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by Dr. David C.F. Wright

© David Wright Ph.D
This article, or any part of it, must not be reproduced in part or in whole in any way whatsoever without prior written consent of the author.

See also

Profile by Peter Dickinson
List of  works 
Discussion of his music by Francis Routh


The music of Sir Lennox Berkeley is sadly neglected. But Berkeley had enviable qualities as a composer.

While studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger during 1927- 32, Berkeley met and formed friendships with two homosexual composers, Ravel and Poulenc. In the mid-1930s he lived for a short time with another homosexual, Britten until Peter Pears became Britten’s lover.

Berkeley invited Britten to be the god-father of his son Michael and dedicated his Stabat Mater to him. It is a work of simplicity but given a good performance it can be very effective. Berkeley was becoming increasingly interested in Roman Catholicism and modifying his views. He intensely disliked Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers, not because it is very poor music, which it certainly is, but the subject matter of suggested bestiality and buggery is so offensive, which is the true meaning of the poems by Auden.

Nevertheless, Britten agreed to stage Berkeley’s The Castaways at the Aldeburgh Festival.

A possible reason for the non-promotion of Berkeley’s music is the claim made by some that it is not British music. Sometimes he was ridiculed to the effect that his music was really French. He is not alone in being the recipient of such criticism. The American composer, Roger Sessions, was vilified for writing ‘non-American’ music, and Humphrey Searle was objected to because his music was not British. Had Berkeley or Searle followed in the wake of Parry or Elgar (thankfully, they did not) they would have fared better. Neither composer was into pomp, ostentation or grand empty gestures. The splendid conductor, Sir Roger Norrington, has rightly said, "Music should never be pompous." I could not agree more.

Hugh Wood unfairly dismisses Berkeley as merely a ‘divertimento composer’ and that his works are ‘salon music’. What is evident is that his best music has a marvellous elegance.

As with Searle, Berkeley was a modest and likeable man and, therefore, the antithesis of Elgar and Britten. Sir Lennox was a charming man not in the sense of anything insincere but in that he was genuinely pleasant; he had an effortless ability to make you feel at home. On my few visits to his flat I found both he and his wife Freda to be extremely congenial. In fact, much of the material for this article comes from those meetings.

Lennox Berkeley was born at Boars Hill, Oxford on 12 May 1903. He was educated at Greshams School, Holt in Norfolk and at Merton College, Oxford. During his studies in Paris he encountered Stravinsky, Milhaud, Honegger and Roussel as well as Poulenc and Ravel. While on the staff of the BBC during 1942-5 he met his wife Freda who had a secretarial post there. Their son Michael was born in 1948 and, before he became a composer in his own right, he was one of the great quartet of BBC Third Programme announcers; the others being Tom Crowe, Cormac Rigby and Patricia Hughes. Tom Crowe had a magnificent voice and delivery and always allowed a ‘gap of silence’ before a piece started and after it had finished. Today, we have irritating announcers who are still talking when a piece begins.

One of Berkeley’s first major works was the String Quartet No 1, Op 6 which dates from 1935. It is sometimes strong and dark with fascinating interplay and the opening movement has a memorable theme. This is not ‘divertimento’ or ‘salon’ music. The second movement is moderately paced with some effective pizzicato work. There is some lovely viola work and some unexpected growls. The finale is a serious piece of rich texture and there is an exciting moment when the music explodes and becomes somewhat frenetic before it flounders and sinks into a confectionery-box style which, in turn, gives way to some beautiful melodic lines redolent of a lazy summer’s day in the country. When the exuberance returns it is tempered with melodic nullity and a surprise! The music subsides again with a prevalent three-note motif; the penultimate section is splendid and a slow thoughtful section ends the work.

The String Quartet No 2 was written during the Second World War and is rough-edged and often shrill. The opening movement possesses some energy, the slow movement is simple in utterance and the finale struts about trying to get going. There is some enjoyable music of vitality. The String Quartet No 3 appeared 28 years later. Its four movements are all rather discursive.

