If I were approaching 20th-century British music for the first time, this is the book I would read before beginning to get to grips with the actual musical works. Let me explain. This volume is not a history of the subject from Hubert Parry to Maxwell Davies: neither is it a discussion of musical forms, orchestras or experiments with harmonic and melodic ideas. That is not the idea behind this book. But what is offered is a detailed and penetrating cross-section of the avant-garde society between about 1920 and 1950. As the ‘blurb’ points out, Tony Scotland has presented a number of new perspectives on the ‘Paris of Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and Poulenc’; the ‘Somerset Maugham set’ on the French Riviera’; ‘Dylan Thomas, William Glock and Humphrey Searle during the Battle of Britain’; ‘Eddy Sackville-West, Tippett, Bliss and Boult at the BBC’; and ‘Britten and Pears at Aldeburgh’. But much more than any new perspectives, Scotland has situated all these important characters in their artistic milieu. And the vehicle he has used is the ‘improbable’ love affair and subsequent marriage of Lennox Berkeley to Freda Bernstein.
Unlike many musical treatises this is not aimed specifically at musicologists, although this group of readers will gain considerable value from a detailed study of these pages. The book is actually a very good and satisfying read. The cast list, as noted above is impressive: it includes poets, authors, performers, painters, politicians as well as composers and impresarios. Anyone with an interest in any of the arts (and politics, military history and virtually every other topic under the sun) from this period will find a huge amount of interest.
Considering that Sir Lennox Berkeley is one of the major voices of twentieth-century music, there is comparatively little in the way of biographical or musical studies. Two honourable exceptions to this neglect are Peter Dickinson’s The Music of Lennox Berkeley and Stewart R. Craggs, Lennox Berkeley, A Sourcebook. What has been lacking is a major biography of the composer. The present volume, although not claiming to be the ‘authorised biography,’ goes a long way to filling this gap.
The main text of the book is presented as a series of episodes in the life and times of Lennox Berkeley and Freda Bernstein, from their schooldays through to their marriage and the birth of their children. For example, Chapter 7 discusses Berkeley when he was at Oxford with Wystan Auden and Evelyn Waugh. Chapter 10 is dedicated to a consideration of Berkeley’s time with Nadia Boulanger in Paris between 1926 and 1928. Other episodes include Lennox and Benjamin Britten in Cornwall, Freda in wartime London and Berkeley and his friendship with Dylan Thomas and most importantly for the main theme of the book, the time when Freda was Lennox’s secretary in the BBC Music Department during the war. However within these chapter headings a vast amount of information is given about Lennox and Freda and with details of many satellite relationships and interrelationships. Furthermore, a huge number of topics are addressed and discussed. For me, one of the most interesting explorations is about the composer’s homosexuality and the gay community in Britain during the ’thirties and ’forties. For example, there is a discussion of the institutionalised homophobia in the BBC during the Second World War and of E. M. Forster and his concern about a Nazi hit-list of British homosexuals. This makes disturbing reading. Tony Scotland explores these issues with understanding, without fear and with considerable sympathy. From the perspective of 2010 it is hardly possible to study the musical and artistic world of any age without encountering the ‘gay community’ and that group’s huge and vital contribution to the arts. However, in the past it has been a part of history that has been largely kept in the shadows: it is like an undertone, or a hidden cipher in the background. Any discussion has often been reserved, muted or more likely totally absent.
On a personal note, for me, the first chapter was important: ‘Berkeley, Britten and Burra, Barcelona 1936’. I have always had a soft spot for the short orchestral suite Mont Juic - which was a joint work by Britten and Berkeley that resulted from their visit to Barcelona for the 1936 ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) Festival. Much has been written in biography and letters from Britten’s side of this important and formative event for both composers, however it good to have the Berkeley slant. For the composer it was one of the highlights of his life – he declared that he had hardly ever enjoyed himself as much.
The format of the book is everything that an important study of ‘Lennox and Freda’ could possibly demand. All the apparatus of a scholarly book are present and correct, without destroying the eminently readable nature of the text.
Of vital importance and utility are the list of ‘dramatis personae’, mainly family and close friends and the family trees of both Lennox and Freda. The former is absolutely essential in a book where ‘name dropping’ is such an essential and hugely enjoyable part of the reading experience. However, for a more expanded list of ‘characters’ it is wise to study the inventory given in the ‘Lennox and Freda’ web page. Here are all the ‘great and the good’ that rubbed shoulders with the couple between their earliest years and just after the Second World War.
There are a large number of photographs of the protagonists and their families and friends included in two illustrated sections. Most of these I have never seen before and all are of great interest and definitely add value to the exposition of the ‘story’.
At the conclusion of the volume are a number of appendices, including ‘Lennox Berkley and the Tridentine Rite’, ‘The Greenidge Brothers’ and the ‘Berkeley Peerage Case’ – all building a picture of the composer and his opinions and achievements.
Footnotes are avoided with the extensive ‘source notes’ being located at the end of the book. The bibliography is impressive, running to some thirteen pages. This ‘scholarly apparatus’ provides much inspiration for further study and exploration into the life and times of the Lennox and Freda and their associates. Lastly, I always look at a book’s index before reading a single page: this volume was no exception. It is massive with every possible reference being included. It is exactly what the reader using this book as an important tool requires. Would that every author was as scrupulous in compiling this most useful part of any book!
The book is priced at £28: this may seem a lot of money to pay, but when one objectively examines the content and apparatus it will be seen to be well worth the cost. A book like this can never be cheap to research and produce: it is quite obviously a labour of love from the author’s perspective. Yet, it is important that volumes such as this fill so many gaps in our historical understanding of English music.
Tony Scotland is the ideal person to have written this important book. In his considerable CV he has been a classical music presenter with BBC Radio 3 and with Classic FM. He has written for the Spectator, the Independent, House & Garden and Harpers & Queen. His interests include travel, history and classical music. Of greatest significance in the writing of this present book, however, is the fact that he lived in the Berkeley household during the final ten years of Lennox’s life.
In conclusion, this book is highly significant for three reasons. Firstly, it largely satisfies the need for a biography of the formative years of the composer, although not claiming to fill that role. Secondly it presents the material in the form of a ‘love story’ most importantly concerning the composer and his wife, but not forgetting his affairs and relationships with Benjamin Britten, Peter Fraser, Alan Searle and others. And, thirdly, it situates the life and times of Lennox and Freda and their many friends and contemporaries in the artistic avant-garde of the mid twentieth century. It is well summed up by Tony Scotland in the book’s preface: ‘This is the story of an artist’s struggle to find his orientation and his faith, in a morass of family feuds, two world wars and changing social values, and of the remarkable woman who helped him’.
I noted at the beginning of this review that ‘Lennox & Freda’ was entry level to the musical (and artistic) history of the middle years of the Twentieth Century. If the reader’s concerns are to simply gain a deep understanding of this period, then this book would be worth every penny. However, there is more: this is the story of two people, a love story, and on that level the book is fascinating, insightful and very often moving. I shall certainly turn to the pages of this volume for pleasure, resource and understanding on many occasions.