Lord Berners

(For a detailed account of Lord Berners' cook Mrs Nelson and the tragic story of her daughter see "Requiem for Mignon".)



LORD BERNERS A secret romantic?

A personal view

I have been interested in Lord Berners almost as long as I can remember. At a very young age (this would have been around 1960 when I was six) my brother and I were given a portable gramophone. It had an electric motor but an acoustic pick up with old fashioned needles. Our father passed on to us a pile of old 78s. These were mostly discs he had bought in the 40s and early 50s. We explored these records for ourselves. My introduction to classical music was unconventional. We worked our way through 12 sides of Berlioz "Symphonie Fantastique", the first symphony I knew as a whole. This was hardly a straightforward introduction to symphonic form, with its excessively romantic Witches Sabbath and March to the Scaffold. There were also 1930s and 40s swing records, Count Basie and others. Many of these records had been bought by my Great Aunt Ethel following detailed instructions in my fathers letters from army training or somewhere in Europe after D Day or Palestine after the war.

One set of 78s that stood out as something quite different and odd, even to a six year olds ears, was Sir Thomas Beecham's recording of the suite from Lord Berners' ballet "The Triumph of Neptune"

Who was this Lord Berners? The music was, even on 78s played on that old record player, bizarre and colourful. One movement included a drunken voice singing the old song "The last rose of summer". It was all quaint and slightly disturbing.

By my sixth form days I had discovered Berners' novels. He was, in the late 60s, a virtually forgotten character. The first sign of a small revival interest was a 1970 proms performance of his ballet "A Wedding Bouquet," conducted by another hero of mine, the composer Malcolm Arnold.  I was unable to go, though some school friends did, but I was able to get a good recording.

After that I decided to find out more. I wrote to many people who I knew had known Berners, including the composer Sir William Walton, choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton and many others. I had many replies, nearly all of which referred me to Berners heir Robert Heber-Percy. Robert had been Berners companion for many years. He was much younger, a handsome and rather crazy character known as "the Mad Boy". After Berners' death he lived in Berners' country house, Faringdon, and added to its eccentricities and delights.

Sir William Walton sent a brief note from Ischia saying that "by an odd coincidence but a few days ago he had had a similar request from a Mr Philip Lane."

Philip Lane has become a valuable supporter of Berners, and has been involved in recordings of the music.  Amongst other things he has laboriously transcribed the film music from "The Halfway House" for a superb recording on Chandos.

Sir Harold Acton wrote from Florence (16th July 1971):

"How adventurous of you to revive an interest in Lord Berners.

"I first met him when he was attached to our embassy in Rome as Gerald Tyrwhitt. I was then in my teens but I was impressed by the originality of his apartment. Vast bowls of coloured water, marionettes, pictures of Marchesa Casati, paintings by Balla etc. He was then a pupil of Casella and had composed music for the Teatro dei Piccolo (a puppet theatre). Later I met him more frequently with Lady Cunard and the Sitwells, and stayed with him at Faringdon during and after the war."

Sir John Betjeman wrote a rather tetchy note:

"I don't think Im the person to help you. I have little knowledge of Lord Berners and I honestly dont know who to suggest you try. Was there some special reason why you wrote to me, had you perhaps heard that I knew him?"

I replied, explaining that I had found stories of Betjeman and Berners in various other writers autobiographies, including one by Osbert Sitwell. I knew that Betjeman and his wife Penelope had been close friends after they moved to Uffington in the Vale of the White Horse, not far from Faringdon. There is a famous photograph of Penelope Betjeman having tea with Berners and Robert in the drawing room at Faringdon with her white horse Moti standing calmly at the table with them.

I had also had a note from Sir Maurice Bowra, with whom Berners stayed in Oxford during the war saying "Of course I knew Gerald Berners".He apologised for being unwell and advised me to write to Sir John Betjeman. Bowra died two days after writing.

Soon afterwards I received a black and white postcard of a miserable looking caravan site. On the back Betjeman had scrawled "Come to lovely Cornwall and, in more careful writing, a note:

"I have sent your admirable letter to Robert Heber-Percy Esq of Faringdon House, Berkshire, who can help you more than yours truly John Betjeman."

This gave a very strange impression, as if I was being put through a test..

Sadly, I heard nothing from Berners heir. Perhaps Robert had no interest in replying to a schoolboys letters. Or to any letters. I sensed that he was a formidable character. Research of this kind was a very different business forty years ago. Nowadays important discoveries can be made in seconds without leaving your room if you ask the right questions. Sadly, though, the vital witnesses are no longer there to answer our emails.

