Interview with Peter Dickenson re. painting

BBC R3 1983

[3755 words – unchecked]

PD What are Berners’ paintings like?

GB There’s quite a wide range. They start from paintings and drawings done when he was a child; there are a lot of watercolours from when he was at Eton; and a larger number that he painted when he first went to France when he was seventeen. He painted the chateau and the landscape at Resenlieu. He did a number of pastiche paintings – quite a respectable way of learning - including a watercolour version of Turner’s Fighting Temeraire.

His letters to his mother from school at Cheam and Eton are decorated with lots of little drawings. Even the back of the envelope may have an express train, or a narrative sequence of drawings rather like an early comic strip. Fictitious things like Jules Verne stories. Some of the watercolours are very pretty. His mother, although she’s often derided as having no artistic sensibility whatsoever, was quite a talented watercolorist who did similar pictures. With some of the early pictures it’s hard to tell which is which. Hers say “Julia” at the bottom and his say “Gerald” - that’s often the only way of knowing..

A bit later he begins to paint more seriously and he also did decorative covers for his manuscripts, such as the funeral march for the canary, Chinoiserie, the first of Three Pieces for orchestra, and the Dispute between the Butterfly and the Toad. There’s a later one for ‘Red Roses and Red Noses’ too.

He paints more actively from 1926/27 – there’s an account of Diaghilev reproving him for painting when he should have been composing music. Beverly Nichols wrote about his early essays in painting when he was copying – often pictures he owned. He copied a Corot, also a Polemberg

Berners was a collector of paintings, but not in the modern sense of collecting for investment. He bought paintings he was fond of which represented an acute taste – he owned a Matisse, a Derain, a Max Jacob and apparently the largest collection of Corots outside the Louvre. His taste was for early Corot, especially Italian landscapes around Rome.

The first Corot he copied was a Venetian scene. These were now oils which have a more professional quality, technically more accomplished. By 1931 he had enough paintings to justify an exhibition at the Reid-Lefevre Gallery. Then in 1936 he had a second one.

It’s fair to say that his exhibition probably happened because of his fame in other areas. I don’t think his paintings would have attracted a one-man exhibition if he’d been a plumber from Balham!

PD Nevertheless Clive Bell opened the preface to the catalogue by saying; ‘This is exquisite painting’? [check actual words]

GB He said this was accomplished painting and drew attention to Berners’ debt to Corot. A reviewer, Herbert Fuerst drew attention to the fact that Berners improves on Corot. When you look at Corot and then at the Berners copy you find that in some ways Berners’ composition is more stable, symmetrical and balanced. The colours are different – he had a fondness for russet browns and dark greens. You see very little red. Although he was taking a nineteenth-century model he was adjusting it to a different state of composition.

PD So this is a serious strand right through his output from childhood?

GB Yes. The last piece of visual work I know of was a drawing in 1949, the year before he died, but he was not as active as in the late 20s and early 30s.

PD He was a modernist in his music during World War 1 so why was his painting so tame by comparison?

GB I don’t think it necessarily was. In some respects his taste in painting was more conservative than his taste in music. But by the mid-1930s his taste in music had shifted too. He wasn’t painting actively at the time when he was a musical modernist. So in a sense his artistic development is like a relay race – one thing is winning for a time then another takes over. By the 1930s his sensibility was more restrained.

PD With the ballet scores his music is much milder.

GB In some ways: in other ways not. Because his music is more mild it’s sometimes that bit more subversive perhaps.

PD Berners writes ballet music that is functional; Ashton has told us how practical he was about making cuts; he looks like a composer doing a job of work effectively and not obtruding. How is that subversive?

GB That isn’t subversive if that’s all he was doing. What you’ve described is the surface appearance of his work. That’s a respectable activity and there have been many composers who work in that way – many now forgotten, such as Gavin Gordon, who achieved a certain amount of fame with ballet music.

PD Many great composers have fulfilled a need. If I’m only describing the surface of the ballet scores, tell me what I’m missing.

GB I think it’s not necessarily the case that by the 1930s Berners stops being a modernist. What he does is to apply the kind of edge we see in the earlier more abstract work with some of the same characteristics to work which appears to be light and occasionally frivolous. That seems to be quite a clever deception, something which appears to be light and often isn’t. There’s a dark side to some of the works from 1930 onwards. A Wedding Bouquet has a number of sinister elements to it, both in terms of its narrative and the way he approaches things musically. One has here a situation where a composer is apparently writing something very pleasant and easy to listen to and at the same behaving in an unorthodox way, I think he still is subverting certain kinds of musical practices even in the later ballets.

