Lennox Berkeley

1903 1989

Lennox Berkeley

Composer • Conductor


Sir Lennox Berkeley was an influential British composer who developed a highly individualistic style less rooted in his own country’s tradition than those of France, Germany and Russia. Although he received little acclaim and was largely overshadowed by many of his contemporaries includingBenjamin Britten, in recent years many have begun to revisit his work and praise its delicate textures and charming melodies.

Born into an aristocratic family of French descent, Berkeley’s first musical experiences were from hearing the many amateur musicians in his family. Although Berkeley played piano and composed as a pastime it was not yet a serious pursuit for him, and he attended Merton College, Oxford, where he studied French and received his BA in 1926. That same year he met the great French impressionist composer Maurice Ravel in London. Upon seeing some of Berkeley’s amateur compositions,Maurice Ravel immediately sought to persuade him to take composition more seriously and consider studying in Paris with famed pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, who is perhaps best known for tutoringAaron Copland.

Berkeley accepted the challenge and ended up living in Paris for the next five years and studying counterpoint and orchestration under the meticulous Mademoiselle Boulanger, soon becoming one of her favourite disciples. She introduced him to many of the greatest composers of the time living in France, includingGabriel Fauré, Francis Poulenc and Igor Stravinsky. Berkeley came to admire and emulate many of these men and women more than the composers of his native Britain, which sets him apart in an era where composers frequently followed extremely nationalistic lines. However he still had significant respect for many of his fellow British composers including Benjamin Britten, with whom he collaborated on the pieceMontjuïc (1936), based on a series of Catalan folk dances. It was around this time that Berkeley premiered his first major work, the oratorioJonah (1935) and his Serenade for Strings (1939), which would become a great success and a staple of the British repertoire.

After the outbreak of World War II and the Battle of Britain, Berkeley attempted to put down his composers pen and volunteered for the armed forces, but he was rejected for health reasons. He instead joined the BBC as an orchestral programmer, and it was there that he met his wife, Jewish-Lithuanian refugee Freda Bernstein, who was working as a secretary. They had three sons together and one of them, Michael Berkeley, would become a notable composer in his own right. Berkeley’s compositions from this time, such asDivertimento (1943) andPiano Sonata (1945), notably contrasted the grim historical surroundings, maintaining a light, almost naïve optimism for which he would continue to be known.

The War ended, and with a stable domestic situation, a newly appointed post as professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music and no shortage of inherited money, Berkeley was able to settle down for several decades of incredibly prolific composing. His works from this time are often viewed as a fusion of influences from his friend Poulenc and the other members ofLes Six in Paris with classical-era composers such as Mozart and Haydn. The Piano Concerto in Bb (1947) is one of the supreme examples of the incorporation of these various stylistic elements, and even shows a definite jazz influence. As a devout Roman Catholic many of his works, particularly the vocal ones, are extremely spiritual in nature. Titles such as those for the psalmsThe Lord is my Shepherd (1947) and Four Poems of St. Teresa of Avila (1947) express Berkeley’s desire that his music first and foremost glorify God, and he even contemplated becoming a priest earlier in his career. The vocal workStabat mater (1947), written for Benjamin Britten’s English Opera Group, is another piece of comparable religious intensity.

Berkeley also developed a huge catalogue of secular works, including four symphonies, five concertos, a ballet and numerous string quartets and pieces for piano. Seeking, along with Britten, to revive English theatre Berkeley wrote three operas in the 1950s, with the one-act comedyA Dinner Engagement (1954) becoming a large success that is still staged regularly. Later he added one more one-act opera,Castaway (1966), which tells the story of Odysseus, and he was in the process of writing a fifth when he died.

In the 1960s Berkeley finally followed the lead of many of his contemporaries by at least partly abandoning neo-classicism, embracing a cautiously serial approach which often saw him introducing 12-tone rows and then contrasting them with tonal sections, such as in hisFive Chinese Songs (1971). Other works went even farther including Berkeley’s Third Symphony (1969), which divides a 12-tone row into two hexachords to provide most of the thematic material. Although Berkeley was beginning to view the world of consonance as finished, the main legacy of his delving into atonality was actually to inform and broaden the scope of his tonal music, which gained an added depth. This heightened compositional maturity can be seen in many of Berkeley’s later works, such as his Guitar Concerto (1974). 

By 1983 the decline of Berkeley’s mental facilities due to Alzheimer’s had forced him to stop composing, but the awards and accolades continued to roll in until – and well past – the end of his life six years later. He was knighted in 1974, and the Berkeley Edition recordings series released many of his larger works including his symphonies and two of his operas. In 2000 the Lennox Berkeley Society was formed, devoted to publishing and propagating the work of one of 20th century Britain’s most underrated composers.