By Tony Scotland


Lennox Randal François Berkeley was born at Sunningwell near Oxford in 1903. His father, Hastings Berkeley, was a captain in the Royal Navy and the free-thinking author of some recondite works of scholarship on bi-metallism, the mysticism of mathematics and Japanese impressions of the West. His mother was a daughter of the watercolour painter Sir James Harris, British Consul in Nice, and a German baroness fond of theatricals. His paternal grandparents were George, 7th Earl of Berkeley, and Cécile Drummond de Melfort (descended from the French ducs de Melfort and the Jacobite Earls of Perth and of Seaforth). If George and Cécile had been free to arrange the timing of their marriage more conventionally, Lennox, in due course, would have inherited the earldom and Berkeley Castle with its vast estates – and the world might never have had his music.

Like all enduring music, Berkeley’s is instantly recognizable. Whether it’s a piano prelude or a symphony, a song or a ballet score, a string quartet, a Mass or a grand opera, the hallmarks are clarity, economy, polish and a taste for the bittersweet. Though he was a painstaking and meticulous craftsman, he was also remarkably prolific and produced no fewer than 226 individual works in a working life of about sixty-five years.

He found his voice, and learned to trust its individuality, under the influence of the legendary French composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, to whom he was introduced by Ravel in 1926, and it is no coincidence that he should have found his faith as a Roman Catholic in Paris at about the same time. From then till his final illness in the 1980s he dedicated himself to writing music that expresses not only his exploration of new ideas, but his personal vision of life and the God who created it.

As a boy Lennox Berkeley was introduced to music by his father's pianola rolls, a godmother who had studied piano and singing in Paris, and an aunt who was a salon composer. But music was already in his genes: three grand ancestresses were notable, if now forgotten, composers, and his great-great-great grandfather, Lord Fortrose, actually made music with the Mozarts.

Educated at the Dragon School in Oxford, Gresham's at Holt in Norfolk, and St. George's, Harpenden (where one of his first compositions was performed), Berkeley went up to Merton College, Oxford, in 1922, to read French. Although he had no intention, then, of making music his profession, it was certainly music that absorbed most of his time. He continued to compose and play the piano, took organ lessons from W. H. Harris and Henry Ley, improvised an accompaniment for a silent film by Evelyn Waugh, and became the first composer to set the poetry of his friend W. H. Auden (first sung by a subsequent Poet Laureate, C. Day Lewis). Uncharacteristically he also found time for rowing, and coxed the Merton eight to a famous win.

The meeting with Ravel in 1926 was a watershed. Lennox was still only self-taught, and all too aware of his lack of technique. But Ravel was impressed by his gift for melody and harmony, and recommended a period of study with Nadia Boulanger to provide the formal disciplines his talent would need to flourish. The Boulanger school wasn’t easy, but Berkeley took to its rigour and focus, and soon became a favourite of the godlike ‘Ma’moiselle’.

He stayed on in Paris till 1932, studying counterpoint, developing his own unique musical language, giving, attending and reviewing concerts, and mixing with many of the great artistic figures of the time, including Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Cocteau, Segovia, Honegger, Francaix, Auric, his special friend Poulenc and his enigmatic mentor Ravel, with whom he developed an especially close relationship.

On leaving Paris Berkeley went south to his parents’ villas in the hills above Nice and on Cap Ferrat.  There he fell in with the Somerset Maugham set, playing tennis and golf, going to parties and concerts and, at Monte Carlo, the ballet. He was working on a major new piece – an oratorio that would eventually surface as Jonah – and hoping to take it to London to launch his career there. But the sickness of both his parents delayed his plans.   

In 1936, after the deaths of his father and then his mother, Berkeley went to Barcelona as one of the British representatives of new British music at the annual festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music, and there he met Benjamin Britten, with whom he collaborated on Mont Juic, an orchestral suite based on Catalan folk dances. For a year the two young men lived together in a mill house at Snape in Suffolk – till the outbreak of war, when Berkeley was displaced in Britten’s affections, and Britten went to America with his new friend Peter Pears.

Remaining in London, Lennox Berkeley found a job at the BBC building orchestral programmes, and volunteered for war work as an air raid warden in the Blitz. In 1946, at the age of 43, and to the surprise of all his friends – particularly the bachelors with whom he was sharing a flat in Pimlico – he married his secretary at the BBC, Freda Bernstein. She was the orphaned daughter of a Jewish entrepreneur who had fled the pogroms of Russian Poland and made a fortune in boots and property in the booming iron and coal fields of South Wales. The alchemy of Lennox and Freda created a conspicuously happy and fruitful partnership which produced three sons (including the composer Michael).

After leaving the BBC at the end of the war Berkeley became professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music, where he stayed till 1968, teaching such diverse talents as David Bedford, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Professor Peter Dickinson (author of the definitive work on Berkeley’s music), Brian Ferneyhough, Sir John Manduell (founder President of the Lennox Berkeley Society), the late Nicholas Maw and Sir John Tavener.

Knighted in 1974, Berkeley was president of the Composers' Guild, the Performing Right Society, the British Music Society and the Cheltenham Festival of Music and Master of the Musicians' Company. He died in St. Charles’s Hospital, Ladbroke Grove, London, at Christmas 1989, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Berkeley’s public honours were at odds with his essentially private nature, which was more comfortable with reticence than rhetoric. All that he might have said about himself, his life and his faith, he says in his music – if only unconsciously, since he firmly believed that music was an intellectual abstraction, no less real than life, but entirely separate from it. The raw material springs from a profound and mysterious source. The defining qualities of his sound are partly a legacy of his French ancestry and partly learned from Fauré via Boulanger and Ravel. Like his teachers, Berkeley was influenced by Fauré’s Romantic sensibilities and the classical form which keeps them discreetly in check. Like Fauré, Berkeley was a musician’s musician, a composer whose subtle depths are well worth exploring. This is why his work is admired by so many younger composers, why his chamber music and songs are increasingly performed, why his liturgical music (especially the Missa Brevis) is part of the repertoire of every cathedral choir, and why his guitar music – among the greatest of the twentieth century – is in constant demand around the world.

A list of Berkeley masterpieces would include the Sonatina for Treble Recorder (or Flute) and Piano, the Horn Trio, the piano Preludes and Sonata, some of the songs, the orchestral Serenade and Divertimento, the joyous First Symphony and the tougher Third Symphony, the single and double Piano Concertos, the Four Poems of St. Teresa of Avila for Contralto and Strings (written for Kathleen Ferrier), the Stabat Mater (dedicated to Britten) and the one-act comic opera A Dinner Engagement. All these works share an enduring quality that transcends their time, and will for ever reward rediscovery.