The best passages of the quartets owe something to Bartók.

Between the first two quartets came Berkeley’s first success, the Serenade for strings, Op 12 of 1939. It is the exact opposite in style and taste to the work of the same title by Elgar composed almost fifty years earlier. It is confident, sparkling, positive and hugely enjoyable, one of those very rare and exceptional pieces of music.

Following hard on the heels of the String Quartet No 2, was the String Trio, Op 19 of 1943. This is, in the main, a very fine work, arguably his best chamber work. The opening moderato has an engaging melodic line over a swaggering ostinato and the contrasting second subject is in 5/8 time. The long slow movement has a great deal of parallel movement and is played muted throughout. It is often strangely beautiful. The joyful finale has a slow middle section and loses something as a consequence. There is a lively conclusion.

The music is in the neo-classical style that Stravinsky so enjoyed and seems to me to be indebted to the enviable clarity and joyful music that Albert Roussel wrote and, therefore, this establishes a French connection.

Between the Serenade and the String Quartet No 2 came the Symphony No 1, Op 6 of 1940. Hugh Wood writes, "Berkeley’s talent is circumscribed when he steps outside his limits as in the first two symphonies."

The Symphony No 1 begins with mysterious melodic lines. When the music is robust it is promising. The second movement is also predominantly leisurely and the slow movement has an effective melody line. The finale has a rare Berkeley climax.

Berkeley’s first concerto was the Piano Concerto, Op29 of 1947 written for Colin Horsley who played it in a BBC Prom in 1948. It owes something to both Ravel and Poulenc and the composer said its spirit was more an affinity with Mozart than the struggle between piano and orchestra of the Romantic composers. Berkeley avoids the percussive nature of the piano in favour of its melodic qualities. The music is attractive and warm. Perhaps it is not a Concerto but a dialogue, a generic term he used for his work for cello and chamber orchestra in 1970. The Piano Concerto has three movements and ends with a coda which the composer said aims at shapeliness and precision rather than rhetoric.

Depending on your viewpoint, the opening movement may have banal moments. Perhaps this supports the widely-held and unfair view that Berkeley was only a miniaturist and that he could not sustain his material over a broad canvas which attracts the suggestion that the music is trite. But the opposite is equally troublesome, that over-blown, pompous and tedious music produces ennui.

With this concerto there is some very good material but it is not arranged in the order to best effect and, in addition, if some passages were removed we could have a totally delightful piece. But this highlights the very real problems in being a composer.

This Concerto has not caught on perhaps because it gives no opportunity for virtuoso display and this may have been the composer’s intention. Wilfrid Mellers writes that Berkeley could write effectively for the piano.

The next work was the Concerto for two pianos, Op 30 which does not differ in style, texture or character from the Piano Concerto. It is a substantial work lasting thirty minutes. The most worrying feature is the finale which soon disintegrates into slow and somewhat lifeless music. It is true that occasionally the music is quite beautiful but the composer would have fared better if he had divided this music into two separate parts, namely fast and slow. It is infuriating when a movement is designated allegro when the majority of its content is slow. This is also the problem with the finale of the Symphony No. 4.

The Flute Concerto, Op 36 is another example of attractiveness of melody but it is not developed in the way that Beethoven would, for example. It gives the music the unfortunate tag of being inconsequential. But where this concerto excels over the Piano Concerto is that this piece has a brilliant virtuosity at times.

The Divertimento in B flat for orchestra of 1943 is a sunny work and, like the Serenade, largely owes its success to its first movement with its engaging swagger. How good Berkeley is at bright and light music. Music of quality does not have to always be profound however.

Berkeley’s genius lies in his vocal and choral music. The Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila, Op 27 is unusual in his output in that the music is strangely passionate. This is a truly magnificent song cycle; the text absolutely suits the music; the string accompaniment is incredibly effective; the vocal line is perfection itself. When one considers the praise given to Britten’s orchestral song cycles none of them have the unsurpassed quality, grace and elegance of this veritable masterpiece. Kathleen Ferrier sang them and the very few contraltos we have should take them up. The work reflects Berkeley’s Catholic faith which was a tremendous solace to him when he was eventually stricken with Alzheimer’s disease.

