Lord Berners - Part 2

Another significant feature of "Valses Bourgeoises" is the style of the published score. All the other early works have modernistic or futurist designs on the covers placing Berners in an avant-garde world, but "Valses Bourgeoises" has a deliberately nostalgic cover in the style of Victorian sheet music.

This is the "real" Berners emerging. The element of parody is overweighed by nostalgia. From the mid 1920s all Berners' music is inspired by powerful, possibly escapist, desire for a lost world, the visionary nostalgia that he was able to describe vividly in his autobiographies. His modernist harmonies help create an exaggerated and distorted vision of the past. In his early years as a composer he may not have been aware of this tendency, but the seeds were already there. The futurist Berners gave way to the dreamer. His world would be the world of his own earliest memories, of Apley and the Victorian and Edwardian theatre looked back on as magical, glittering with tinsel, with its surreal juxtapositions and transformation scenes recalling the scrapwork screen.


In the early twenties Berners composed his largest and most sophisticated work so far, a one act opera "Le Carrosse du Sant-Sacrement". He wrote his own libretto based on a play by Prosper Merimee. Though a comic opera this was a serious piece of work, recognisably in his own style. It was performed in Paris in 24th April 1924. The Times called it "an unqualified success" but it was never revived and was not performed again until a BBC recording in the 1990s.  It is as if Berners lost confidence after this. He had made a step towards being a serious composer, a European rather than provincial one, but the stress of it was too much. After "Le Carrosse" he only composed to commission. There is no sign that he ever composed privately, though there were once rumours of manuscripts hidden under the carpets of Faringdon House.

While working on the opera Berners had come to the notice of the great impresario Serge Diaghilev. Diaghilev's Russian Ballet had thrilled audiences with its spectacular dancing, designs and promotion of new music. The company was particularly successful in London and Diaghilev wanted a ballet that would be uniquely English.  There was some indecision about what this might be. In the end Sacheverell Sitwell, youngest of the Sitwell siblings, came up with the idea of a ballet based on Pollocks toy theatres. These mid nineteenth century paper cut-out theatres, famously available in black and white for a penny or "tuppence coloured" were still available in the 1920s, and still are today in a revival of the original business. The style is magical, preserving the fantasy and glitter of early nineteenth century pantomime.

Whether consciously or not the ballet may also look back to the completely lost tradition of English ballet that the more sophisticated Russian ballet had replaced, of the shows at The Alhambra which had mixed ballet with fantasy elements from pantomime and had been popular with audiences who liked colour and a shapely leg well into the Edwardian period a period that already seemed so far away in 1926. "The Triumph of Neptune"  is part of the new iconoclastic frivolity of the twenties while, at the same time, having no trace of 1920s popular music or jazz and looking back longingly into the past.

There are similarities in style with the music of younger composers, including the fascination with what were already very old-fashioned popular styles. A very significant distinction though between Berners and, for example, Poulenc, whose music can sound like Berners at times, is that Berners was that bit older and his nostalgia was based on memory rather than pure fantasy.

This was something uniquely English that was very far removed from the English pastoral musical style of Vaughan Williams and yet equally English.

Though Sitwell is credited with the concept it matched Berners own imagination perfectly. The resulting ballet "The Triumph of Neptune features a fairy Princess, Harlequin, (the slightly sinister hero or anti-hero of many traditional pantomimes) a sailor hero "Tom Tug" and pantomime style spectacles of a Frozen Forest and Cloudland. This gave Berners opportunities for parody, colour, fantasy and an opening into the world of kaleidoscopic nostalgia that had already crept in to his earlier works.

The theatre, and ballet, would be Berners' musical milieu for the rest of his career.

Berners bought 3 Halkin Street, a smart Georgian style house in Belgravia, in 1931 after his mothers death. He had previously lived at 3 Chesham Place. He took with him his butler, Herbert Marshall (not to be confused with the suave actor of the same name), and Lydia Lyndon, whom I assume to have been the cook.  He clearly enjoyed having a formal household, managed in traditional aristocratic style.

According to Osbert Sitwell:

"On one occasion when my brother Sacheverell, my sister-in-law and I were lunching with Gerald, his stately, gloomy, immense butler, Marshall, entered the dining-room bearing a huge placard. "The gentleman outside says will you be good enough to sign this, my Lord."

"Gerald inspected the placard and wriggled nervously. It wouldnt be any use, Marshall, he exclaimed. He wont know who I am probably has never heard of me."

"It transpired eventually that the placard was An Appeal to God that We May Have Peace in Our Time."


Marshall was, it seems, a traditional and imposing butler, but according to William Crack "hed done a bit of fiddling and he used to drink quite a lot. Berners had to ask Marshall to go in 1932. Marshall advertised for employment in The Times in February 1933. His advertisement was successful  and his later employer telephoned Lord Berners to say "what do you mean by recommending this man? He drinks like a fish. This story can only have been passed on by Berners himself.

Berners must have written Marshall a "good reference."

