[ This is the fourth and final part of an article on the life of eccentric English
composer Lord Berners.
Click here for Part 1. ]
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.
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.
Beaton was furious at his own portrayal (“Cecily Seymour”), and went
round Berners’ friends confiscating as many copies as he could.
novel was Far from the Madding War, written during World War II.
wrote two volumes of autobiography: First Childhood (1934) and A Distant
by the way, appeared in Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love (1945)
— as Lord Merlin.
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.
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”.
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:
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.
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.
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
Here is a
nicely succinct outline of his music, from Collins Encyclopedia of
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 . . .
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.
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.
“large” works are ballets: The Triumph of Neptune (1926), Luna Park
(1930), A Wedding Bouquet (1937), Cupid and Psyche (1939),
(1946). For orchestra he also wrote Trois Morceaux (1917), Three Pieces
for Orchestra (1919), Fantaisie Espagnole (1919), Fugue for Orchestra
origins of The Triumph of Neptune and Wedding Bouquet are of interest.
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.
ballet is a pantomime in ten tableaux. The suite that we hear on record
uses about half the music Berners originally composed.
Wedding Bouquet was a collaboration between Berners and Gertrude Stein.
wrote the libretto, Berners rewrote it (to no complaints from Stein),
composed the music, designed the costumes and conceived the stage set
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
the 1940s Berners turned his hand to film scores.
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).
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,
Bourgeoises (piano duet).
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
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:
Carosse du Saint-Sacrement, Fanfare, Caprice Péruvien (8.225155)
Sirènes, Caprice Péruvien, Cupid and Psyche (8.223780)
and Piano Music (8.22519)
Triumph of Neptune, L’Uomo dai Baffi, Valses Bourgoises, Polka
Wedding Bouquet, Luna Park March (8.223716).
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).
I have not forgotten Lord Berners’ self-epitaph.
is for you at last:
love of learning
him a burning,
praise to the Lord,
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.
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.
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.
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.
two final quotes to round off this epic of idiosyncrasy.
is by musicologist and track-organ specialist David Thomas Goguen:
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.
not let Berners have the final word himself?
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