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LORD BERNERS: the last eccentric, by Mark Amory. Chatto & Windus, 1998. xiv, 274pp, £20.00
Amazon UK paperback £10  AmazonUS  paperback $18.36 ISBN: 0712665781

Lord Berners was long a fascinating maverick in the history of British music, yet a composer without whom we would be very much the poorer, as the Marco Polo series of orchestral CDs has made clear. Although the one British composer with a technique directly touched by Stravinsky and Casella during the First World War (Berners - or Tyrwhitt as he was then - spent the war in the British Embassy in Rome), and contacts with the Diaghilev circle, yet he remains a composer with a wholly English sense of the ridiculous.

I only ever saw one Berners ballet on the stage - A Wedding Bouquet - which survived at Covent Garden until remarkably recently (my last programme is for 1 November 1984) which tells us it was the 48th performance since it was first given there by the Royal Ballet in 1956. This was a brilliant confection, thought daring in its day because of the words by Gertrude Stein and their insistent presentation by the chorus. It was very much our last link with that vivid 1930s world of British ballet, which saw the emergence of the ballets of Lambert and Bliss. One commentator remarked: "at times it feels rather like Stravinsky's Les Noces translated to the home counties".

Berners died in 1950, remembered, particularly by Constant Lambert in a broadcast tribute, for his eccentricity. Lambert loved telling ridiculous stories and in his friend he had the perfect subject. Berners dyed the pigeons at Faringdon with multi-coloured dyes; with an absolutely straight face Lambert noted "after being dyed the pigeons … mated only with pigeons of the same colour". Mark Amory's book is for all who delight in a slightly zany society scene, and his account of Berners' humorous novels allows them to be drawn on and woven into the texture of his book, with great success. For all Berners' wit and irony, and his outrageous behaviour, he had a warmth and humanity which shines through.

This biography has had a rave reception from the Sunday papers. A splendid and entertaining read, it will be the source for endless funny stories when other books on the period begin to flag; a brilliant portrait of an age, caught when it was almost too late, as the main characters on the scene passed on.

Amory, the literary editor of The Spectator, admits in his introduction his Achilles heel is writing about music, and he thanks Philip Lane, Gavin Bryars and Peter Dickinson for assistance. All of these attempted the job twenty-five years ago, and I particularly remember Philip Lane's radio talk in December 1973 which seemed set fair to lead to greater things, ultimately a thesis which I have not seen. The musical discussion is not as full as some might wish, but on the other hand it does not get in the way of the fun. Incidentally Sir Thomas Armstrong was, of course, the Principal of the Royal Academy not the "other place", (p.191), though hidden from the index entry for Armstrong.

The history of the music and its productions are entertainingly told. However, it is less good on the music itself, particularly its context and the wider scene; for example the opera Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrément is discussed in its due place, but the author gives us no feeling for having heard it, despite the BBC production in English in 1986, which should have allowed him some first-hand account during the discussion of the Paris 1924 production, its only other hearing.

Amory briefly touches on L'uomo dai baafi ("The Man with the Moustache"), but it would have been nice to have more. Ever since the Sonorities Northern Ireland Festival of 20th century music revived this piece in 1985, I have wondered about it, particularly as it provides our only opportunity to hear Berners' aborted Portsmouth Point, here, orchestrated by Casella from Berners' piano pieces and the Portsmouth Point short score.

The discography is prefaced by a note to explain its brevity: "some works were previously available on LP or 78 disc, but will be found by only the most perseverant of browsers". This is not helpful in a pioneering biography of a composer. One item is listed without identifying the label or number, and the most elusive of available CDs is also not listed, a pity. (L'uomo dai baffi played by the Harmonia Ensemble conducted by Giuseppe Grazioli (on AS disc AS 5003).)

As hugely entertaining a book as this is bound to appear quickly in paperback, and it might be wise to wait for that, when, perhaps the few spots on the sun will have been attended to.


Lewis Foreman

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