PD You mean the kind of waltzes he uses in A Wedding Bouquet as something to do with parody?

GB Parody is there all the time. If you look at the waltzes he wrote throughout his life you see what they have in common – the second of the Three Pieces, the Valses Bourgeoises, the waltzes from The Triumph of Neptune, A Wedding Bouquet and Les Sirènes. The waltzes in the ballets appear in a theatrical context, where the audience is paying less attention to the music than in a concert performance, but the same kind of actions are going on in the music.

PD You could apply that approach to the music of Satie, who also moved to ballet later in life.

GB One can draw comparisons between Berners and Satie at many levels. They were both taken up by Diaghilev – Satie with Parade, Berners with The Triumph of Neptune. At a similar stage in their creative careers they both developed doubts about their ability: both were, in principle, self-taught and went back to study sixteenth-century counterpoint. That’s a remarkable similarity in terms of their understanding of their own musical equipment. There are other correspondences such as their habit of writing pieces in groups of three, their satirical edge, and their preoccupation with towers. The principal difference, of course, is their respective wealth. In an oddly inverted way that makes them similar. Berners had enough money to pursue a free artistic career, whereas Satie, unlike Stravinsky, despised money and was free too. So their wealth or lack of it meant that they ended up in a similar situation, that is money was not a concern for either of them.

PD That’s nice. Satie’s servants were imaginary: Berners’ were very real.

GB Berners’ tower was real: Satie’s imaginary. Berners was living out Satie’s fantasy world. He was dubbed ‘the English Satie’ in a book by Cecil Gray (1926). We needn’t take it too seriously because Berners wrote on the title page of his own copy: ‘the silliest book on music ever written’. Then he annotates many pages in the copy later, though interestingly not the page where he is compared to Satie. Gray rambles on about Stravinsky representing the spirit of the age, the zeitgeist. Berners just put a line through it and wrote: ‘balls’!

PD What do Berners writings consist of?

GB There are the published novels and autobiography; there is The Girls of Radcliff Hall for private circulation; there are letters, notebooks from childhood onwards, plays, poems, anecdotes and essays. There are 73 notebooks stretching from the mid-1920s until virtually the day he died. There was hardly a day when he didn’t work in some way – either painting, writing music or prose.

In some ways it could be argued that people who do that can often duck problems that arise in one of the genres. If you’re in a tricky spot with a piece of music you can slip off and write an essay instead. But I don’t think that was necessarily the case with Berners - who seems, incidentally, to have generally worked early in the morning.

The published writing is quite extensive – the five novels, two volumes of autobiography and then a later unpublished one based on his time after Eton, in Resenlieu and Dresden.

There’s no evidence he intended to write more about his life. The autobiographies are extremely entertaining, factually quite accurate. But when Berners writes in his forties about his childhood he transposes on to his childhood his attitudes as a middle-aged man. He writes about himself, for example, as an artistic child not very interested in country pursuits. But the evidence from his mother’s diaries and his letters to his mother show a different picture. We have him hunting, fishing, canoeing, and swimming. When he was in Constantinople he swam the Bosphorous and kept horses on the Asian side. He was vigorous and athletic. He was not a sickly wan child of the Secret Garden variety.

PD Robert Heber-Percy has confirmed that he liked hunting even in the Faringdon days.

GB I can believe that.

PD We’ve seen how important his painting and writing were to him. What about the music?

GB The Egyptian Princess is the earliest surviving piece of music. We know of a march he wrote when he studied with Kretschmar in Dresden. He was unfortunate in his choice of teachers.

PD What did he study with Kretschmar?

GB Pastiche composition, orchestration. He took Kretschmar very seriously, writing home to his mother that he was a well-known composer and professor who’d written operas. One of them was on the Fair Melusine and Mendelssohn said he had to write his own overture on t he same subject to rid his ears of Kretschmar’s piece!

PD Berners says nothing about any of this in his essay on Dresden. What’s the next music?

GB We know of him arranging music for a Christmas pantomime at the Embassy in Constantinople. Then we come to the music published by Chesters starting with the Lieder Album.

PD By then he was the most advanced English composer up to that point in history?

GB Between the Lieder Album and the Funeral Marches we have the Dispute between the Butterfly and the Toad, which I would put at 1914-15. I think it misleading to ever call Berners an English composer. He was, of course, an Englishman but had a low opinion of the idea of English music. We see him parodying English composers mercilessly with Emmanuel Smith in Count Omega and Francis Paltry in Far from the Madding War. He wrote a short essay on English Music which is quite scathing about the way English music is promoted abroad. He refers to Professor so-and-so’s oratorio called Zion’s Trumpets. That’s his image of English composition. So he doesn’t see himself as an English but rather as an international composer.

