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Lord Berners

Born: 1883

Died: 1950

Nationality: British

Publisher: Chester Music

Lord Berners was one of the most idiosyncratic and fascinating personalities in British music. He became a pioneer in the avant-garde when he wrote his first music whilst living in Rome as a diplomat during World War I; Balanchine choreographed his first two ballets and Ashton the next three; in 1931 he had the first exhibition of his paintings; in 1934 he published the first volume of his autobiography, First Childhood, and two years later his first novel, The Camel – and three more novels came out in 1941. On top of all this during the 1930s, known as ‘the versatile peer’, he increasingly gained a reputation as an eccentric, which he realised was good for publicity. His paintings all sold and some of his novels were translated into French and Swedish: all are now back in print. But it was his music that meant the most to him and, largely through the endeavours of Philip Lane, all of it is available on CD.

Because Berners was admired by Stravinsky, was commissioned by Diaghilev, wrote his ballet A Wedding Bouquet to a text by Gertrude Stein (designing the costumes and sets himself), he associated with some of the leading international figures in the arts. He kept a house in Rome but increasingly held court at Faringdon House (then Berkshire, now Oxfordshire) as a centre for his legendary surrealist activities such as dying the pigeons various colours and building a useless Folly on the hill outside Faringdon against local opposition in 1935. Between the wars he attended musical events across Europe but World War II was a disaster that threatened everything he valued: he was at heart a European at home in various languages. Berners barely recovered from the war, although he wrote his last ballet and some film music afterwards.

His music has never been completely neglected but there was a lean period after his death in 1950 until the revival concert at the Purcell Room in 1972, with John Betjeman giving readings: this was broadcast and led to some first recordings. There was more activity for the centenary in 1983 with London concerts, with Meriel and Peter Dickinson and Timothy West reading. Published volumes of songs and piano music came out (complete piano duets later), and a BBC Radio 3 documentary that became a book by Peter Dickinson: Lord Berners: Composer, Writer, Painter (Boydell 2008, paperback 2010). Through the 1990s more recordings appeared, including Berners’ only opera, Le Carrosse du saint-sacrement, which gained its first British staging with Dorset Opera in 2012. Then Berners acquired a new audience through Mark Amory’s lively biography, Lord Berners: the Last Eccentric (Chatto and Windus 1998, paperback 1999), and the coinciding reprints of the autobiographies and the novels in the Collected Tales and Fantasies (Turtlepoint Press/Helen Marx Books, 1999), followed by The Château de Résenlieu, 2000 and Dresden, 2008. Gerald Berners was actually the 14th Baron Berners – it wasn’t just a showbiz title as his friend and colleague Constant Lambert had to explain in America – and when he inherited in 1918 he became rich. That made him look like a dilettante but Stravinsky recognised that if Berners was regarded as an amateur because he had no need to earn his living from the arts it was ‘in the best – literal sense’ and nothing he ever did was amateurish. A wry humour pervades everything, as the brilliant orchestral Fantaisie Espagnole and Three Pieces abundantly show. His songs and piano music, too, are as full of whimsical references as those of Satie – he has been called the English Satie and the Ronald Firbank of music. Berners was not prolific but whatever he did was stamped with his own fastidious accomplishment. He may not have been the last eccentric but his music makes him one of the most rewarding.

© Peter Dickinson 2013
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