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Sticking with the classicals for a good read

Christopher Morley discovers books which would make the perfect gift for those with a love of classical music.

Lennox Berkeley

Christopher Morley discovers books which would make the perfect gift for those with a love of classical music.

Many readers will remember Tony Scotland, once a popular announcer on BBC Radio 3. With his territory came a necessary love of music, and this has continued since his retirement from the air-waves, in his writings on the subject.

Scotland’s latest publication, Lennox and Freda (Michael Russell £28) is a handsome and generous volume at near 600 pages chronicling the marriage of the composer Lennox Berkeley and his wife Freda Bernstein, 20 years his junior, whom he met at the BBC Music Department during World War II.

Freda had a lot of baggage to tidy up so far as Berkeley was concerned, as her fiancé had lived through something of a bisexual past, both in England (he was Benjamin Britten’s lover until ousted by Peter Pears) and in Paris, where he was in the circles of both Ravel and Poulenc. In fact Berkeley’s music breathes a fastidious Gallic quality as well as a typical English lyricism – a fascinating mix.

The marriage produced three sons, including one of today’s most eminent composers, Michael Berkeley, and the music Lennox composed in his post-nuptial years was of pre-eminently high quality, not least the Third Symphony (though the regrettable absence of a list of works in this otherwise splendid book deprives me of easy access to the information of when it was that I reviewed its premiere).

Lennox and Freda

Another nitpicking detail concerns Hugo Rignold, who conducted the London Symphony Orchestra strings accompanying the great mezzo-soprano Kathleen Ferrier in an early BBC broadcast of Lennox Berkeley’s wonderful song-cycle Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila. The footnote describes Rignold as “the former jazz violinist”; fair enough, as he had been, but it would have been more informative to add “subsequent music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra”.

These Avila poems, given as a present to Lennox by Freda, represent an increasing major presence in Berkeley’s life, his Roman Catholicism, as so many other works testify. The parallels with Francois Poulenc scarcely need citing.

My only other cavil with this treasurable volume is that there is just too much detail about Lennox Berkeley’s gay relationships; I hesitate to say there is prurience here, as the references add to our knowledge of this rewarding, unassuming but brilliant composer, but I do wish Scotland had soft-pedalled a bit.

That apart, there is so much into which to delve: a whole panorama of the cultural life of Britain and France throughout most of the last century (so many names dropped, from Auden to Dylan Thomas and the Waughs). There are amazingly intimate and revealing photographs, headed by a painting by Pietro Fabris, Kenneth, Lord Fortrose at Home in Naples 1770, which features Berkeley’s great-great-great-grandfather making music with no less than Leopold Mozart and his son Wolfgang.

For Lennox Berkeley was the scion of a powerful, if dynastically split, aristocratic family. Had things worked out differently, he would have been the master of Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire, and would perhaps have been known as Earl Lennox Berkeley.

Given his Brideshead Revisited style of life during his undergraduateship at Oxford, perhaps this might have been appropriate. But somehow I don’t think so.

Composers are dependent upon accuracy of notation, accuracy of transcribing and accuracy of printing, and several publications over the years have addressed the issue of a need for a common language in the mere act of writing down musical notes.

Now comes the most comprehensive ever, devotedly and assiduously compiled over many years by Elaine Gould, graduating as Bachelor of Music from Birmingham University, and who for many years since has been Senior New Music Editor at Faber Music.

Mendelssohn

Faber Music is the publisher of this indispensable volume punningly entitled Behind Bars, which has references to absolutely everything a composer or copyist would need in terms of preparing for print anything from the vast archives of musical manuscripts accumulated over the centuries.

This is fascinating stuff, assimilated over decades of experience, and expressed here with such clarity. There are countless examples from scores written by the greatest composers (the way Schoenberg notated a silent piano chord in his Pierrot Lunaire is just one among hundreds). Students will benefit a good deal from Elaine Gould’s labour of love, and armchair- and concert-listeners will gain so much insight into how the composer’s dots are turned into sound across the printed page.

Audrey Duggan has reworked her well-intentioned but originally disappointing book on the 1846 world premiere here in Birmingham of Mendelssohn’s Elijah into a new edition of much more relevance, including references to Mendelssohn’s 1847 performance of the revised score of his great oratorio at Birmingham Town Hall.

This elegant, well-illustrated paperback A Sense of Occasion: Mendelssohn in Birmingham in 1846 & 1847 is published by Brewin Books (£10.95), and is particularly important for its detailing of that 1847 return, an exhausting trip for the already frail composer, and one which surely contributed to his death later in the year.

Leonard Bernstein

The estimable Ashgate publishing company issues books which are of profound academic interest whilst also engaging the general reader, and three of their recent offerings have been of particular interest to me.

There’s a Place for Us: the Musical Theatre Works of Leonard Bernstein by Birmingham University and Conservatoire alumna Helen Smith is a probing discussion of all that great composer’s works for the stage (including West Side Story, Candide and the controversial Mass, complementing Nigel Simeone’s exposition of West Side Story for the same publishers (though I find some omissions in this otherwise brilliant book).

Another invaluable Ashgate publication is Pippa Drummond’s The Provincial Music Festival in England, 1784 - 1914, crammed with detail, not least about the important Birmingham Triennial Festival, but also about minor, short-lived enterprises, such as the one in Kidderminster in 1832 (has anyone ever researched that?).

Finally, a treasurable book by Em Marshall Music in the Landscape, “How the British Countryside inspired our Greatest Composers” – and they are all there: Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten, and more besides (pub. Robert Hale). A lovely Christmas gift.

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