At the same time as this, around 1971, several of us at school, all keen composers and, interestingly, none of us actually studying music, formed a "Berners Society", seeing Berners as a patron saint of amateur composers as well as a figure standing for the eccentric and light hearted. A year later, in 1972, several of us went to a truly extraordinary event, "An Evening of Lord Berners" at the Purcell Room on the South Bank, This was presented by Sir John Betjeman and included most of Berners' songs and piano music as well as reminiscences and readings from the novels.

If only I had had the nerve I could have introduced myself to some of this astonishing array of characters from the past. It was as if all his surviving friends were there, including Sir Frederick Ashton, Margot Fonteyn, and the dramatic figure of Robert Heber-Percy in dinner jacket, a startling wing collar and bow tie.

Eleven years later my father, as librarian at Bedford, helped organise a Berners centenary exhibition, shared between Bedford Library (where Berners was always featured in their annual Music quiz series) and the Royal Festival Hall. My parents had lunch with Robert Heber-Percy at Faringdon. I never met him, but I did visit the gardens in 1982 and saw the famous fantailed pigeons fluttering about, dyed in pastel colours. At the Festival Hall launch surviving friends appeared again and I found myself standing next to Diana Mosley, originally Mitford. I was two degrees of separation from Hitler.

Lord Berners was born Gerald Tyrwhitt at Apley Park, a gloomy gothic revival house on the River Severn north of Bridgnorth in Shropshire. In his autobiography "First Childhood" he called it "Arley" which has caused confusion since as there is an Arley south of Bridgnorth. Even at the time of the 1983 centenary celebrations the name was generally given wrongly in reference books and articles. I went with my father to photograph the house for the exhibition and found it matched the illustration by Rex Whistler of "Arley" used as a frontispiece to the book. It was good to be able to clarify this one detail of Berners' life.

It was his mothers family home. She was born Julia Foster, daughter of a rich ironmaster who had made his fortune with the railway expansion. His father was a naval officer whom he rarely saw. Geralds childhood was Victorian and largely lonely, fostering a rather dark imagination. He was surrounded by eccentric or literally mad relations. It seems that his mother encouraged his artistic interests, even enjoying a funeral march he wrote for her when he was ten. Geralds father died in 1907 and his mother remarried very soon after, within a year. In later years, as Mrs Bennitt, she lived at the compact but attractive Faringdon House. She died in 1931, followed five weeks later by her second husband. Faringdon became Berners' country home.

He seems never to have escaped his Victorian childhood and his Victorian imagination. It provides the nostalgic and fantastic quality of his mature music. There is, in particular, a description of a Victorian screen, covered in pictures cut from magazines and varnished over, full of surreal juxtapositions.

"Against a background of Swiss mountains, chamois and chalets, glittering humming-birds thrust their rapier-like beaks into the calyxes of tropical flowers. A gigantic green and crimson parakeet appeared to have alighted on the spire of Cologne cathedral."

This sounds like a key to his imaginative life. Highly coloured birds are a recurring theme. He loved these exotic birds which appeared as pets or in pictures but one of earliest interests was ornithology. He knew the different birds that lived in the landscapes around the several houses where he spent his childhood years. Four volumes of British Birds with coloured illustrations were his one personal treasure when he was sent to boarding school.

Apley, with its dense interiors, large cast of family inhabitants and romantic setting, was also the place where he first began to love music. He taught himself to play, clearly very well, after hearing a visitor play Chopin. Chopin's music became part of the ambience of this house.  In his "First Childhood", which is perhaps his masterpiece, published in 1934, he writes that Chopin's music, with its associations with Apley, brought "a kind of nostalgia, perhaps for some visionary world built up of pre-natal memories."

His musical interests did embrace lighter things. When he went to Eton in 1897 he had promised his mother that he would not let his musical interests get in the way of his education. He was already intended for a career in the diplomatic service. He tried to resist the temptation but, according to his second volume of autobiography "A Distant Prospect he became popular with slightly older boys, "members of the Library" for his performances of music from popular shows of the day. He writes that

"I started to practise all the light music I possessed, 'The Geisha,' 'The Shop Girl' and some of the popular waltzes of the day."

That this was music that was important to him is shown by his comment that he "knew most of The Geisha by heart". His mother had taken him to see popular shows like this, and "Charleys Aunt" to sugar the pill of his journeys from home to boarding school. This might have added another quality to his later memories of popular theatre.

The popularity with the older set that his performances produced was misinterpreted by his own contemporaries and led him, still an innocent,  to his first understanding of the possible varieties of sexual experience.

