Lord Berners (1883 - 1950)
The Right Honourable Sir Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners in the peerage of England, and a baronet, was born on 18th September 1883 at Apley Park, near Bridgnorth, shropshire, the son of Commodore the Hon. Hugh Tyrwhitt (third son of Emma Harriet, Baroness Berners in her own right) and Julia Mary Foster. (The title is one of few in the British peerage that can pass through the female, as well as the male line.) Educated at Eton, and later in Dresden, Vienna, France and Italy, mainly in pursuit of knowledge of languages to equip him for the diplomatic service, he succeeded his uncle in 1918, assuming the additional name of Wilson by Royal Charter a year later. He served as honorary attache in Constantinople and later in Rome, but on his elevation, relinquished these posts, returning to England and his inheritance, several country estates, and lived the rest of his life, ostensibly as a country gentleman. This, however, was only on the surface. He was a man whose music drew the highest praise from stravinsky, and whose not inconsiderable literary and painting skills were to make him "the versatile peer" in the national press, but it was as a composer that he wished to be remembered.
The earliest music of Berners is the most avant-garde in style, being entirely made up of songs, in English, French and German, and piano pieces, many of which were published under his original name, Gerald Tyrwhitt. In 1924 his only opera, Le carosse du Saint-Sacrement, was given in Paris in a triple bill with works by stravinsky and Henri sauguet. Two years later, his first ballet, The Triumph of Neptune, to a scenario by sacheverell sitwell, was produced by Dyagilev"s Ballets Russes. He was one of only two British composers, the other being Constant Lambert with Romeo and Juliet, to be commissioned by the great impresario. From now on his music became more accessible but never lost its original flavour and distinctive style. It had shed its avant-garde "skin" with the orchestral triptych, Trois morceaux, Fantasie espagnole, both first performed in 1919, and the Fugue in C minor of 1924. In fact, his music was deemed accessible enough to be considered for a C.B. Cochran revue, with the ballet Luna Park, in 1930. The last three balletic works were written in collaboration with Frederick Ashton as choreographer and Constant Lambert as musical director, A Wedding Bouquet, Cupid and Psyche and Les Sirenes, Lambert and the young William Walton were the only two British composers with whom Berners felt a sympathy. Not for him the pastoral school of Vaughan Williams and Hoist. Both Walton and Lambert probably helped with the orchestration of Triumph of Neptune, and Walton certainly received regular amounts of financial assistance from Berners for many years, even up to the composition of Belshazzar"s Feast, which is dedicated to him, and it was Berners who had the idea of composing a musical illustration of the Rowlandson print, Portsmouth Point, and indeed wrote one. It now appears as the last movement of his chamber piece, L "uom dai Baffi, written for an Italian puppet play and comprising, otherwise, arrangements of some of the piano pieces mentioned earlier. That Walton made a more substantial and lasting work out of the idea would have pleased Berners almost as much as if he had done so himself.
During the 19405 Berners involved himself in one other medium, cinema, contributing a polka and a song, Come on Algernon, to the 1944 Ealing production, Champagne Charlie: and writing two complete film scores for The Halfway House (1943) and Nicholas Nickleby (1946). For all three, Ealing"s musical director, Ernest Irving, provided the orchestrations, but again they are unmistakably Berners in language and style. After this film, he wrote nothing of note for the last four years of his life. He suffered bouts of depression, and, in the words of his friend John Betjeman, finally "turned his face to the wall and died" on 19th April 1950.
This was a sad end to a life that not only produced much work of quality but that gave so much pleasure to others. The visitors" book at Faringdon, his country house, lists the famous of three decades -Shaw, Wells, Huxley, Beerbohm, the Mitfords, the Sitwells and others. His eccentricities (all carefully calculated to amuse - or offend!) were legendary. From the clavichord in the back of his Rolls-Royce to his habit of dyeing the local pigeons exotic colours (this continues to the present day) -all had their individual raison d"etre, at least for him. His dislike of pomposity revealed itself in a wealth of stories, like the one of the woman invited to luncheon to meet the P of W, being rather disappointed when the Provost of Worcester was presented in place of the Prince of Wales whom she had been expecting, or the woman who declared once too often that she "had been sticking up" for him. Berners responded that he, in turn, had been sticking up for her; someone had said that she was not fit to live with pigs -and he said that she was. But all these fripperies were incidental to his art. When not composing music he would write short humorous novels (six in number), three volumes of autobiography (one unpublished) and stage two exhibitions of his paintings, in 1931 and 1936.
