Sunday, 4 November 2012

Lennox Berkeley and friends – a fascinating book of writings that will have a wide appeal

When I started writing my blog Celebrating British Music I always realised that it would probably run to more than one blog, even though I was only covering the period of the British music renaissance from around 1860.

I surprised myself when I found that I eventually ended up with a six part blog which, even then, left out many composers that, I am sure, many followers would have expected to be included.

One composer that definitely had to make it into my blog was Sir Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989). Berkeley is one of those composers that, along with such other composers as Rubbra and Rawsthorne, made a distinctive contribution to British music of the 20th century, yet have not had the public profile that they deserve.

Boydell Press have just published a fascinating book called Lennox Berkeley and friends, a collection of writings, letters and interviews that give a wonderful insight, not only into the composer himself, but also into other music figures of the age.

Boydell Press
344 pages
ISBN 9781843837855
Edited by Peter Dickinson, who has already given us The Music of Lennox Berkeley also published by Boydell Press, this new book contains a fascinating collection of writings including his series of reports that he wrote from Paris for the Monthly Musical Record, letters to his teacher Nadia Boulanger, a selection of Berkeley’s later Writings and Talks, four interviews with the composer, extracts from Berkeley’s diaries, interviews with performers, composers, family and friends, as well as a full catalogue of works and sixteen pages of black and white plates.

There is an interesting introduction by Peter Dickinson that sets out some biographical information before the section that has the ‘reports’ from Paris that Berkeley wrote between 1929 and 1934 for the Monthly Musical Record. These give a fascinating insight into the musical life of Paris of the time; a musical life that Berkeley was well involved in with his studies under Nadia Boulanger and friendship with Poulenc. These reports were not from someone merely in the thrall of other composers, as Berkeley could be quite outspoken in his views. He seems to have admired Stravinsky immensely whilst commenting on Milhaud’s works as ‘never seem to be satisfactory’ and ‘a little patchy’ (Viola Concerto).

In a report from December 1933 Berkeley shows his range of musical interests when he reveals his appreciation of the works of Palestrina, Lottie, Schutz and Gluck which he had recently heard.

Berkeley’s letters to Nadia Boulanger during the period 1924-1974 contain many fascinating comments on his own works, the works of other composers, as well as performers such as Gieseking, Stravinsky playing his own Duo Concertante with the violinist, Samuel Dushkin, Walton (whose First Symphony he didn’t seem to like), Copland, and of course Britten.

He writes from London about being ‘suffocated with Sibelius, Delius, Ireland and Vaughan Williams’.  He is in Paris in October 1939 when he writes to Boulanger about his concerns over the impending war. The letters continue throughout the war, from London, where he writes about his diminished pacifist views, through the 1950’s with the deaths of Dinu Lipati and Kathleen Ferrier to the later letters where he asks if Nadia Boulanger can spare time to see a young John Taverner and his father when they visit Paris. These are just a few of the tantalising subjects that will be found in these letters.

The selection of Berkeley’s later Writings and Talks (1943-1982) includes writings on such themes as Britten and his First String Quartet, Modern French Ballet Music (1946), British Music Today (1949), an insightful analysis of Britten’s Spring Symphony, Faure, Poulenc – An Obituary, Lili Boulanger, Alan Rawsthorne, Ravel, and a 1982 Centenary Tribute to Stravinsky. In Concert-Going in 1963 he compares the riot that broke out at the premiere of The Rite of Spring, with modern audiences and the apathy to which they ‘seem so often to be sunk.’ There is also a poignant musing on old age written in 1981.

In the four fascinating interviews with Lennox Berkeley made between 1973 and 1978, the first, with Peter Dickinson on the occasion of Berkeley’s 70th birthday, he recalls his study under Nadia Boulanger and her teaching methods. In the second with C.B. Cox, Alan Young and Michael Schmidt, in 1974, there are insights into his view of a number of French and English composers. In the third interview from 1978, on the occasion of Berkeley’s 75th birthday, again with Peter Dickinson, he again talks of his own music, whilst touching on Britten and John Tavener. In the fourth of the interviews, with Michael Oliver, again from 1978, he discusses his symphonies.

Then there are the extracts from Berkeley’s diaries from 1966-1982. Berkeley by his own admission was not a very consistent diarist and, in one entry from 1978 he writes,’ Complete failure to keep this diary during the first months of this year.’  But other entries are much longer with many insights such as his entry in December 1970 about Michael Tippett’s opera The Knot Garden.

There are anecdotes such as when a party of German guests arrived during a dinner in Monte Carlo in 1968, where Berkeley was with fellow jury members, who included, amongst others, Nadia Boulanger and the Danish composer Vagn Holmboe or, on another occasion, when he records the Queen Mother’s view of certain Norfolk houses. Conductors don’t get overlooked as with Sir Adrian Boult, of whom he writes, surprisingly, ‘He’s not a very inspiring conductor, but extremely efficient…’

Part VI of the book has interviews with such people as Julian Bream, Norman del Mar, Colin Horsley, John Manduell, Nicholas Maw, Malcolm Williamson, Freda Berkeley, Michael Berkeley, Basil Douglas and Desmond Shawe-Taylor.

Norman del Mar has many interesting things to say and, as would be expected, the family members, his widow Freda and son Michael are able to give real personal insights into the man himself.

In the final part of the book there is a transcript of a memorial address given by Sir John Manduell at Westminster Cathedral on 20th March 1990. Finally there is a catalogue of works, bibliography, index of works and an excellent general index.

This is a beautifully produced book that will appeal to many, not just Lennox Berkeley enthusiasts or even just lovers of English music. Having as it does so much about the music of Britain and France during the fascinating interwar and post war years, it will have a wide interest.

The publication of this book was supported by the Lennox Berkeley Society


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