His vocal works are of the highest quality. The Greek Songs, Op 38 of 1951 are very fine and notable for their profound simplicity. The piano writing in the second song is an example of exciting piano writing ... rare, if not unique for this composer. His extraordinary gift for a vocal line is both compelling and refreshing as is also shown in the Five Songs of W H Auden of 1958.

Shortly after the St Teresa Poems came the Sinfonietta of 1950 which is another successful piece. The opening movement is energetic, airy and the hunting horn adds to its outdoor style. The slow movement is a little stale but the finale is a bustling movement, closely related to the opening, and, surprisingly, for Berkeley, it has a tension and a good musical argument.

The Symphony No 2, Op 51 dates from 1956-8. The music is predominantly leisurely having no noticeable contrast, a lack of drama, passion and tension. It is also short of an ‘original stamp’ and, at times, is somewhat anaemic. It is pleasant enough but too lightweight either to convince or be a symphony.

Yehudi Menuhin was associated with the Violin Concerto of 1961. It is a well-crafted work with a very expressive solo line. It is a short work with a curious slow movement which has a twelve-note theme stated by the violas. But it is not serial. The concerto has the ‘security of tonality’. The tonality is C. The work is discursive and the slow movement, ends with a cadenza.

The 1960s was the time when Berkeley’s music finally may have lost its Gallic charm. In the late 1940s and early 1950s he had tried to compose music to dislodge the label of being a miniaturist, but now, a decade later, he attempted a serious utterance as, for example, in the Symphony No 3 of 1969. Yet this symphony teems with melodic invention and colourful wind solos ... but little drama or tension. If the brass and percussion are the main progenitors of drama in music then Berkeley, as with some French impressionists, fights shy of these groups.

The continuing desire for acceptance as a serious composer is also shown in his Symphony No 4, Op 94 premiered by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Charles Groves.

It begins with the bass clarinet and the allegro has some facets to commend it but the liveliness is always short-lived and this is disappointing. The music is often feeble and has a simplicity that is banal. The composer seems to be trying to step outside his ability and write ‘modern music but the result is so unnatural. The second movement begins with eight bars for string quartet and, overall, is an andante and five variations, the third of which, lento, contains some fine music. The finale has a tonality of E and is marked allegro and set in 6/4 time which, with its dotted minims and dotted semibreves, makes it too spacious to be an allegro.

Berkeley was awarded the CBE in 1957 in the middle of his twenty-two years as professor of composition at the Royal Academy in London. He retired in 1968. He received the Papal Knighthood of St Gregory in 1973 and a British Knighthood in 1974. He was appointed honorary fellow of Merton College in 1974, honorary professor of the University of Keele and an honorary fellowship of the Royal Northern College of Music in 1975.

Sadly, I do not know his operas A Dinner Engagement of 1954, Nelson, also of 1954, The Castaways of 1967 and the incomplete Faldon Park of 1982. One wonders if we shall hear them again. Nelson is of particular interest since it presents a heroic subject and I do not know any music of Berkeley that is heroic.

Since his death in 1989 there has not been any great revival in his music although some of his music is available on CD. If his music is neglected, is it because he sacrificed on the altar of Elgar and Britten? Is he dismissed because he is a Francophile? Or is he a composer who should have stuck to writing divertimento music?

Perhaps Hugh Wood is right when he refers to the limitations of Berkeley’s music. That he was a congenial and deservedly respected man does not mean that we have to accept that all his music is of the highest standard. But that can be said of almost every composer. And yet the Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila, the Serenade for strings and the Divertimento for small orchestra are works that I would never want to be without.

Perhaps we need a revival of his work and to ascertain whether a new performing tradition is required.

© Copyright - David C F Wright, 2002.

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