Lord Berners
[ Issue 36 ]

Emily Bronto clearly approves of Lord Berners

Emily Bronto clearly approves of Lord Berners

Lord Berners

Tony Rogers here concludes his chronicle of the extraordinary life and times of Gerald Tyrwhitt, a.k.a. Lord Berners.

As you will have gathered, I never did intend including in this essay a great deal about Lord Berners’ music, painting or novels, having been satisfyingly distracted by his personal eccentricities.

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A Bikwil Epitaph for an
Extraordinary Musical Aristocrat
— Tony Rogers


[ This is the fourth and final part of an article on the life of eccentric English  composer Lord Berners.
Click here for Part 1. ]


As you will have gathered, I never did intend including in this essay a great deal about Lord Berners’ music, painting or novels, having been satisfyingly distracted by his personal eccentricities. For those of you who are interested in his creative achievements as well as his day-to-day nonconformity let me offer the following few paragraphs.

First I’ll quickly get his novels and painting out of the way, so as to concentrate on his music, which is what I’m most familiar with.

As far as his place as a novelist goes, he is often described as a mere dabbler. He wrote six books, at least one of which he printed privately in a limited edition. This was his most popular novel, The Girls of Radcliff Hall (1937), a thinly disguised story of his gay friends, with each depicted as a pupil or teacher in a girls’ school. Berners himself is represented as the headmistress.

Cecil Beaton was furious at his own portrayal (“Cecily Seymour”), and went round Berners’ friends confiscating as many copies as he could.

Another novel was Far from the Madding War, written during World War II.

He also wrote two volumes of autobiography: First Childhood (1934) and A Distant Prospect (1945).

Berners, by the way, appeared in Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love (1945) — as Lord Merlin.

Surprisingly, perhaps, in his painting Berners did not present reveal the same quirkiness as in his novels and music. Instead, from childhood he preferred to draw and paint serious pictures, usually landscapes, which are sometimes said to be reminiscent of Jean Corot.

He is described by Amory as “a gifted, industrious, successful amateur, whose pictures are still attributed and give pleasure but are somehow not those of a professional artist”.

Even so, he was able to stage two one-man shows of his art during his lifetime, both to excellent reviews. The edge was taken off the first success (1931), however, by a comment by Evelyn Waugh:

Gerald Berners had an exhibition of pictures and sold them all on the first day which shows what a good thing it is to be a baron.

If you look up his name in an encyclopaedia and unearth him at all (he doesn’t warrant an entry in the current Britannica), you will find Lord Berners inevitably identified, not as a novelist or painter, but as a composer, for despite his relatively small output, it is his musical pieces for which he will be most remembered.

But let me make a clean breast of it right now: Berners was no great musician, but rather a minor figure among many far superior English composers of the 20th century. In fact he is not really to be regarded stylistically as an English composer at all; from the start he was in spirit a European.

Here is a nicely succinct outline of his music, from Collins Encyclopedia of Music:

As a composer he was largely self-taught, though he had some encouragement from Stravinksy. His music is often ironical and parodies the conventions of romanticism, but it is evident that he was himself a romantic at heart. His Gallic leanings were revealed in the French titles he frequently chose for his works. He was most successful as a composer of ballets . . .

Ernest Newman, then critic for the Observer, characterised Berners’ work as “nonsense but logical nonsense . . . inexpressibly comic”, and compared it favourably with “mere harmonic absurdity, in the style that Erik Satie often affects”, which “is so easy that it is not worth doing”.
Yes, it is not difficult to see why Berners was dubbed “the English Satie”. Just take a look at some of his titles for starters: Fragments Psychologiques, Petites Marches Funèbres, Strauss, Strauss et Straus, Valses Bourgeioses.

Harmonically he was not so “modern”; on the other hand his music at times takes unexpected turns in melodic line, rhythm and orchestral colour. Musical allusion and parody abound — in the words of Chambers Biographical Dictionary, his works display “a delicate and witty sense of pastiche”. At the same time they are disciplined and clear-cut, with an economy of means that suits his mostly small musical forms.

His few “large” works are ballets: The Triumph of Neptune (1926), Luna Park (1930), A Wedding Bouquet (1937), Cupid and Psyche (1939), Les Sirènes (1946). For orchestra he also wrote Trois Morceaux (1917), Three Pieces for Orchestra (1919), Fantaisie Espagnole (1919), Fugue for Orchestra (1924).

The origins of The Triumph of Neptune and Wedding Bouquet are of interest.