Berners" musical output was small by most standards and the case is often made that if he had had to earn a living from the arts, he would have produced more. This is debatable. Less in doubt is that his art was well appreciated amongst his fellow artists, -and aristocrats. Osbert Sitwell summed it up by writing that in the years between the wars he did more to civilise the wealthy than anyone in England. Through London"s darkest drawing-rooms, as well as lightest, he moved. a sort of missionary of the arts. Not a bad epitaph -that is, if Berners had not written one of his own.
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.
A Wedding Bouquet is undoubtedly Berners" most original and successful work. Some might say unique, since choral ballets are rare indeed. Borodin"s Polovtsian Dances form just one scene in an opera, and stravinsky"s Les Noces is strictly a dramatic cantata with dancing. The influence of stravinsky, however, is an ever-present one.
The first performance took place at sadler"s Wells Theatre on 27th April 1937, with scenario, costumes and set designs by Berners himself and choreography by Frederick Ashton. (The striking backcloth, incidentally, was copied from an old rug in Gertrude Stein"s home in France.) The cast included Ninette de Valois as Webster, Margot Fonteyn as Julia and Robert Helpman as the Bridegroom, while Constant Lambert conducted. It was Berners" own idea to create the work, even though he had originally intended it as a choral concert-piece, basing it on the opening pages of Gertrude Stein"s play They Must. Be Wedded. To Their Wife of 1931. It was Lambert"s idea to give Stein"s description of the play"s characters in the programme (and piano score), and Stein"s to add an extra one - Pepe, named after her own Mexican dog. In this original production the words were sung by ten solo singers from the opera chorus. From 1941 onwards, initially because of wartime restrictions, the chorus was replaced by a speaker at the side of the stage. The first to undertake this was Lambert himself; later reciters lacked Lambert"s formidable gifts in this kind of enterprise (he always considered himself the best performer of the Facade poems) and there is little doubt that Berners" original idea of a sung text by a small group of singers is by far the best one.
The words do not explain the action in any real sense, but provide an atmosphere and amusing commentary for the characters. In her Everybody"s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein comments on the first performance in her inimitable way:
It all went so very well, each time a musician does something with the words it makes it do what they never did so, this time it made them do as if the last word had heard the next word and the next word had heard not the last word but the next word.
The combination of neat, funny dances, the inconsequent relevance of the words, the splendid characterization, Ashton"s delicacy and lightness, all make the ballet a connoisseur"s piece. The critic Arnold Haskell called it one of the most complete works in the repertoire. Berners, Ashton and Gertrude Stein have collaborated so closely that it is not possible to say where the one begins and the other leaves off.
The ballet is set in the garden of a farmhouse near Bellay, a French provincial town. Preparations are in progress for a wedding feast. The opening music is vivacious and festive in character, but stops abruptly as the curtain rises and a voice is heard to announce: This is now act one. Webster, the maid, shows signs of considerable anxiety. A group of peasant girls and boys arrives for the celebrations, followed by the official guests, including Josephine, "a rather equivocal character", and her friends Paul and John.
In the course of an elegant Tranquillo, the singers refer sentimentally to the fact that one brother has saved the lives of two others from drowning -an obscure incident referred to slightly earlier. The vivacity of the opening returns representing the determined pursuit of Ernest by Violet. Ernest is unwilling. The music again comes to an abrupt halt as an alto exclaims: Therese, I am older than a boat and there can be no folly in owning it. The movement is resumed as the chorus mutter repeatedly: There can be no hesitation.
The pace lessens to an Andantino and another guest"s arrival is announced. This is "the slightly demented Julia" .A modern Giselle, she has been "ruined" by the rakish Bridegroom, and is accompanied by her dog Pepe, a black and tan Mexican terrier. Pepe protects her from a would-be suitor. As one of the Bridegroom"s past mistresses, Julia is not too happy at the coming event.
