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The Music of Lord Berners (1883-1950) ‘The Versatile Peer’ by Bryony Jones
Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003, hardback 155 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7546-0852-3
£52.25 post free from Amazon

Experience Classicsonline

The first piece of Lord Berners’ music that I heard was the Hornpipe from The Triumph of Neptune: this would have been about 40 years ago. A few years later I heard a recording of the suite from that ballet with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham; it was coupled with Richard Arnell’s Punch and the Child. And then, until a few months ago, I discovered virtually nothing else. At the back of my mind there was the impression that Lord Berners was a bit of a buffoon who had cobbled together a few moderately attractive scores that were largely pastiche. I had heard the stories that Bryony Jones mentions in her opening chapter about the ‘eccentric aristocrat who dyed his pigeons various pastel shades and who entertained Penelope Betjeman’s horse to tea.’ However, I knew virtually nothing else. Then, some time during January 2010, I heard a recording of his ballet score Luna Park and was seriously impressed: this immediately demanded my reappraisal of his music. This present book is well placed to provide most of the information about Berners’ music that any interested person, professional or lay, could wish.
The Music of Lord Berners (1883-1950) ‘The Versatile Peer’ will appeal to a wide variety of readers. Firstly and most obviously are the musicologists who specialise in British music from the first half of the twentieth century including those majoring in the lives and works of William Walton, Constant Lambert and Arthur Bliss. These three composers, alongside Berners, were ‘part of a slender British avant-garde which emerged after World War 1.’ [Peter Dickinson: Grove]
Secondly, there may well be a handful of general listeners who wish to get to grips with the music of Lord Berners and will dip into this book to find out about a particular piece of music, most probably the Fantaisie Espagnole or the Triumph.
Yet, the field of interest becomes much wider when one considers the ‘versatility’ of the composer. People who are primarily interested in ballet, for example, will find much to consider in these pages. Although Bryony Jones does not dwell on Berners’ contribution to literature, poetry and art, there are many references here to a wide variety of ‘artistic’ people who were in his social circle. One thinks of the Sitwells, Betjeman - father and daughter, Rex Whistler, Wallis Simpson, Diana Mosley – the list of the great and good is almost endless. He was an important part of the social scene in the first half of the twentieth century and as such must feature in any study of these socialites.
There are currently three books on the market that explore the life, times and work of the composer. The major biography Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric by Mark Amory was published by Chatto & Windus in 1998. This is definitely biographical rather than analytical - it looks at the entire character and achievement of the composer – including his non-musical activities. It places him within the cultural milieu and explores his relationships with the artistic set and his personal affairs. In 2008 Peter Dickinson produced a stunning volume of ‘biography’ - with a twist. It is a ‘compendium’ of material that the Spectator has described as capitalising on research that Dickinson assembled on his one-man mission to revive Berners’ reputation. It consists of critical responses, major interviews, lists of scores, photographs of the composer and his paintings, some of his writings and poems, catalogues and a discography. It is published by Boydell Press.
The present volume, which is largely analytical, completes the third leg of the Berners’ scholarly tripod.
The author, Bryony Jones, read music at the University of York, and according to the dust-jacket she also gained a Masters Degree at the University of Liverpool. Other books that she has written or edited include the excellent Rebecca Clarke Reader and various musical resource books for young people. I am disappointed that she does not appear to have a web page: it would have been great to have read her full CV.
The Music of Lord Berners (1883-1950) succeeds in giving a detailed examination of the composer’s music and in putting this into the context of his other achievements in the literary and art worlds without digressing too far from the book’s basic raison d’être of being a musical study. I found that the introductory chapter was helpful, as I had only read dictionary entries and magazine articles prior to studying this present volume. It offers just enough biography, background information and critical comment to allow the reader to approach the main portion of the text with confidence. If someone was only to peruse this chapter they would have a great understanding of what made the composer tick.
I am pleased that the author chose to write her musical analysis chapters based on genre rather than attempting a straightforward chronological content. Furthermore, this reflects to a large extent the stylistic swing of the composer’s development, from one of the ‘bad boys’ of English music to the witty parodist revealed in his film and ballet scores.
