The Berners Case
written for The Guardian, February 2003
I have an old suitcase which used to belong to Lord Berners. His heir Robert Heber-Percy was about to throw it out when I saw that the ‘rubbish’ inside was in fact music manuscripts. I intervened, went through the papers and was duly given the suitcase, which I still use. At that time little of his music was recorded or performed, his books were out of print, and his paintings (admittedly the least important part of his output) dispersed and uncatalogued. Now virtually all the music is available on CD, and the novels and parts of his own autobiography have been republished.
There is, however, no particular reason to celebrate the life and work of Lord Berners today rather than any other day - there is no anniversary or imminent book launch. But I find that few days pass without my thinking of him in some way, partly perhaps because of the suitcase which now occasionally houses my own manuscripts. From 1976 to 1983, his centenary year, I was the ‘official biographer’ and although I wrote a number of pieces on him, arranged exhibitions, and edited some of his unpublished scores I eventually had to take the decision to either be a biographer or a composer (and there are people from each side who think I made the wrong decision). I eventually passed all my research on to Mark Amory who published the biography in 1998. Mark admits quite freely that, as he puts it, I know “more about Gerald Berners than any man alive” (sic!) and that he is not comfortable when discussing the music.
Lord Berners is probably familiar to many from his fictionalised portrait, as “Lord Merlin” in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. And this portrait is both affectionate and not wildly inaccurate. Osbert Sitwell said of him that “in the years between the wars Berners did more to civilise the wealthy than anyone in England. Through London’s darkest drawing rooms....he moved.. a sort of missionary of the arts.” Cecil Beaton talks about how he first saw Berners from a distance, entering a Venetian palazzo, and clearly wanted to be a part of this world. Berners, from his side, although liking Beaton, lampooned him mercilessly in the homosexual roman-à-clef The Girls of Radcliffe Hall where he appears as ‘Cecily’, and Berners as the headmistress. (Beaton tried to get all copies of the privately circulated book destroyed, but fortunately John Betjeman had put his copy in the British Library....)
In spite of his picaresque life and many eccentricities, it ought to be, and is, as a composer that Berners is best known. His artistic output was not only music, of course, and his output in any case was not particularly large. There are about 30 works in all and there are occasional gaps of up to three years between one piece and the next. But what he did produce shows that he was one of the few truly original English composers of the last century. However, he also published 6 novels in his later years, 2 volumes of autobiography and had two one-man exhibitions of his paintings in the 1930’s. Beyond that he had many close friends within the worlds of literature, music and art, and was closely involved with the development of British ballet with his friend and ally Constant Lambert. They were the only two English composers commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, and of Berners’ five ballets, two were choreographed by Georges Balanchine and three by Frederick Ashton - not a bad track record.
The bulk of his music was written between the two world wars - it was in 1918 that he inherited the title - though his earliest successful pieces were written before that, and accepted for publication, while he was a diplomatic attaché at the British Embassy in Rome. There he became friends with Stravinsky, who maintained his high regard for Berners’ work (even in 1950 Stravinsky told Edward James that Berners was the best composer of his generation), with Casella (who gave the premiere of the Three Little Funeral Marches in Rome), with Futurist artists (he owned at least one Balla painting) and he provided music, along with Casella, Malipiero and Bartok, for Depero’s Futurist marionette theatre. He found himself in Diaghilev’s circle - based in Rome during part of the First World War - and, later, Diaghilev commissioned The Triumph of Neptune from him for the Ballets Russes. Stravinsky’s trust in Berners’ musicianship is shown by the fact that he enlisted his assistance to orchestrate the Song of the Volga Boatmen in 1917 (replacing “God Save the Tsar” at the last moment). He was also friends with Russian Futurists Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova who provided designs for some of his scores.
Both Stravinsky and Casella were astonished at the original conceptions and advanced style of someone whose musical education had been so desultory. His principal teacher, for example, had been the German composer Kretschmer, whose opera The Fair Melusine was so despised by Mendelssohn that he wrote an overture of the same title in order to rid his ears of Kretschmer’s music. But Berners learned his craft in a practical way, by attending performances (he was at the premieres in Germany of Strauss’s Salome and Elektra) and acquiring scores such as Reger’s Lieder Album in preparation for his own collection of Lieder. While others in England were looking to the pastoral for inspiration his outlook was European and modernist. At the first ISCM Festival, in 1922, it was he who acted as translator when the young William Walton met Alban Berg.
Although his work after acquiring the peerage becomes musically more accessible, this is more because he wrote almost exclusively for the theatre from that time on than for any other reason. The apparent easiness of, say, The Triumph of Neptune (his Ballets Russes score of 1926) is deceptive and there are many curious elements in the piece, not least a storm scene scored for percussion alone, unheard of in the mid-20’s, with the violinists playing flexatones! Unfortunately this section does not appear in the Suite which is occasionally performed and the full ballet score has not been heard since the mid 1920’s. However, perhaps the ballet which has been most successful is the one is almost entirely his. For the choral ballet A Wedding Bouquet (Frederick Ashton 1936) he not only wrote the music, but also provided 30 costume designs, the painted backdrop and curtain and made many alterations to his collaborator Gertrude Stein’s published text for the libretto. It is curious that no one seems to have taken the initiative to produce this alongside the other great choral ballet based on rustic weddings, Stravinsky’s Les Noces (Stravinsky’s Russian weddings versus Berners’ French). His only opera Le Carosse du Saint Sacrement has the disadvantage - like Busoni’s Arlecchino, or Zemlinsky’s The Birthday of the Infanta - of being a half-evening piece and depends on being part of a mixed programme for production. This has not happened since its first performances in 1924 when it was teamed up with Sauguet’s Le Plumet du Colonel and Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat at the Theatre des Champs Elysées, home for the premiere of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps (and sixty years later for the Paris premiere of my own opera Medea). At the time of the first performance Stravinsky took great pleasure in playing through Berners’ piano duets, Valses Bourgoises, (which contained, according to Stravinsky, the four most impudent bars in all music!) with Gabriel Buffet-Picabia in her Paris apartment.