Though he was a figure of the modernist cultural circle of the 20s and 30s he was of an older generation than many of its characteristic inhabitants. He enjoyed Victorian traditions of dress, country life. He was, in part a countryman, occasionally even a horseback. He kept a traditional household staff, complete with formal butlers. All this conservative side of his life was spiced by his own quirky touches, just as he liked to spice old prints of religious scenes or portraits by pasting on the odd naked woman, or moustache.

Berners was always an outsider as far as the musical world was concerned. As Gerald Tyrwhitt, and, as far as he knew, fairly remote from inheriting a title he was prepared for a career in the diplomatic service by travelling to France and Germany to learn the languages.  He had no opportunity to study music at one of the London colleges. Its clear from his autobiographies, though they are partly fictionalised, that music was always his driving force. He wanted to be a composer above everything. When he was in Dresden studying German he became a student of Edmund Kretschmer. Kretschmer was an old fashioned teacher, and a link with a much older musical world. He was already an old man. He had been born in 1830 and died only a few years after Berners knew him, in 1908.

Whatever his own musical interests and whatever musical style he was experimenting in he was determined to have some serious and disciplined training. This desire to assure himself that he had a serious grounding in technique never left him. Possibly due to his constant lack of self-confidence he even became a student again while living in Oxford in the 1940s, asking Sir Thomas Armstrong, the organist of Christ Church, to give him lessons in strict counterpoint in the style of Palestrina. This seems as far from his own highly coloured style as he could go. Armstrong was amazed by Berners understanding of the style, how the rules worked and why.

What kind of music did he dream of composing in his early days? He writes about his obsession with Wagner in "A Distant Prospect", his own account of his time at Eton. While in France, after leaving Eton, he would play his first love, Chopin. His descriptions of his studies in Dresden suggest that he had perfectly serious intentions of being a perfectly serious composer. The attraction of Wagner's vast operas seems to have faded. What Berners did write belongs to a very different world but his early music uses very advanced harmony for the time which seems close to the music of the German and Austrian tradition following Wagner, including Arnold Schoenberg who took traditional harmony to the absolute limit before inventing a system of his own that threw traditional harmony out of the window. Many years later Berners wrote:

"He opened up for me the new territory of atonal music but this territory, that at one time seemed almost a promised land, has proved itself infertile, an enclosed, dry, rocky academic valley with no issue. "

From the perspective of today this seems a very forward looking view at a time when contemporary music had become dominated by Schoenberg and his heirs. In the 1920s there is no doubt Berners admired Schoenberg. He played his pieces to Siegfried Sassoon. Though Berners may have turned away from the European atonal avant-garde he has to be seen as a composer in that European tradition, with no links at all to the English mainstream that was emerging at the same time with Vaughan Williams as its figurehead.

And yet much of Berners own music is very peculiarly English, but in a very different way to the pastoral or visionary world of Vaughan Williams and others.

Berners became honorary attaché in Constantinople and then Rome, an unpaid post for a gentleman of independent means, and was there throughout the First World War. The war, on the whole, was far away, though there was an air of tension behind the music-making  and party-going.

In Rome, in 1911, Berners introduced himself to Stravinsky, already a towering and influential figure in modern music. Berners had published no music in 1911. His only surviving unpublished work is an operetta "An Egyptian Princess" which had had privately printed, perhaps for performance when he was at the embassy Constantinople in about 1910. This is in the Gilbert and Sullivan tradition and would probably not have impressed Stravinsky. It seems likely that Berners had written more serious music during his studies in Dresden and his early years in the diplomatic service but none of this is known to have survived. Stravinsky did take him seriously.

Berners and Stravinsky became close friends for the rest of Berners life. Stravinsky would stay with Berners when in England. His wife supplied the harmless vegetable dyes for the fantail pigeons at Faringdon. They were still there when I visited in 1982, their pastel blue yellow and pink reflecting the colours of the Spring daffodils and hyacinths which grew through the uncut grass. Stravinsky does appear to have valued Berners' music highly, though he was, himself, a fairly inscrutable character. There are curious similarities in their music at times, especially in Stravinskys later dance music, "Danses Concertantes" and "Scenes de Ballet" where a love of theatre and old-fashioned ballet music comes to the surface but through a harmonic distorting mirror similar to Berners' own style.

Siegfried Sassoon met Berners in Rome in October 1921. Berners introduced him to Prince Philip of Hesse, who would become Sassoons  lover for a while. Sassoon remembered Berners, at his home in Rome, reading St Augustines "Confessions in bed. This spiritual classic contains a famous account of a vision which Augustine shared with his mother in a garden.

Berners then went on to say:

"What a bloody bore "The City of God is.""