The first chapter after the introduction is devoted to an exploration of the composer’s important and ‘avant-garde’ piano music. It is often hard for the listener to realise that a piece such as Le poisson d’or comes from the same pen as the deliciously attractive music from Nicholas Nickleby or the jaunty Hornpipe from the Triumph. She follows this with a penetrating study of the equally ‘modernist’ and cosmopolitan songs. The chapter on the orchestral music has a major section on the superb Fantaisie Espagnole along with the less well-known pieces such as the Fugue in C minor and the Three Pieces for Orchestra.
It is appropriate that she has devoted a whole chapter to Berners’ opera La carrosse du Saint-sacrement which must be regarded as his magnum opus, if not his masterpiece.
I found the chapter on the ballets (the longest in the book) extremely interesting. Anyone who has heard of Lord Berners will associate him with The Triumph of Neptune. However there are four other ballets which, although not performed these days, have worthwhile music. Luna Park, is about a ‘freak show’ near Coney Island and as such is hardly politically correct these days. Yet the music is superb and could certainly have a life of its own. A Wedding Bouquet was regarded by many contemporaries as being the composer’s masterpiece. This ballet, which actually tends towards an opera, is based on a story by Gertrude Stein. Two later ballets did not have such a great success, but both Cupid and Psyche and Les Sirènes contain music that demands our interest. Bryony Jones discusses the music and the critical reception of each work in considerable detail. The last paragraph in this chapter is an excellent summing up of Berners’ achievement both in the ballets and more generally:-
‘Michael Hurd accurately describes Berners’ musical style as mixing ‘irony, satire and a degree of submerged romanticism.’ The sense of romanticism, though is often more evident than the word ‘submerged’ suggests and passages such as the ‘adagio’ from Luna Park and ‘Cloudland’ from The Triumph of Neptune are some of the most natural and unaffected that the composer ever wrote. It is this mixture of moments of romantic indulgence with frequently atonal but light hearted jollity that best sums up Berners’ musical character; simply to take one style or the other would only be to hear half the story.’
The final chapter is possibly the most important in book - this is a retrospective view of how the composer and his music have fared since his death in 1950. It is a fascinating study of how reputations are lost and made in the musical world, and could serve as a model for subsequent studies of other composers.
Four appendices make the book a great jumping-off point for further exploration of Lord Berners’ music. Firstly, there is a brief but useful chronology of the composer’s life and achievements. This is followed by a detailed works-list which is presented in chronological order alongside notes of first performances and examples of where scores have been reused or reworked for further compositions. The discography shows that most of Berners’ works have been issued on CD. However, readers are warned: a number of these discs are now only available as MP3s or from the second-hand record store. A reasonably complete bibliography references books, articles and, interestingly, CD sleeve notes as useful sources. There is a comprehensive index.
However, there is one thing that mystifies me about this book – there is no mention in the text or the acknowledgements page of Gavin Bryars or Phillip Lane. I understand that Lane completed a ‘life’ of the composer, with a considerable emphasis on the music. He has maintained his interest in Lord Berners and has been involved with the recording of much of his music. Gavin Bryars was asked by Berners’ partner Heber Percy to write the official full-scale biography, which in spite of a large amount research, never came to fruition. Mark Amory made use of the research produced by both men in his biography of the composer: it appears to have been a major element of that book’s material. Apart from references to Lane’s CD liner-notes in the text and bibliography, there is no mention of the fruits of this research. One can only assume that Bryony Jones did not, or was unable to, make use of it.
The book is well-produced although the paper is a little coarse. The text is printed in a good font and is clear to read: the musical examples are generally helpful to an understanding of the argument. However, I do have to wonder about the price of £55: it does seem rather high for a book that only runs to some 155 pages. Yet, I do understand that a book like this will not sell a huge number of copies. Presumably it will be bought largely by academics and libraries and short print-runs mean high prices.
Three things make this book essential for the musicologist, amateur and professional. Firstly, it is the only volume that examines the music of Lord Berners in considerable detail; it is likely to remain in that position for many years to come. Secondly, it successfully reappraises the music of a composer about whom there are so many prejudices and misconceptions – parodist, humorist or downright upper class eccentric. Bryony Jones proves that Berners had a personal musical voice that defied the usual stereotypes of composers belonging to the English musical renaissance. Stravinsky and ‘Les Six’ were more likely to be the models of his early works than transcriptions and re-workings of the ‘merry song’ of Jack the ploughman or the whistling of the proverbial messenger-boy on a push-bike. Finally, this book will act as a solid starting-point for any further exploration of this fine body of music, most of which is available on CD yet is rarely heard in the concert hall or recital room.


John France



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