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8.223711 - BERNERS: Triumph of Neptune / L'uomo dai baffi

Lord Berners (1883-1950)

Lord Berners (1883-1950)

The Right Honourable Sir Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, later 14th Baron Berners in the peerage of England, and a baronet, was born on 18th September 1883 at Apley Park, near Bridgnorth, Shropshire, the son of Commodore the Hon. Hugh Tyrwhitt, third son of Emma Harriet, Baroness Hemmers in her own right, and Julia May Foster. (The title is one of few in the British peerage that can pass through the female, as well as the male line.) Educated at Eton, and later in Dresden, Vienna, France and Italy, mainly in pursuit of a knowledge of languages to equip him for the diplomatic service, he succeeded his uncle in 1918, assuming the additional name of Wilson by Royal Charter a year later. He served as honorary attaché in Constantinople and later in Rome, but on his ‘elevation’, relinquished these posts, returning to England and his inheritance, several country estates, and lived the rest of his life ostensibly as a country gentleman. But this was only on the surface. This was a man whose music drew the highest praise from Stravinsky, and whose not inconsiderable literary and painting skills were to make him ‘the versatile peer’ in the national press, but it was as a composer that he wished to be remembered.

The earliest music of Berners is the most avant-garde in style, being entirely made up of songs, in English, French and German, and piano pieces, many of which were published under his original mane, Gerald Tyrwhitt. In 1924 his only opera, Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement, was given in Paris in a triple bill with works by Stravinsky and Henri Sauguet.

Soon afterwards, his music became more accessible but never lost its original flavour and distinctive style. It had shed its avant-garde skin with the orchestral triptych, Trois morceaux, Fantaisie espagnole, both first performed in 1919, and the Fugue in C minor of 1924. In fact, his music was deemed accessible enough to be considered for a C.H. Cochran revue, with the ballet Luna Park, in 1930. The last three ballets were written in collaboration with Frederick Ashton as choreographer and Constant Lambert as musical director - A Wedding Banquet, Cupid and Psyche and Les Sirènes. Lambert and the young William Walton were the only two British composers with whom Berners felt a sympathy. (Not for him the pastoral school of Vaughan Williams and Holst.) Walton certainly received regular amounts of financial assistance from Berners for many years, even up to the composition of Belshazzar’s Feast, which is dedicated to him. 

During the 1940s Berners involved himself in one other medium, cinema, writing two complete film scores for The Halfway House (1943) and Nicholas Nickleby (1946). For all three, Ealing’s musical director, Ernest Irving, provided the orchestrations, but again they are unmistakably Berners in language and style. After this, he wrote nothing of note for the last four years of his life. He suffered bouts of depression, and, in the words of his friend John Betjeman, finally ‘turned his face to the wall and died’ on 19th Apri11950.

This was a sad end to a life that not only produced much work of qualtity but that gave so much pleasure to others. The visitors’ book at Faringdon, his country house, lists the famous of three decades, Shaw, Wells, Huxley, Beerbohm, the Mitfords, the Sitwells among others. His eccentricities, all carefully calculated to amuse - or offend - were legendary. From the clavichord in the back of his Rolls-Royce to his habit of dyeing the local pigeons exotic colours (this continues to the present day), all had their individual raison d’être, at least for him. His dislike of pomposity revealed itself in a wealth of stories, like the one of the lady invited to luncheon to meet the P of W, being rather disappointed when the Provost of Worcester appeared in place of the Prince of Wales whom she had been expecting, or the lady who declared once too often that she ‘had been sticking up’ for him. Berners responded that he, in turn, had been sticking up for her; someone had said that she was not fit to live with pigs, and he said that she was. But all these fripperies were incidental to his art. When not composing music he would write short humorous novels, six in number, three volumes of autobiography, one unpublished and stage two exhibitions of his paintings in 1931 and 1936.

Berners’ musical output was small by most standards and the case is often made that if he had had to earn a living exclusively from the arts, he would have produced more. This is debatable. Less in doubt is that Berners’ art was well appreciated amongst his fellow artists, and aristocrats. Osbert Sitwell summed it up by writing that in the years between the wars ‘he did more to civilise the wealthy than anyone in England. Through London’s darkest drawing-rooms, as well as lightest, he moved..... sort of missionary of the arts.’ Not a bad epitaph - that is, if Berners had not written one of his own….