PD Everybody’s confirmed that he made fun of everything so you wouldn’t expect him to take English music seriously either. But you’re objecting to him as an English composer?

GB The point I’m making is that he wasn’t actually composing in England but in Rome. That’s a different artistic milieu from Vaughan Williams, Holst or others of that kind.

PD He seems to have been close to Casella?

GB Yes, though there’s little evidence for Casella having taught Berners. He showed his work to Casella as he did to Stravinsky – as advisers. By the time Berners was on friendly terms with them he was already writing in his modernist style. The annotations in Casella’s hand on the score of L’Uomo dai Baffi, the pieces he wrote for the futurist marionette theatre in 1918, show that Casella was making adjustments – but as a conductor, much as Lambert might do in A Wedding Bouquet.

PD Do you see the Funeral Marches and the Fragments Psychologiques as remarkably original? What are Berners’ sources?

GB The early music has evidence of considerable originality and I think Stravinsky was right to point to Berners as being one of the best English composers of the century. He didn’t produce a lot of work but what he did produce was remarkable. Fortunately Berners gave us some clues about his origins and produced a chronology – Chopin, Bach, Wagner then, quite importantly, Richard Strauss. When Berners was studying in Dresden he attended one of the first performances of Elektra and saw as many of Strauss’ operas as he could. He bought the vocal scores. Then there was Debussy, who also had an effect on him. A little later he became aware of Schoenberg and Stravinsky after that, and this is a sequence he himself gives. The Schoenberg would have been the Six Little Pieces, Op. 19, and Ewartung, of which he had a full-score. Perhaps the Six Little Pieces have a relationship with the last of the Fragments Psychologiques. There is certainly a connection with Stravinsky in the piano writing.

Those are more like inspirational sources than direct musical material. It’s a puzzle where composers get their ideas from but often it’s by listening to other music and seeing where they go from there. That seems to be the way Berners went about it. He studied this music and tried to understand what kind of procedures were going on, then turned whatever he heard there to his own advantage. That’s where evidence of his originality comes in. His music doesn’t sound like Strauss, Schoenberg or Stravinsky although there’s an occasional touch of Debussy in the slower piano pieces like Le Poisson d’Or.

This did reflect the climate of artistic activity in Rome at that time. One would be hard pressed to say that Berners was taking ideas from Casella or even Malipiero. In some ways one could point to the obverse of that. In 1920 Malipiero wrote a set of three piano pieces called Omaggi where each one is parodistic: ‘To a Parrot’; ‘To an Elephant’; and ‘To an Idiot’. This is very close to the conceptual satire of Berners’ Three Funeral Marches. So it’s a two-way process in a particularly vigorous artistic climate when the futurist manifestos were proliferating from 1911-12. Some were in English - one of the first came out in the Daily Mail.

Berners was also a friend of the futurist painter Balla and owned a number of his pictures which were in his apartment in Rome. He was in the Diaghilev circle and through that met Larionov and Gontcharova, who were to decorate his scores. Berners responded to this climate of artistic activity, in many ways as an equal partner. It would be naïve to say that everyone took a cue from Stravinsky or fed off the futurist manifesto.

PD After this period in Rome Berners’ music becomes less dissonant, even the opera.

GB I think the opera is important as a transitional piece, never heard in this country until the BBC broadcast (1983). Berners was predominantly a composer of miniatures but Le Carosse is his longest single work. It represents a partial shift in musical language, although it’s close to some of the songs. As with the ballets and films, although these are more functional, there is a more accommodating kind of music for a different public.

PD This is Berners’ centenary. What impact can we expect him to have on later generations?

GB I find him very interesting as a model, apart from the music itself. Any composer whose music has merit will, at some stage, attract attention. There’s the perennial difficulty about how composers get heard. Berners’ music wasn’t heard much from the end of the Second World War until the early 1970s when you revived the songs and piano music. But the Three Orchestral Pieces and the Fantasie Espagnole are tremendous. The Fantasie is a skilful orchestral exercise rather like late Rimsky-Korsakov, an orchestral showpiece which could bring the house down.

PD Did Berners spread himself too thin?

GB Quite the reverse. I think if he’d spent more time on his music he could have become a duller composer. He did just the right amount of everything. Berners was very interested in cooking – he knew just how to concoct a successful recipe. He knew how to organise his time and focus attention on different artistic activities. My own feeling is that he did just the right amount of everything – my principal sadness is that he died too soon. If he’d lived into his eighties I don’t think he would have become a boring old man!

PD Didn’t the war upset his creative balance?