But that is a quite different book. This sounds very much like a joke added as an after-thought to disguise something too revealing. Could there be a thread linking St Augustine and Berners own youthful experiences?

In June 1922 the poet was at Bray, staying with his elderly admirer Frank Schuster. Schuster was a patron of Elgar who was there too.  Later that summer Schuster was back in Europe and he met Berners, and William Walton (who was there with the mutual friends the Sitwells) in Munich. While there he wrote a poem "Clavichord Recital inspired by Berners playing on his own Dolmetsch instrument which could fit neatly under the front seat of his car. Whether Berners actually played this while travelling, as is often said, is unknown but if "front seat" means the front passenger seats rather than his chauffeur William Cracks position, this is quite possible. It may sometimes have been placed on, rather than under, the backward facing seat of the large and elegant Rolls Royce. The driver, in his open position, was quite separate from the passengers in the saloon and would have been unaware of what was going on.

Sassoon and his lover, Prince Philip of Hesse,travelled down to Italy in Berners car.

 
It was in Rome that Berners became known as a composer. His first published works are all short pieces. They are miniatures, mostly with a touch of bizarre or even grotesque comedy, but written in a very advanced style. The extremely discordant harmony is justified and made palatable by the subject matter. The first set of piano pieces "Fragments Psychologiques" (1916) use this very extreme style of harmony to depict emotional moods. The idea is very clear, hate, laughter, a sigh, so the style of writing is palatable to a listener who would never accept a piano piece by Schoenberg in a similar language. The most successful pieces, becoming relatively well known, are the "Trois Petites Marches Funebres, Three Little Funeral Marches. These are more obviously comic. The first is a pompous march for a statesman, the second for a canary, and the third a fast and lively one for a rich aunt.

The French titles are reminiscent of the music of Erik Satie, who specialised in pieces with surreal titles and sometimes commentaries in the music. Did Berners know these pieces at that time? Satie was not at all pleased when Berners was described as "An English Satie, seeing Berners as an amateur, which he was.

Saties style, and the tone of his humour, are very different and Berners music developed in a very different direction.

It is very difficult to know what Berners intentions were at any time in his life. In his own, much later, autobiographies, there is nothing to suggest that he had anything but a serious desire to be a composer. He was, though, always modest in his ambitions, perhaps too modest. If only had had written more music purely for his own pleasure and to satisfy his own sense of vocation but almost all his music after the mid 1920s was written to commission, as if he would only write when someone else wanted it. This came, probably, from a serious lack of confidence as a composer, but before 1920 he may have felt differently.

There is always, with Berners, a pragmatic, realistic and practical attitude. There may be eccentric or jokey ideas behind the music and the style may be tinged with strange harmonies and quirky melodies but the execution is always completely professional. This suggests a mind that is not at all eccentric at its root. There might be an element of calculation in these early works.

They are modernistic, but they are understandable by anyone. They show off a serious avant-garde technique in a way that is designed to get them noticed. They are a very carefully considered first step in a career for a composer setting off from a position so removed from the English musical establishment.

Berners was noticed and written about as a result of these early pieces

They were taken up by the avant-garde world. Berners became a friend of the Italian composer Casella who arranged a selection of them for a small orchestra to make a short ballet for puppets called "Luomo dai baffi. This puppet ballet is a harbinger if the kind of world Berners music was going to occupy for the rest of his career.

The early Avant grade works have a historical interest and have been studied in more recent years but they are, at least in size and duration, a very small part of his work. Are they the real Berners or a calculated device to launch a career? There is always the sense of a serious face under the jokers mask.

Perhaps at this point Berners had no clear idea of what kind of music he wanted to compose or what kind of feelings he wanted to express. Did this exceptionally shy and sardonic figure have feelings?

Whether he was aware of it or not there are signs of the later Berners even in these early works.

"Valses Bourgeoises" for piano duet is, fundamentally, a parody of waltz composers, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss (the overblown waltzes of his opera Der Rosenkavalier ) and the operetta composer Oscar Strauss, with touches of Ravel thrown in. There are two important features, though. The music cant escape actual sentiment. Berners cant help revealing how much he loves the waltz as a dance and an idea. Much later this love of the waltz becomes a characteristic feature in his later ballets, but it was there in 1919. There is also a mysteriously hazy waltz in his "Trois Morceaux" for orchestra.

The exquisite and very camp novelist Roland Firbank picked up this waltz-loving and even romantic Berners as early as this in his novel "Valmouth" published in 1919.

"The maitre d'orchestre had struck up a capricious waltz, an enigmatic au dela laden air: Lord Berners? Scriabin? Tchaikovski?"

Go to Part Two

Lord Berners images

Related Pages