Lennox Berkeley and Friends: Writings, Letters and Interviews
Edited by Peter Dickinson, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge
I believe that this book will serve a double-purpose. Anyone who is studying or reviewing the life and works of the Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989) will find a tremendous amount of primary material here. Furthermore, because of Berkeley’s largely cosmopolitan nature and his wide-ranging interests all students of twentieth-century music will find this a key text in developing their understanding of much that happened in British and European music during the middle years of the 20th century.
The literature about Sir Lennox Berkeley is rather meagre bearing in mind that he is one of the most important 20th century composers. Most recently, Tony Scotland produced an excellent study of Lennox and Freda (2011)[review]. This book combined a study of the life and times of the composer as well as being an interesting and often moving love-story. It is the main biographical study of the composer presently available, even although it does not claim to be a ‘biography’.
Peter Dickinson has contributed the only significant study of Berkeley’s music. This was originally published in 1988 but was extensively revised and reissued in 2003. Stewart R. Craggs has made a valuable contribution to the musicologist with his essential Lennox Berkeley: A Source Book. This was published in 2000 so is to a certain extent out of date. However, it is still the starting point for any serous study of the composer. Over and above these basic texts there is a great deal of periodical essays, reviews and articles. Douglas Stevens has recently  produced a PhD thesis ‘Lennox Berkeley: a Critical Study of his Music’ however this does not appear to be readily available. Perhaps it will be published in the near future?
Lennox Berkeley and Friends is conveniently divided into a number of sections. After an important introduction, which deserves to be read (!) the first group of texts are Berkeley’s reports from Paris. These were originally published in the Monthly Musical Record which was one of the most influential journals of its day (1871-1960). In 1927, Berkeley went to Paris to study under the redoubtable Nadia Boulanger: he remained there for five years. During this period he met all the ‘big’ names in 20th century music, including Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Albert Roussel and Igor Stravinsky. These letters are a fascinating and informative account of concert and opera life in the French capital during a vibrant era of musical history.
Part 2 consists of letters written by Berkeley to Nadia Boulanger. A few words about Juliette Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) may be of interest. She was one of most important figures in Western music of the twentieth century. Her dates show that she straddled a huge variety of musical developments. She was a composer, a conductor and perhaps most significantly a teacher. It is in this latter role that she had the most considerable influence. The list of major American and European composers and performers who studied with her must be one of them most impressive lists in musical history. These include Aaron Copland, John Eliot Gardiner, Philip Glass, Astor Piazzolla, Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem, Richard Stoker, Nicolas Maw, Thea Musgrave and Lennox Berkeley. Boulanger taught in the great music schools including the Juilliard, the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. However much of her teaching was based at her flat in 36 Rue de Ballu, Paris. She continued work until her death aged 92 years.
The letters have been ‘selected and annotated’ from the collection held at the Bibliothèque National in Paris. The author tells me that the content of these letters becomes less concerned with musical matters as time goes by. In fact, by the 1950s they tail off into family news, Christmas greetings and other day to day matters. These more ephemeral letters have been omitted. Everything of interest from the pre-war letters is included. Peter Dickinson suggests that more than 70% of Berkeley’s side of the correspondence has been given.
The idiomatic translation of these letters makes for easy reading. Footnotes have been provided to give the reader a context for each letter and to explain the many allusions and references. Unfortunately, most of the letters from Nadia Boulanger to Lennox Berkeley have not survived.
Part III includes a large selection of Lennox Berkeley’s contributions to journals and newspapers as well as interviews with the composer. In this digital age, more and more publications are finding their way into various databases. No longer does the student have to order dusty copies of The Musical Times or The Sackbut from the ‘stacks’. However, most of these are only available to academics or to people ‘signed up’ to various libraries. Secondly, there are still many publications not available ‘on-line’ – just yet.
Many of the articles given here are from The Times or The Listener - the BBC’s erstwhile arts magazine. However, a number of the present writings and talks come from these hard-to-find sources – for example the essay on Maurice Ravel is from the Adam International Review (1978) and ‘Britten’s [Operatic] Characters’ from About the House (1963). Of special interest is the programme note for the first performance of Francis Poulenc’s Piano Concerto in England (1950). Of greater difficulty to access are the various radio interviews and ‘talks’. I enjoyed reading the composer’s thoughts on being a ‘song-writer’ transcribed from a Radio 3 broadcast 16 November 1973. He states there that ‘very well known poetry of the past is probably best left alone [by the composer]’. It is certainly a view that deserves a thesis!
The next subdivision (Part IV) of the book includes four important interviews with the composer. The first two are with Peter Dickinson; one is with three literati and lastly a wide-ranging discussion of the Fourth Symphony with Michael Oliver.
The interview with C.B. Cox, Alan Young and Michael Schmidt was published as ‘Talking with Lennox Berkeley’ and appeared in the Poetry Nation No.2 journal. Michael Schmidt is the well-known founder of the Manchester-based Carcanet Press Ltd that has successfully published poetry since 1969. The present interview is of considerable length and detail; however, it is not musically ‘technical’. The interviewers quiz Berkeley on a number of subjects including his view on John Cage’s 4’33”. Berkeley replies, ‘Quite honestly it doesn’t mean anything at all to me.’ However, the question that caught my eye was ‘Is there a distinctive English quality in English music? The composer responds by suggesting there is a ‘distinctive sort of English nostalgia which you find in Vaughan Williams sometimes, and Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro that’s quite unique.’ This idea of ‘English nostalgia’ is certainly something to ponder.