Constant Lambert, musical director of Sadlers Wells and conductor of Berners three last ballets, described Halkin Street in the late thirties:

 "In the hall busts of generals and statesmen were notably improved by the addition of pantomime masks representing negroes and cats. Half-way up the stairs was a large cage housing a rare and exquisite tropical bird. In the drawing room the piano was littered with an extraordinary heterogenous collection of objects ranging from a fish in copper dating from the renaissance to a beer mug representing the Duke of Windsor which played the National Anthem when lifted. But on the piano desk itself might easily be the latest work of Stravinsky with a dedication by the composer and after tearing ones eyes away from the more facetious objects on the mantelpiece one would be enhanced by an exceptionally fine early Corot, flanked by a Sisley and a Matisse."

Some years earlier Berners had amused his mother by putting his bowler hat over his pet bird and setting bird-animated hat walking across the floor.

In the early thirties he turned away from music. The success of "The Triumph of Neptune" had not let to other projects apart from a short ballet score in 1930 "Luna Park". He may have felt he had passed the brief moment of opportunity to be taken seriously. Both these ballet scores were successful in themselves and had several performances, and there was a recording (the 78s conducted by Beecham) of "The Triumph of Neptune" suite. His "Fantasie Espagnole", an orchestral showpiece that may or may not be intended as a parody of other Spanish style pieces by Rimsky Korsakov, Ravel others, was performed at the proms in ten times between 1919 and 1943. He was by no means an unsuccessful composer but the lack of self-confidence made Berners turn to painting and writing.

He was a skilled painter of landscapes and he had successful exhibitions of his modest and attractive pictures. He also published, in 1936, the first of his short fanciful novels, "The Camel", a story of a camel that appears one day in an English village and the effect it has on the lives of the various local characters.

Music would not go away in spite of these distractions. The score of "Luna Park" was taken up by the young dancer and choreographer Frederick Ashton and used for a completely different ballet "Foyer de Danse", The association with Ashton determined the direction of Berners' future musical career. Ashton became resident choreographer of the Sadlers Wells (later Royal) Ballet and Berners was able to compose three new scores for him in which his attraction to a nostalgic old-world theatre could be fulfilled.

The first of his ballets for Frederick Ashton, and the only one to be a lasting success, was "A Wedding Bouquet."

According to Frederick Ashton the ballet was Berners' idea. It was an unusual concept, a ballet with chorus, with the words selected by Berners himself from a play by the American writer Gertrude Stein "They must. Be wedded. To their wife. The setting is a French country wedding at the turn of the century. This may have appealed to Berners for several reasons She was a notorious figure in tbe arts for her work and her lifestyle. . Stein's language was extremely eccentric, with endless repetitions and variations of phrases. She lived as a couple with Alice B Toklas. Stein was a heavily built woman in tweeds with cropped hair. Toklas was unassuming and tiny. A collaboration with Stein would be good for publicity. Berners was always interested in promoting his works, at least when lack of confidence and melancholy had not got the upper hand.

Another appeal of this play was the setting itself.

Even in childhood landscape and place could fill him with

 "a yearning after some mysterious ideal, that most intoxicating form of Sehnsucht, the yearning of William Blakes little figure stretching out his ladder to the moon."

At the end of his life (it was announced as "in preparation  in 1945)  Berners wrote a further volume of autobiography which was not published until sixty years later as "The Chateau of Resenlieu". This describes the teenage Berners' visit to France to learn the language in 1900, about the time the ballet takes place. The time in France was an idyllic experience and there are suggestions of romantic and even spiritual awakenings.

 "All at once my tranquil enjoyment seemed to swell to a greater intenseness, my senses to be endowed with a magical receptive capacity. It was as if the silvery radiance of the sky, the deep, velvety shadows of the woods, the gleaming surface of the lake, were about to reveal some rapturous significance, some glorious reality hitherto concealed from my normal vision."

Here is another hint that Berners might have had a more serious interest in St Augustines "Confessions" than he would have liked Siegfried Sassoon to see. He does seem to have had an almost mystical sense of nature in his youth and he might have longed to recapture something of that kind in later life. His autobiographies emphasise this pastoral side which seems, at first, not to have had any effect on his music and his London life.

"A Wedding Bouquet" may have begun as an idea for a concert work, without dancing, a kind of cantata or oratorio. The surreal words and undefined plot allowed Berners to give the work a string musical form, building in a waltz, of course, a fugue (suggesting the element of oratorio) and a tango. The chorus sometimes speaks in character, though the words sung include the characters names from the play-script. Only occasionally can the audience relate the sung words to the characters or the action, such as it is. The effect is oddly moving. The various characters at the wedding, include the bridegroom, obviously a roué, the forlorn and slightly mad Julia (danced in the first production by Margot Fonteyn), and a dog, Pepe, based on Steins own dog.

It is all allusive and delightful. The effect of the work was largely lost when it was revived with a narrator reading the text rather than the chorus, as it was, to save money in the 1940s. "A Wedding Bouquet" works well as a choral work. Unusually for any stage work the composer also designed the settings and costumes in appropriate pastel colours.

