About this Recording
8.557277 - BERKELEY: Crux Fidelis / Missa Brevis / 3 Latin Motets / A Festival Anthem
English 

Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)

Lennox Berkeley (1903-1989)

Sacred Choral Music

 

Although Lennox Berkeley had begun composing as a child, he did not initially plan a career in music and read Modern Languages at Oxford. There he wrote his first published work, a song The Thresher, and after encouragement from Ravel he moved to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger. During this time he met Stravinsky and Poulenc, becoming a life-long friend of the latter. Another significant friendship was begun in 1936 at the ISCM Festival in Barcelona, when he met Britten, with whom he composed Mont Juic, based on Catalan folk-tunes they heard in a park. Despite being ten years Berkeley’s junior, Britten was an important mentor to him in his development. Berkeley’s reputation was established in the early 1940s with the premières of the Serenade for Strings (1939), First Symphony (1940) and Divertimento (1943). Apart from Ravel, Fauré, the neo-classical works of Stravinsky and Britten, Berkeley’s personal voice was also influenced by Mozart and Chopin. His music is marked by elegance, charm, wit and masterly craftsmanship. Apart from composing, Berkeley taught from 1946 to 1968 at the Royal Academy, where his pupils included John Tavener and Richard Rodney Bennett. He was knighted in 1974. In over a hundred compositions he contributed to all genres, including four operas and four symphonies. Among his finest achievements are the one-movement Third Symphony (1969), Horn Trio (1953) and the Four Poems of St Teresa of Avila (1947). As demonstrated here, his legacy also includes a significant body of compositions setting sacred texts and liturgy. These sprang from his strong personal faith, and membership of the Roman Catholic Church, which he joined in 1928.

 

The motet Crux Fidelis (1955) for tenor solo and unaccompanied choir was first performed in 1955 by Peter Pears and the Purcell Singers, conducted by Imogen Holst. In this Good Friday hymn the choir vividly describes the agonies Christ endured, for example, the anguished dissonance at the mention of the crown of thorns, whilst the tenor solo in the central section brings a personal response to the meaning of the Passion in a soaring, intense vocal line.

 

In an article Truth in Music (1966), Berkeley offered his views about composing works for the church: ‘Being a Roman Catholic, I have naturally been drawn to the Latin liturgy and felt at home with it; it’s part of my life, and I have wanted to bring to it what I have to offer, however unworthy’. Thus the Missa brevis (1960) was written for Westminster Cathedral Choir and is dedicated to the composer’s sons Michael and Julian (who were then choristers at Westminster Cathedral) together with their colleagues. It was first performed in 1960 conducted by Francis Cameron. Over all, the setting is characterised by imitative counterpoint, as heard in the opening Kyrie. The Sanctus is marked by a majestic Hosanna, but the most intense music comes with the Agnus Dei.

 

Of the Anglican liturgy, Berkeley only set the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (1980), which were first performed by the combined choirs of Salisbury, Winchester and Chichester Cathedrals in 1980 conducted by John Birch. The Magnificat has a stately quality having plenty of contrasts in choral colours. It ends with a Gloria (shared by both canticles) with a quiet but forceful strength, whilst the Nunc dimittis gradually swells from its lulling opening to an exultant climax.

 

The Three Latin Motets (1972) were written for the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, and received their première at the 1972 North Wales Music Festival, St Asaph, under the direction of George Guest. The scoring is for five-part voices which gives the music added richness of texture. Eripe me, Domine (Deliver me, O Lord), sets a text for Passion Sunday. Its harmony is stark and dissonant and throughout the words are emphasized by being set to almost each syllable. The text of Veni sponsa Christi (Come thou Bride of Christ) is proper to the Feast of Virgins and Martyrs; the flowing character of the music develops into extended lyrical lines on the word alleluia although the motet ends disturbingly, teetering on an unresolved discord. Regina coeli (Queen of Heaven) is a Marian anthem which has a dance-like quality with alleluias sung to joyous scales, and phrases tossed between different combinations of voices.

 

The Lord is my shepherd (1975) was the second of Berkeley’s works dedicated to Walter Hussey, the remarkable cleric who as incumbent of St Matthew’s, Northampton, and subsequently Dean of Chichester, initiated a remarkable series of commissions from composers including Britten and Bernstein. This setting of Psalm 23 was commissioned to mark the 900th foundation of Chichester Cathedral and was first heard in 1975. The instantly memorable melody of the solo treble at the beginning, and the mastery of choral writing in the unaccompanied middle section evoking the ‘valley of the shadow of death’, are quintessential Berkeley.

 

The Mass for five voices (1964) was commissioned by Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster, and was first performed by the cathedral choir under Colin Mawby. The character of the music reflects Berkeley’s view, espoused in the Truth in Music article, that when setting the liturgy his own compositional voice should become more impersonal, ‘so that it would merge into the liturgy, and not create a violent contrast or cause too much distraction’. Although its five-part texture provides a rich sonority, overall the music has an austere beauty. The Kyrie’s pleading for mercy is anxious and urgent. In the Gloria, the exhortation for peace on earth is followed at Laudamus te by athletic music with frequent changes of metre. The Sanctus opens with poised two-part writing for the uppermost voices. Vibrant, dancing hosannas form its second part combined with emphasized longer notes sounding like the pealing of bells. The Benedictus begins with a striking falling phrase passed between the voices. It gives way to a re-working of the Hosanna music from the Sanctus. The Mass concludes with a peaceful setting of the Agnus Dei that grows from the serene melodic phrase sung in unison at the opening.

 

Berkeley was drawn to mystical religious poetry, such as the seventeenth century metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw whom he sets in Look up, sweet babe (1955). As befits a text meditating on the Christ child, the music is characterized by tenderness. The organ accompaniment is significant since it introduces the essence of the anthem’s musical material at the beginning and weaves in and out of the choral sections, linking and commenting on them.

 

In 1943 Walter Hussey’s first commission had resulted in Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, composed for the annual Patronal Festival of St Matthew’s, Northampton. Britten recommended Berkeley for the 1945 Festival commission, and the resulting A Festival Anthem (1945) was dedicated to Hussey. As befits the celebratory occasion, it is cast on an extended scale and sets an anthology of verse: Sequence: Jerusalem et Sion filiae (in English translation), a verse from George Herbert’s poem The Flower and Henry Vaughan’s Easter Hymn. The rôle of the organ is important throughout, as at the opening when its powerful introduction sets the mood for the choir’s emphatic entrance. The setting is notable for its vivid word-painting as the choir’s elated melismas at ‘sing right merrily’. There is a moment of quietude for unaccompanied choir with the reference to the wisdom of Solomon, before the tempo quickens as the first section ends joyously.

 

The Herbert setting which follows is written for treble solo over a gently rocking accompaniment; its melody is almost sentimental but utterly engaging. Vaughan’s Easter Hymn begins dramatically with the choir, unaccompanied, dwelling on the reality of death. Hope is offered in the tenor solo that follows, with the trebles providing wordless arpeggios of solace (a magical compositional idea). After a brief organ flourish a majestic melody initiates the final section at ‘Then, unto him’ to conclude the anthem in jubilation, although in a final masterly touch Berkeley ends the work quietly as if to emphasize a sense of quiet security and that all is well.

 

Berkeley wrote only a handful of works for the organ. The Toccata is the last of his Three Pieces for organ (1966-8) which were given their première by Simon Preston at the 1968 Cheltenham Festival. For the most part brilliant and virtuosic, it is marked by off-beat explosive dissonant outbursts in its outer sections.

 

Andrew Burn


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