GB Absolutely. He wrote a very sad letter to Gertrude Stein at the outbreak of the war. They’d worked together on A Wedding Bouquet and after its success they became good friends and planned another collaboration, Doctor Faustus lights the Lights. It was discussed in the press, designs were drawn up and Berners began writing music for it. Then he told Stein he couldn’t do anything and suggested Virgil Thomson, an acute observation. But she preferred Berners and so nothing was done until it became a play with incidental music long after Berners died.

It’s important to bear in mind the credibility he had for other composers. Stravinsky took him seriously; Bliss, Goossens and Sauguet did; Lambert especially. Sorabji – one of the greatest British composers – took him very seriously. Milhaud and Goossens did the first performance of the Valses Bourgeoises as a piano duet. Berners was friendly with all the members of Les Six. A diary entry in December 1920 simply says: ‘Dined Les Six’. Shortly after that he went to see the play of Le Carosse, which he then wrote as an opera.

His peers had a high regard for him, which tends to be forgotten when people think of him as a dilettante who flitted on and off the musical stage and, when he got in trouble, daubed a few pictures or drafted a few novels. He was a very serious composer and at the end of his life his greatest anxiety was that he should be remembered as a composer. He felt that was what he did best. John Betjeman has confirmed that he wondered what would become of his music. Nevertheless he did other things supremely well too. There are touches in his writing which equal Evelyn Waugh or Ronald Firbank.

PD Are there differences between the writer of autobiography and the novellas?

GB There are fictionalised elements in the autobiography just as there are autobiographical elements in the fiction. He blurs the distinction. Far from the Madding War is keyed into the life Berners was leading in Oxford in the war. The characters appear disguised and some of them are composite – even the portrait of himself as Lord Fitzcricket has an element of the Sitwells in it at one point. In the autobiographies the names are changed – his grandmother is Lady Bourchier instead of Lady Berners. The houses are given different names. The various schoolboys and even the school have their names changed, partly because he was scathing about some of the masters.

First Childhood was one of the earliest things he wrote but the very first was The Camel, which overlapped. It was partly inspired by reading Dashiel Hammet who was recommended by Gertrude Stein. Like a number of writers, especially of detective fiction, he wrote his first piece while he was ill in bed. The elements are blurred in The Girls of Radcliff Hall.

PD Is that interesting if you don’t know who the characters are based on?

GB I can see reasons why those who are portrayed in The Girls of Radcliff Hall might prefer to wait until they’re long since gone before it appears but there’s nothing dreadful even if one knows who the people are. If one doesn’t, it reads as a very good pastiche of an Angela Brazil story, many of which also have undercurrents of lesbianism.

PD We’ve talked about how he entered the professional world of music but what about literature?

GB He was a close friend of Evelyn Waugh and an even closer friend of Ronald Firbank. It was Berners who buried him in the wrong cemetery in Rome p- assuming that he would want to be buried alongside Keats, and only discovering later that Firbank was Catholic.. Firbank changed a line in Valmouth as a result of hearing Berners’ music. At a party in the novel the orchestra starts playing a capricious waltz and Firbank tries to identify the composer. ‘Is it Tchaikovsky? Is it Scriabin?’ Those were the only two composers mentioned when an excerpt from the story was first published in a magazine. But when the book was finally published he adds to that ‘Lord Berners’. By then Firbank had heard the Three Orchestral Pieces played as an interlude for Diaghilev’s ballet and the second is the Valse Sentimentale, which Firbank had identified quite rightly as a very creepy sinister waltz. Firbank entrusted Berners, too, with his final manuscripts.

One can see certain elements in Berners’ writings which relate to Firbank, especially some of the unpublished short stories. He borrows heavily on Henry James and to a certain extent Ibsen - and Max Beerbohm too, who was a friend in Berners’ later life.

He was close to the professional world of literature. Berners read a number of his works in manuscript to David Cecil to see how he reacted. His play, The Furies, was put on in Oxford in 1942. It is a light frivolous piece, a bit Noel Cowardish, but with elements of Firbank such as the setting in Haiti. There’s a late play too – a translation of a piece by Voltaire called Saul, which he did at the end of his life in 1949 and showed to William Plomer. As a child he wrote a play that he showed to his mother who thought it was morbid and that he should write something lighter.

Professional writers have envied the easy style that Berners had with his beautiful limpid phrases.

PD Did he make drafts in the notebooks?

GB The style is there straight away and it was often a question of simply polishing up an adverb, altering the punctuation or putting one sentence before another. But he did always write first, in pencil, in a notebook before putting anything into the world – even the most apparently casual letter.

PD You see him as a perfectionist in every way?

GB Yes: a real craftsman.