeley also acknowledges with gratitude the guidance he received from Stravinsky, [4] whose acquaintance he enjoyed during the latter part of his Parisian days, so that this composer's influence came rather later than that of Ravel. He is a great admirer of Stravinsky's works, some more than others, of course and strongly disagrees with the little group of critics who ridicule the superficiality of them. Few composers, he feels, have been more completely misunderstood than Stravinsky.
When he left Paris, he was obliged to take his invalid mother to the Riviera for a period of two years, and it was during this time that he drew attention to himself as a composer with his Violin Sonata [No.2 in D, op.1] (1933), a work more mature and original than anything he had hitherto produced. At about that time, too, his Oratorio Jonah was written, a more ambitious effort first performed at a BBC concert of contemporary music in 1936 and repeated at the Leeds Festival in 1937. [4] The influence of Stravinsky is apparent in this work, and that perhaps explains why the English listener, rather a conservative fellow when it comes to oratorio, found it difficult to appreciate. Describing the Leeds performance in the Musical Times [5] Herbert Thompson wrote:
‘It is a work almost aggressively modernistic in character and is not easily followed by those who have been accustomed to regard emotion as an essential characteristic in music. For this quality, pattern alone is an inadequate substitute, and though one may somewhat regretfully realize that, as the Romantic period has had a long innings, the wave of fashion is bound to bring along something very different in its wake, one is none the less inclined to wonder whether this intellectual music is likely to retain a place in history. If so, it implies a revolution in aesthetics.’
Donald Brook, Composer’s Gallery (London, Rockcliff, 1944)

[1] Berkeley was cox of the Merton College Rowing Eight. Whilst at the College he took a fourth class in French (1926).
[2] Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was a French composer, conductor, and teacher. During the middle years of the twentieth century she was renowned for teaching several generations of music students. This included diverse pupils such as Burt Bacharach, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, John Eliot Gardner, Nicolas Maw, Astor Piazzolla, Robert Sherlaw Johnson and Richard Stoker.
[3] Lennox Berkeley’s regular ‘Reports from Paris’ were published in the Monthly Musical Record between 1929-34. These letters are a fascinating and informative account of concert and opera life in the French capital during a vibrant era of musical history. They are conveniently collected in Lennox Berkeley and Friends: Writings, Letters and Interviews: edited by Peter Dickinson, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2012. This volume also includes several letters from Berkeley to Boulanger.
[4] A ‘factional’ account of Lennox Berkeley’s meeting with Igor Stravinsky has recently been authored by Tony Scotland: FLÈCHE: Brief Encounter with Stravinsky Shelf Lives, The Pottery Baughurst, Hampshire 2018. This book recounts a meeting of the two composers on the ‘Golden Arrow’ train during November 1934.
[5] ‘Jonah’ was composed during 1935. It was first heard during a BBC broadcast on 19 June 1936. The first public performance was at Leeds Town Hall, on 7 October 1937. The Musical Times review cited by was included in the November edition of this journal. It is a fact that ‘Jonah’ has not retained a place in the repertoire. The is no recording available.

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