When the Ballets Russes broke up after Diaghilev’s death in 1929, Berners used the remnants of the company for the very beautiful, though seldom heard (let alone seen) ballet, Luna Park, produced for Cochrane’s 1930 revue and choreographed again by Balanchine. But by then he had embarked on parallel artistic endeavours culminating in his first one-man show of paintings at the Reid and Lefèvre Gallery in 1931. In his lifetime he exhibited over 100 oil paintings all of which are now in private collections. Most were landscapes, often taking Corot as his model. Berners owned many Corot’s and, in fact his collection was the largest outside the Louvre. He found “the directness and simplicity of Corot’s early paintings.... the perfect method of dealing with landscape”. He admired landscapes by Matisse and Derain, which he also owned, for similar reasons. When I used to stay at Faringdon my bedroom contained not only works by Corot, but also Polemberg, Dali and Dürer. His taste in visual art was impeccable, though his own paintings are largely conventional At the same time, though, he maintained friendships with the avant-garde (Salvador Dali, for example, was a visitor to Faringdon, and Berners arranged for the hire of the deep-sea diver’s outfit for Dali’s lecture at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936 - “How deep is Mr Dali going to dive, my lord?” “To the depth of his subconscious” replied Berners without a flicker).
He also began to publish books, starting with the first volume of his autobiography First Childhood (1934), and followed by The Camel (1936). Both Evelyn Waugh and Max Beerbohm, masters of prose style themselves in different ways, were astonished by the easy grace of Berners’ prose. But this fluency was achieved only after many drafts, and even the most apparently simple letter was the result of several elaborately reworked sketches. Later books were written quite quickly, although each one contains jewels of observation. Count Omega (1941), a hilarious parody of the kind of composer and aesthetic which Berners found abhorrent was even subject to advanced litigation when William Walton felt that he was about to be lampooned. Berners responded by threatening an injunction to prevent Walton ingratiating himself into his novels!! Emanuel Smith, the composer in Count Omega, in fact is not Walton - he could be Edmund Rubbra - but there are countless portraits of friends and former friends scattered throughout the books. He portrays himself as Lord Fitzcricket in Far from the Madding War, a picture that is almost vicious in its ruthless near-accuracy: “He was always referred to by gossip-writers as ‘the versatile peer’ and indeed there was hardly a branch of art in which he had not at one time or another dabbled.... He was astute enough to realise that, in Anglo-Saxon countries, art is more highly appreciated if accompanied by a certain measure of eccentric publicity.... When travelling on the Continent he had a small piano in his car....” Later he described himself (Lord Fitzcricket, that is) oxymoronically as “fundamentally superficial”.
In fact the ‘piano’ was a clavichord and his chauffeur told me how the tool kit had been removed from under the front seat of the Rolls in order to house the instrument’s case. Berners’ would use it to practice, or to compose, in hotels when travelling to and from his house in Rome (a wonderful address: 1 Foro Romano). The many stories about his eccentricities, though, are almost all true. He did indeed, for example, build the last traditional folly tower in England, clearly visible outside Faringdon on the road from Oxford to Swindon. The architect was Lord Gerald Wellesley, later 7th Duke of Wellington who, John Betjeman said, was the only modern architect with a style named after him - the “Gerry-built “ style, and the tower’s Classical/ Gothic hybrid arose from confusion between architect and patron, who arrived from Italy to find a partially completed 100-foot Classical tower. Berners had wanted Gothic and so a Gothic top, the viewing room, was added. The notice at the entrance, though, was Berners’ own: “Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”.
In the final analysis he will ultimately be remembered for his work, and that is what he wanted. There were few days in his life when he did not pursue some form of artistic activity and his craftsmanship was meticulous in each. I never met Berners of course, I was only 7 when he died in 1950, and have little in common with him except our initials, but one aspect of Gerald Berners as a person that I like is the fact that he worked artistically even though he had no need to, a form of artistic purity. This is what I think Stravinsky meant when he said that Berners was an amateur, but in the “best, literal, sense”. Paradoxically this allies him with Erik Satie in that art-politics and -economics (and I include in this the sense of setting up and following a ‘career path’) had nothing to do with the production of art for either of them. It was as a result of Cecil Gray's book A Survey of Contemporary Music that Gerald was referred to as the "English Satie" from a glib sentence which reads " in the music of Goossens, Bliss and Berners we find our English Ravel, Stravinsky and Satie". Although Gerald's own copy of this book was heavily annotated (and to the title page he added the words "one of the silliest books about music ever written") it is interesting that there are no annotations alongside the reference to his connection with Satie, probably the purest artist of all. Unfortunately the only time that Satie ever referred to Berners, when he described him as “an amateur” he meant it in the pejorative sense.... But Satie is a different case.