A subsequent Allegro, mirroring advances by another male guest, is brought to an end by the opposition of Pepe - a welcome excuse for Berners to bring a Spanish touch to the score. Josephine who "is excessively devoted to Julia" tries to console her in a sentimental scene for orchestra alone, which re-introduces the Tranquillo heard earlier.
Three bars of recitative - They all talk as if it were alarming - precede the arrival of the bridal procession. The Bride appears to cries of Charming! Charming! Charming! To the strains of an infectious waltz tune, two bridesmaids dance together under the bridal veil. A photograph is taken of the Wedding Group. But the perfected poise of this scene is disrupted by the spoken mutterings of the chorus: Josephine may not attend a wedding. Although the festivities start again, it is obvious that all is not well. Julia"s affection for the Bridegroom and Josephine"s sympathy for Julia each precipitate a scene. Cries of bitterness, and Josephine will leave are heard from the chorus. The climactic cries of Josephine, Josephine, Josephine lead into a general hurly-burly.
Only when Josephine has been removed with some difficulty can the Bridegroom really enjoy the proceedings. He dances a tango with a chorus of his former mistresses which includes most of the ladies present. As the tango subsides and the guests leave, Julia is left alone with only Pepe for comfort. The waltz returns, as if remembered in a dream, as hushed cries of bitterness never cease to remind the audience of what has gone before.
As the music gradually lessens in pace and dynamics, Julia stands alone looking at the empty stage around her, and the curtain falls.
I discovered March in piano score in a chest stored in the basement of Berners" home in the early 1970s, since when it has been published in the Collected Works for Piano 5010 album issued by Chester Music in 1982. However, it is unlikely that Berners saw the piece as a solo piano item, and from the fact that its lowest note is close to the lowest note on the tuba (F sharp) it is not too much to suppose that he had brass, or another large instrumental group in mind. I have therefore scored the piece for brass ensemble and dropped the key by a semitone (to B flat minor) so that it can follow the Fanfare he wrote in 1931 more easily. (The Fanfare ends on an F major chord.)
In terms of dating the piece, (various dates have been put forward over the years) it might be fanciful to suggest that because of its slightly oriental character it comes from Berners" time in Constantinople. Conversely, since he wrote a disappointingly lack-lustre Gilbert and Sullivan inspired operetta there called The Egyptian Princess, this humble march would seem too good for that date.
Luna Park, a "fantastic ballet in one act" was commissioned for C.B. Cochran"s London revue of 1930, and first performed at the London Pavilion in March of that year, with scenery and costumes by Christopher Wood, book by Boris Kochno, and choreography by George Balanchine. The scene is set in a freak pavilion in Luna Park. A showman enters and bows to the audience. He raises the curtain of the first of four niches revealing a man with three heads; in the second stands a three-legged juggler, complete with billiard balls, while in the third a one-legged ballerina is posing, and in the fourth, a man with six arms. All the freaks dance in their respective niches, after which the showman bows to the audience, turning down the lights as he retires.
The showman gone, the four performers appear from behind the curtain of their niches, revealing themselves as normal human beings -the freaks were fakes -and proceed to dance an Adagio, followed by individual variations for the ballerina (Alice Nikitina) and the six-armed man (Serge Lifar). In the end they all decide to leave the circus and go out into the wide world; and so they silently slip away. However, the showman returns all set to give the second performance. He opens the curtain mechanically, without even looking, revealing, in turn, two heads, a set of billiard balls, a solitary leg and four arms waving wildly. Laughter from the stalls prompts the showman to turn around to see what has happened. Horrified, he leaps into the niche behind him and pulls down the curtain.
The work has obvious links with Petrushka, La boutique fantasque, Coppelia and L " enfant et les sortileges in terms of subject matter. Musically, Berners produced a succinct score that matched the action, and gave distinct characterization to each of the characters. In the Adagio and first Variation, in particular, he mimicked similar sections of Sleeping Beauty, and in the reprise Coda brought back the main themes in fine Broadway style. In this respect, the work could be said to be Berners" equivalent of Stravinsky"s Scenes de Ballet. The work has been rather neglected in the theatre since its first performance, but some of the music was used in 1932 for Foyer de Danse, to choreography by a young Frederick Ashton, who danced it with Alicia Markova in a Ballet Rambert production at the Mercury Theatre.