Here lies Lord Berners,

One of the learners.

His great love of learning

May earn him a burning.

But Praise the Lord!

He seldom was bored.

The music of Berners’ first and most ambitious ballet score, The Triumph of Neptune, has been known up to now only by those movements selected for the orchestral suite, at least to all but those survivors of the first and only run of the production and those willing to play through the piano score. The suite was recorded twice by Sir Thomas Beecham, in 1937 with his own London Philharmonic, and 1950 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and once more in the 1980s by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Barry Wordsworth. The same music, with some additional music in Bernersian style by me, constituted the score of David Bintley’s 1979 ballet, Mr. Punch & the Street Party. With this first recording of the full score, however, (The Shipwreck has been omitted, being simply a theatrical device to change scenes and more an extended sound effect than music, particularly when divorced from the stage action) the full scale of Beroers’ invention is heard for the first time on disc. The work was commissioned by Dyagilev for his London season of 1926. Keen to produce a ballet on an English subject, he considered a number of composers, alive and dead, from William Boyce to William Walton. It is not really surprising that Berners was finally chosen since he had been part of the Stravinsky and Dyagilev circle during the First World War, when he had been working at the British Embassy in Rome.

Dyagilev’s Ballets Russes had been coming to London for eagerly anticipated seasons since before the Great War. The general fare was distinctly Russian, whether nineteenth-century Romantic or contemporary ethnic, and so, by 1926, the great impresario thought it time to show the British something of their own cultural heritage on stage. The question of what, however, occupied his mind for a considerable time. In consultation with Sacheverell Sitwell he had toyed with an Elizabethan subject, The Merry Wives of Windsor or As You Like It, to the music of John Bull, or something derived from Rowlandson prints to music of Boyce or Roseingrave, or even Walton whose Portsmouth Point was well known to him.

It was, however, only after Berners came to him with some dance numbers he had already composed that a deal was struck between showman and composer to conceive a British ballet - but the scenario had still to be agreed upon. When no literary idea occurred to Dyagilev, the world of English painting was investigated. While he and Sitwell failed to agree on any specific artist, a parallel avenue was found in the world of the ‘penny plain and tuppence coloured’ prints of Benjamin Pollock in Hoxton, and H.J. Webb in Old Street, many examples of which Dyagilev had bought. Armed with the work of George and Robert Cruickshank, Tofts, and the like, he left for Florence, where Sitwell later joined him with the outline of his ballet-pantomime-harlequinade, The Triumph of Neptune. This was a true pantomime with all the kinds of characters one would expect to find in that very British seasonal hybrid. The choreography by George Balanchine was, for him, traditional and straightforward, carefully balancing humorous and sentimental elements. The décor, derived from the toy-shop prints, was fresh and original to the theatrical eye.

The first performance of The Triumph of Neptune took place on 3rd December 1926, at the Lyceum Theatre, conducted by Henri Defosse. It formed part of a triple bill, that season, with The Firebird and Aurora's Wedding. Amongst the cast were Alexandra Danilova as the Fairy Queen, Serge Lifar as Tom Tug, Lydia Sokolova as the Goddess, and Balanchine himself, in his last dancing rôle, as the negro, Snowball. The score, several numbers of which might have been those dances shown to Dyagilev at the outset of the project, is as diverse as it is continually inventive. The synopsis of the inconsequential plot confirms it as a mixture of naïve Victorian pantomime. Jules Verne and modern satire. Berners himself described the score as “variegated as a Christmas tree. You will find a little of everything in it from Tchaikovsky to Léo Delibes. And above all it is not in the least ‘modern’.”

A magic telescope has been set up on London Bridge through which it is possible to see Fairyland. A journalist and sailor decide they must make the fantastic journey. Cloudland is a classical interlude, featuring two sylphs, while the Farewell shows our intrepid adventurers taking their leave by bus: as they do so, a Dandy embarks on a seduction of the Sailor’s wife. The explorers are shipwrecked but saved by the Goddess, while in Fleet Street The Evening Telescope and The Evening Microscope vie for first news of the expedition.

