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'The Music of Lennox Berkeley'
by Peter Dickinson


In his essay for Bacharach's British Music of our Time, Robin Hull was looking forward to the next generation of mature English composers. He envisaged, among others, Lennox Berkeley taking up his rightful place as contemporary and, in some respects, peer of Walton, Tippett, and Britten. Hull warns the reader of a 'purely temporary circumstance' which compounds 'the problem of where to begin acquaintance with his music'. The temporary hitch was whether the String Trio would beat the Divertimento onto the gramophone lists or whether the popularity of Berkeley's film score for Hotel Reservé was a sufficiently substantial calling-card for a composer who now had a four-movement symphony under his belt. That 'circumstance' -- the availability, or otherwise, of recordings and the results upon a composer's reputation -- has dogged Berkeley almost right up to the present day. Instead of being directly identified as a composer in his own right, he has been known (if at all) circumstantially as collaborator (with Britten on the Mont Juic Suite), or orchestrator (of Poulenc's Flute Sonata, so begetter in effect of a new concerto, but not quite its author ...), or teacher of this, that, and the other student (a very interestingly mixed bag, as it happens, John Tavener, Nicholas Maw, Richard Rodney Bennett, David Bedford, and his own son Michael among them).

What Berkeley's reputation needed back then in 1945, and still needs now, are performances, particularly performances which are recorded and become available. Now, in the year of the centenary of his birth, the wheel of Berkeley's fortune may be turning at last. Two of his operas have just been performed at this year's Cheltenham Festival, and the music of one at least -- that of Ruth -- is said to have been a revelation. They will be broadcast later this year. Simultaneously and independently, Chandos are in the process of bringing out a Berkeley Edition. Each disc contains music by both father and son, a most interesting principle of programming by any standards, but in the case of the only volume I've heard so far -- Lennox's Third Symphony coupled with Michael's Secret Garden and Oboe Concerto -- I am happy to vouch at first hand for something of quite extraordinary interest, quality and significance. This is music which should have entered the repertoire in the year of its composition (1969) and stayed there ever since. It ought to be as indispensable to a just perspective of British creativity in the third quarter of the century as (say) Britten's Death in Venice, Golding's Lord of the Flies or Hockney's Bigger Splash.

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Copyright © 24 August 2003 Peter Dale, Danbury, Essex, UK


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