“If we compare the average titles of present-day orchestral pieces with those of twenty or thirty years ago, we might think that exoticism had died out of music save in the brilliant parodies of Lord Berners.” So wrote Constant Lambert in Music Ho! about the orchestral version of these three pieces which had received their premiere under Goosens in a Hallé concert in Manchester in march 1919.
Just as in the various groups of songs, in Trois Morceaux Berners shows his aptitude for caricaturing ‘national styles’ without resorting to bare cliché, producing, in turn, the effect of a Chinese screen, the delicate tints of old Viennese porcelain, and the crude barbaric colours of Russian peasant art. But beneath these audaciously brilliant impressions lurk, half-concealed, a parodistic intention, for the triptych is cast in the vein of a stereotyped form of folklore or genre music as conceived by the conventional European mind.
In the quaint orientalism of Chinoiserie (dedicated to the designer Michel Larionov) Berners conceived Europeanised Chinese music while avoiding the outsized fingerprint of a string of consecutive fourths within the pentatonic scale with which universal Man is poked in the ribs and informed that he is in the Orient. Both the first theme and the accompanying ostinato figure have fourths incorporated in them but not in a blatant way. Even where fourths and fifths predominate, the music remains restrained and mere accompaniment to the second theme, variants of which, together with similar treatments of the first theme, provide the bulk of the music for the rest of the piece – even to the end where the music has three attempts at coming to a conclusion.
The faintly ironic Valse Sentimentale that follows is dedicated to Goosens and as a waltz is more elusive than any in the ‘bourgeois’ set, having an almost forlorn quality. Berners launches into the Kasatchok (dedicated to Natalia Gontcharova) with a more varied chromatic palate. The melodic lines are made up of shorter melodic ideas repeated identically at intervals, or subtly altered in short burst of continuous music, all within a framework of virtually unrelenting rhythmic intensity and ferocity.
© 1994 Philip Lane