In The Frozen Forest, known to the stage crew as ‘Wigan by Night’, fairies play in a snow scene which glistens in pale moonlight, with the Fairy Queen in attendance. The Polka is danced by the Dandy and the Sailor’s wife accompanied by a brass band. They are interrupted by a drunk singing The Last Rose of Summer, and when they go inside the house, their shadows are evident on the blind. The Sailor’s spirit returns to defend his honour and the shadow of his hand with a knife poised to strike brings two policemen to intervene; they grasp him but his spirit has already returned to Fairyland. The following scenes set in an Evil Grotto and The Ogres' Castle were later dropped as being too brutal in the context of the rest of the ballet and there is no record of what happened to this music. The action returns to London Bridge. A drunken negro, Snowball, upsets the telescope and in so doing severs all connection with Fairyland. The Sailor, horrified at his wife’s infidelity, resolves to take fairy form and, transformed into the Fairy Prince, marries Neptune’s daughter. The Apotheosis describes the ensuing wedding, with its snatches of Rule Britannia. The Schottische movement, included to give Lydia Sokolova more prominence in the production, was placed after The Shipwreck as an entr’acte, but all numbers here are played in the order of the published full score.’

L’uomo dai baffi (The Man with the Moustache) was part of an evening organised by Fortunato Depero for the Compagnia Marionettistica of Gorno dell’Acqua. It took the form of a performance by Balli Plastici, a puppet theatre, at the Teatro dei Piccoli di Palazzo Odescalchi in Rome on I5th April, 1918. The music was in the hands of Alfredo Casella, one of Berners’ closest musical friends in the city at this time. Casella persuaded Malipiero to compose a new work, I selvaggi, but the three other works were versions of existing piano pieces, by Bartók. Berners and Casella himself, arranged for a chamber ensemble of single woodwind, brass, percussion, piano and strings. Casella used several movements from his duet suite, Pupazzetti, and the last of Bartók’s Ten Easy Pieces (attributed to one Chemenow in the programme). It is perfectly possible that he arranged the Berners pieces as well, but this can only be speculation at this distance. Whatever the case, only single woodwind, piano and strings are employed in L’uomo, and the original order of the suite relates to Le Rire (the second of the Fragments psychologiques), the Trois petites marches funèbres (in strict order) and Portsmouth Point respectively. I have added the two remaining Fragments (Un soupir and La haine) as Intermezzi I & II respectively. Portsmouth Point, incidentally, was Berners own attempt at describing in music Rowlandson’s famous print of hustle and bustle on the quayside, written some seen years before Walton’s overture, and it shows a generous streak in Berners’ psyche that he more that likely gave Walton the idea for his more famous picture of the subject.

The original piano duet of Valses bourgeoises was published in 1919, and although there exist two other works in the same genre, Trois morceaux and Fantaisie espagnole, they are very much reductions of orchestral pieces rather than original compositions. Having played the Valses myself for pleasure over many years, it always seemed strange that Berners had not orchestrated them, since they have a distinctively orchestral character to them. Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and La valse were very much at the back of my mind for much of the set, but I felt the music demanded a more ironic slant to it than Ravel implied in his works, and this is I hope, reflected in my orchestrations.

In the first, Valse brillante, the only obvious allusion is to the March of the Davidsbündler from Schumann’s Carnaval, another piano work, later orchestrated by Glazunov and others, and in the second, Valse caprice, none of any specific nature. In the third, however, Strauss, Strauss et Straus, (Johann, Richard and Oscar respectively) there is more opportunity to ape the originals, most pointedly in the Der Rosenkavalier section. If Ravel’s La valse could be said to be the ultimate distillation of everything about the waltz, then this set by Berners, with its frequent rallentandos and accelerandos, odd bars of 2/8 and 4/4 and cock-a-snook last pages, should be seen as its less than fond farewell, or last nail in the coffin, depending on one’s view.

Although featured in the 1944 Ealing production, Champagne Charlie, the Polka was actually composed some three years earlier for a Christmas pantomime, Cinderella, at the Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, not far from Berners’ home at Faringdon. In character it succumbs to the demands of the dance form, but not to the straight-jacket of convention, with numerous key changes and unmistakable Bernersian touches punctuating the flow. Ernest Irving orchestrated the piano score for the film, but I have not tried to match this in a way, seeing this version as a concert item in its own right, rather that a piece of film music, which it never was in the first place.

Philip Lane


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