Part V of the book is a comprehensive selection of Lennox Berkeley’s diaries drawn from the years 1966-1982. Peter Dickinson notes that the composer ‘wrote his diaries with some reluctance.’ I do not know if there are earlier diaries in existence, however the editor has told me that all of interest is contained in this selection. The short entries tell of the composer’s travels, his meetings with VIPs and accounts of performances of music by him, and many other composers. Footnotes have been provided to help explain the context. A good example of his forthright style may be seen in the entry for 19 December 1971. The LPO had just given a performance of Berkeley’s Third Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall. He wrote, ‘I think it is one of my better things and I enjoyed hearing it. So far so good. However, he suggests that ‘John Pritchard conducted a rather perfunctory performance.’ He added that he hoped the ‘record is very much better than this’. Finally he admits to two good notices of the works given by William Mann (‘to my very great astonishment’) and Ronald Crighton.’ This Symphony was duly released on Lyrita SRCS.57 (LP) (1972).
The last major section (Part VI) of this book is the ‘Interviews with Performers, Composers, Family and Friends’ 1990-1991. The list is striking and includes Colin Horsley who was a powerful advocate of Berkeley’s music and Nicolas Maw (1935-2009) one of ‘the leading British composers of his generation’ who studied with Berkeley. The family is represented by two excellent interviews with the composer’s wife, Freda and his eldest son, Michael. The ‘Friends’ section includes a conversation with Desmond Shaw-Taylor who was chief music critic of The Times between 1958-83. He was especially drawn to Berkeley’s music. All these eminent people were in discussion with Peter Dickinson in the early 1990s.
Part VII of this book as a reprint if the ‘Memorial Address’ given by Sir John Manduell CBE. Manduell (b.1928) is both composer and musical administrator, having worked for the BBC, and the Cheltenham Festival (1969-94). He was Director of Music at Lancaster University (1968-71) and Principal of the Royal Northern College of Music between 1972 and 1996. At present he is the President of the Sir Lennox Berkeley Society. The Address was delivered at Westminster Cathedral on 10 March 1990 at the Memorial Requiem Mass for the composer. It is a moving tribute from a former student of Berkeley.
A very useful inclusion in this book is the ‘Catalogue of Works’. I accept that Berkeley-enthusiasts will have most of this information at their fingertips in either Craggs’ Source Book or Peter Dickinson’s study of the composer. However, for anyone not possessing these volumes this catalogue is essential in assisting them to a structured hearing of Berkeley’s music. It goes way beyond the listings in Wikipedia and even the Sir Lennox Berkeley Society website. This catalogue is arranged by genre and includes date of composition, first performance (for major works) and the publisher.
The bibliography is impressive, if not exhaustive. All the extant writings of Lennox Berkeley are listed in chronological order. Some of these texts are included in the present volume, however, there are still a considerable number of essays and articles that will of interest to the musicologist and deserve to be hunted down. The second part of the bibliography is a selective list of articles, essays and books published about the composer since 1929. Helpfully, this is also chronological. The bibliography concludes with a useful list of general works that deal with contemporary composers, poets and history.
There is an extensive index, conveniently divided into two parts – ‘Berkeley’s Music’ and a general index. The former section will be particularly useful to the reviewer or essay writer studying a particular work.
Peter Dickinson is a well-respected name –as an academic, a composer and a performer. I have had the pleasure of reviewing a number of his recently issued CDs and I am impressed by the wide range of his imagination and technical achievement. His style has allowed him to cross a number of compositional boundaries – from jazz to electronic and from ragtime to aleatory music. This is always done with skill and sympathy and results in interesting and enjoyable music. As a pianist, Dickinson has achieved much for contemporary music, most especially with his sister, the mezzo-soprano, Meriel Dickinson. Apart from his books about Lennox Berkeley, Peter Dickinson has contributed a major study of the ‘popular’ composer-pianist Billy Mayerl and a book about Lord Berners, which highlights this eccentric’s achievement as a composer, a writer and a painter. Other volumes, which reflect the author’s deep interest in American music includes CageTalk: Dialogues with and about John Cage, Samuel Barber Remembered and Copland Connotations: Studies and Interviews. I find that most of these books are on my bookshelves!
I was impressed with the quality of the production of this book. The excellent paper and strong binding is typical of The Boydell Press and adds greatly to the general impression of this book. Included in the text are a fine selection of rare photographs of Berkeley, his family and friends.
‘Lennox Berkeley and his Friends’ is an expensive book, being priced at £45.00. However, when one considers the vast amount of primary material contained in these pages it does put the matter into perspective. The price is similar to many ‘academic’ books on the market at present. Research, in any discipline, does not come cheap. This book is essential reading for all enthusiasts of 20th century music, and will be of tremendous value to all scholars of British music in particular and Western music in general.
Sir Lennox Berkeley by Peter Dickinson
A discussion of his music by Francis Routh
John France interviews Richard Stoker
Of tremendous value to all scholars of British music in particular and Western music in general.