Although the idea for a ballet on an English theme was Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev’s, the subject itself (The Triumph of Neptune) was proposed by Sacheverell Sitwell, who wrote the “book” for it. He first suggested Sitwell protegé William Walton as the composer, but Diaghilev preferred his next suggestion, Lord Berners.

The ballet is a pantomime in ten tableaux. The suite that we hear on record uses about half the music Berners originally composed.

The later Wedding Bouquet was a collaboration between Berners and Gertrude Stein.

Stein wrote the libretto, Berners rewrote it (to no complaints from Stein), composed the music, designed the costumes and conceived the stage set too.

This ballet is fully choral. The text is described by J.A. Westrup (see below for the reference) as in characteristic Gertrude Stein manner, “full of chattering, inconsequent repetitions, in which sound counts for more than intelligibility . . . [t]hese word-patterns are the exact counterpart of the sound patterns to which Berners is so faithful in his music”.

During the 1940s Berners turned his hand to film scores.

In 1943 there was The Halfway House (Ealing Studios, starring father and daughter Mervyn and Glynnis Johns). In 1947 he composed the music for Nicholas Nickleby (also from Ealing, with a cast that included Sybil Thorndike, Cedric Hardwicke, Stanley Holloway and Bernard Miles).

At various times throughout his life he wrote some satiric songs and quite a few piano pieces, and in fact orchestrated some of the latter for orchestra: Fragments Psycho logiques, Petites Marches Funèbres, Valses Bourgeoises (piano duet).

While little of Berners’ music makes it to the concert hall, I'm happy to report that there are now several CDs available. The first (CDM 5 65098 2), which I like a lot, is on EMI Classics, The Triumph of Neptune, and, apart from the suite from that ballet, includes the Fugue for Orchestra, the Incidental Music to Nicholas Nickleby, Trois Morceaux and Fantaisie Espagnole.

And it looks as though the Marco Polo label, though labelling him as a dilettante, plans to release most, if not all, of Berners’ music. For example, the 2001 catalogue contains:

Le Carosse du Saint-Sacrement, Fanfare, Caprice Péruvien (8.225155)
Les Sirènes, Caprice Péruvien, Cupid and Psyche (8.223780)
Songs and Piano Music (8.22519)
The Triumph of Neptune, L’Uomo dai Baffi, Valses Bourgoises, Polka (8.223711)
A Wedding Bouquet, Luna Park March (8.223716).

For readers wanting more detail on Berners’ music, may I suggest (a) the very detailed liner notes on the EMI and Marco Polo discs, and (b) the thorough and fair-minded Lord Berners by J.A. Westrup, the 12th essay in British Music of Our Time, ed. by A.L. Bacharach (Pelican, 1951).

And, no, I have not forgotten Lord Berners’ self-epitaph.

Here it is for you at last:

Here lies Lord Berners
One of the learners,
His great love of learning
May earn him a burning,
But, praise to the Lord,
He seldom was bored.

While that first line might imply burial, in actual fact Lord Berners was cremated, at the Oxford Crematorium. Apart from Heber Percy, only a few old friends (e.g. John Betjeman and Georgia, Sacheverell Sitwell’s wife) attended. Where his ashes were buried or scattered, or where they stand urned, I have been unable to ascertain.

Unsurprisingly, there are other — almost certainly apocryphal — stories about Berners’ final intentions. According to David Herbert, second son of the Earl of Pembroke, Berners’ will stipulated that he was to be stuffed and hung behind glass over the Faringdon drawing-room mantelpiece.

What Berners did provide in his will was that almost his entire estate, including shares in the Berners Estate Company, was to pass to “Archbitchop” Robert Heber Percy. The latter lived at Faringdon until his own death in 1987.

Before I finish, I should point out that I have omitted a couple of unpleasant events that happened during World War II. One was Berners’ flirtation with Fascism (through the Mosleys). The other was his depression — so severe that he had to seek a course of psychoanalysis.

Here are two final quotes to round off this epic of idiosyncrasy.

The first is by musicologist and track-organ specialist David Thomas Goguen:

I’m sure Lord Berners would have been perfectly normal if he hadn’t gotten swept up in the Wagner craze and then been turned into a monkey by Satie.

And why not let Berners have the final word himself?

There is a good deal to be said for frivolity. Frivolous people, when all is said and done, do less harm in the world than some of our philanthropisers and reformers. Mistrust a man who never has an occasional flash of silliness.

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