When I first heard the work in the 1970 prom broadcast, divorced from the dance aspect, there were moments that struck me as genuinely romantic, completely free of any sense of parody or sarcasm. There is a purely orchestral interlude, in particular, that expands expressively and lushly on music that had earlier set the words:

"They see a river that runs through a marsh

They might think that the mother was unhappy

But not at all, she has hopes for her future."

No-one would have thought of this in 1937, or even in 1970, but now his beautiful book "The Chateau of Resenlieu", has been published this music seems to come from the same nostalgic memory and feeling as his reminiscences of his teenage time in France.

"On one bank there was a line of poplars, on the other a clump of willows overhanging the pool with a strip of turf going down to the water where once could lie in the shade.Of these bathing expeditions I retain ecstatic memories, of the air quivering in the summer heat, the silver luminosity of the sky and the joy of lying naked on the grass and thinking of nothing."

This reveals a side of this complex man that might have been well hidden for most of his life but could be allowed to appear in the music, even if partially obscured by the theatrical setting. It would be easy to imagine that the reference to the mother might also have touched a sensitive nerve.


The work was composed during in 1936 and first performed at Sadlers Wells in April 1937. Stein and Toklas lived in France and Berners brought them to England for the rehearsals and performance. They would have stayed at Halkin Street.

Stein described the premiere of "A Wedding Bouquet" on 27th April 1937:

"and then gradually it was ending and we went out and on to the stage and there where I never had been with everything in front all dark and we bowing and all of them coming and going and bowing, and then again not only bowing but coming again and then again as if it was everything, it was all over and we went back to sit down.

"I guess it was a great success."

Berners and Gertrude Stein attempted a collaboration on an opera after the success of "A Wedding Bouquet but his heart wasn't in it and it came to nothing. He did complete another ballet for Frederick Ashton in 1939. This was also Berners own idea, and followed a scenario of his own devising "Cupid and Psyche", inspired by a love of classical mythology which he had had since childhood.  Composing to his own scenario shows that he had an understanding of form and what would work, of both music and dance. When he did have to make changes to suit the dance and action he was, according to Ashton, completely professional. This experience of dramatic form, mood and timing was later useful when he came to write his film scores for "The Halfway House" and "Nicholas Nickleby."

The new ballet was a failure. The Greek myth was to be told in a light hearted style, but the mixture of classicism and farce confused the critics. In particular the appearance of Jupiter in the style of Mussolini was seen as a bad joke. There were, apparently, boos, though other reviews were less critical. The music suggests that the goose-stepping Jupiter was probably Bernerss idea (was he thinking of Oswald Mosely?) but in this case the visual design was the work not of the composer himself but Francis Rose, a young protégée of Gertrude Stein.

The music, though, is pure Berners. It is nothing like the cool classicism of Stravinsky's ballets "Orpheus" or "Apollo". Here, again, is the atmosphere of nostalgic nineteenth century theatre, with the usual sentimental waltzes and some very beautiful moments. A less satirical production might have saved it. As often was the case with these ballets time was short and tempers were thin. Spring 1939 was very much the wrong time for frivolity.

As an old friend of Diana Mosley from long before her last marriage, Berners knew the fascist Oswald Mosley well. He even composed a few bars of a fascist march in 1934, but as this is only known in a newspaper article it is probably a joke. Though Berners claimed to have had tea with Hitler on one occasion while in Germany, which may have been a touch of exaggeration they may have been in the same restaurant -  there is no reason to suppose he had much sympathy for Mosley's politics, even though the would-be dictator was, many people said, likeable as a person.

In strong contrast to the Mosleys a new friend, and enthusiast for his music, in 1938 was the American composer and conductor Bernard Herrmann, later the great film composer for Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. This new acquaintance led Berners to make his only trip to America with Herrmann in 1938. This is hard to imagine if only I had been there but Berners is said to have enjoyed a typical Jewish meal with Herrmann's mother in New York.

Back in Halkin Street there were other visitors who reveal evidence that Berners was, privately, an unexpectedly serious supporter of new music and younger composers. In 1933 the young composer Lennox Berkeley had visited Halkin Street to meet his teacher, Nadia Boulanger who was visiting from France and , it appears, staying there. Boulanger was an enormously important influence, teaching many composers in the first half of the twentieth century, including many famous French names but also British and American, including Aaron Copland. At that 1933 visit Berners introduced Berkeley to his own publishers, Chester's.

This was not Nadia Boulangers only visit to Halkin Street. In 1939 she was there using it as a base for teaching. There may have been others, but the South African born composer Priaulx Rainier came there for tutorials. There is a letter to Rainier from Boulanger in the National Archives:

"Shall arrive Sunday morning at 9 and shall give the lessons at Lord Berners' home, 3 Halkin Street, SW1"

This is yet another hint that Berners musical interests, and perhaps his life as a whole, were more serious than they have often been considered.


After "Cupid and Psyche" time was running out for Halkin Street. Another regular visitor was the photographer and designer Ceil Beaton. According to Hugo Vickers biography of Beaton, just as Cecil was getting into his bath at Halkin St. on a particular day in September 1939:

"Lord Berners deaf butler, Nelson, (successor to Marshall) suddenly shouted The war has started."

Soon after a depressed Berners closed down Halkin Street and moved to Oxford.