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8.223780 - BERNERS: Sirenes (Les) / Cupid and Psyche

Lord Berners (1883 -1950)

Lord Berners (1883 - 1950)


The Right Honourable Sir GeraId 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 Berners in her own right, and Julia Mary Poster. (The title is one of few in the British peerage that can pass through the fernale, as weIl as the male line.) Educated at Eton, and later in Dresden, Vienna, Prance and Italy, mainly in pursuit of a knowledge of languages to equip hirn 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 attache in Constaninople 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 ostensively as a country gentleman. But this was only on the sudace. 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 name, GeraId Tyrwhitt. In 1924 his only opera, Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement was given in Paris in a tripIe bill with works by stravinsky and Henri sauguet. Two years later, his first ballet, The Triumph of Neptune, to a scenario by SachevereIl sitwell, was produced by Dyagilev's Ballets Russes - one of only two British composers, the other being Constant Lambert with Romeo and [uliet, to be commissioned by the great impresario. Prom now on 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.B. Cochran revue, with the ballet Luna Park, in 1930. The last three balletic works were written in collaboration with Frederick Ashton, as choreographer and Constant Lambert as musical director, A Wedding Bouquet, Cupid and Psyche and Les Sirenes. Lambert and the young William Walton were the only two British composers with whom Berners feIt a sympathy. Not for hirn the pastoral school of Vaughan Wi1liams and Holst. Walton and Lambert probably helped with the orchestration of Triumph of Neptune, and the former certainly received regular amounts of financial assistance from Bemers for many years, even up to the composition of Belshazzar's Feast, which is dedicated to hirn, and it was Berners who had the idea of composing a musical i1lustration of the Rowlandson print Portsmouth Point, and indeed wrote one. It now appears as the last movement of his chamber piece, L 'Uomo dai baffi, written for an Italian puppet play which otherwise comprises arrangements of some of the piano pieces mentioned earlier. That Walton made a more substantial and lasting work out of the idea would have pleased Berners almost as much as if he had done so himself.


During the 1940s Berners involved himself in one other medium - cinema - contributing a Polka and a song, Come on Algernon, to the 1944 Ealing production, Champagne Charlie: and 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 film, 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 April 1950.


This was a sad end to a life that not only produced much quality work 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'etre, for him anyway! 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 was presented 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… a 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 to the Lord! He seidom was bored.


Les Sirenes


February 1946 saw the Sadler's Wells Ballet take up residence in their new home, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The first new ballet of the season was to be Les Sirenes, originally entitled La plage; ou les Sirenes, reuniting Frederick Ashton with two previous collaborators, Cecil Beaton and Lord Berners.


lt was Ashton' s intention to evoke the world of Ouida, using her novel Moths as source material for a ballet. According to Cecil Beaton, while walking by the sea-shore, Ashton 'stopped to watch the movements of the seagulls, wheeling, strange and remote, above the beach. He decided to combine Moths with the seagulls, introduce certain characters from the novel, such as the opera-singer and Lady Kitty, gather them together on the plage at Trouville together with La Belle Otero, a Maharajah, a handful of mermaids, the first balloon -and see what came of it'.


The plot, despite some small amendments later, is largely laid out in the synopsis provided for the opening night audience on 12th November 1946 by Ashton himself.


Draft synopsis by Frederick Ashton (later amended):


It is dawn on a French watering-place and Sirens are sitting on a rock combing their hair and singing the latest waltz. Two Seagulls are picking about on the beach, they are frightened away by the arrival of children with large hoops, their nurses flirt with the local police. The sirens in terror slide off the rock on a piercing coloratura top note, leaving their combs behind them. The gulls take possession of the rock and comb out each other's feathers. The children play around till the arrival of the smart world who parade themselves on the beach in elegant beach wear with enormous hats. Lady Kitty enters more elegant than anybody and very blonde and accompanied by an asinine Guardsman and the latest fashionable tenor; they dance and flirt and everybody dances.


At the climax of gaiety La Belle Otero, the rage of the moment, enters. She is persuaded to dance, she steps on to the rock and does a mock Spanish dance comme une vache espagnole, all are rayished, especially the Tenor and Guardsman, she has eyes only for the tenor.

Excitement grows as an oriental carpet-seller rushes on and proceeds to lay down his carpets. The gay world line the length of carpet and a foreign royalty in morning clothes, orders, decorations, jewels, white spats oyer oriental shoes, and a fez, appears. He walks down the carpet an attendant holding a sunshade oyer his head and all curtsy. As he comes to La Belle Otero she throws out her hip in Spanish allure, which gains his immediate attention and awakens his desire. Lady Kitty is ignored and flounces off. The Royal Personage makes adyances to Otero who already is attended by the tenor and Guardee. They do a dance of riyal claims. The Guardee offers her marriage, the tenor his false heart, and the Royal personage his jewels, which naturally win her but not her loye which has gone to the tenor. As Otero and personage exit she throws a kiss to the Guardee, a flower or garter to the tenor and a note of assignation. The gayworld !eaye for lunch. The tenor is left alone with his memories and the seagulls who peck interestedly around hirn.


Otero eventually steals back and does a swooning love dance with the tenor, during the lunch hour, as she gets more carried away and abandoned she drops the jewels given to her by the Royal personage. They decide to bathe to cool off their passion, and disappear into wheeled cabins and while undressing sing a duet, the seagulls listen with great interest and applaud - but suddenly see the jewels glistening on the beach, they bite at them, and eventually take them on to the rock and sit on them and nod off, rest their eyes, have a little siesta.


Otero and Tenor emerge in bathing dresses and as they appear, the corps de ballet also in bathing dresses come on pulling the sea. All bathe and the Sirens rise up out of the water singing {coloratura) and confusing everybody. After bathing they take off the sea and Otero and tenor D' Ardath rernain to sun bathe. The royal personage suddenly appears looking for Otero, who is caught in an ernbrace, he indignantly dernands back his jewels, a search is made, they cannot be found, the police are called by Lady Kitty, general scandal, all scorn Otero encouraged by Lady Kitty, the tenor included; afraid of his career he exits with Lady Kitty , as does everybody else. Otero escorted by police and followed by Royal Personage and Guardee determined to 'see it through, Old Boy'.


As evening draws near the Sirens reappear on the rock, the gulls wake up and the male gull lifts the colliere and puts it round the female' s neck with pride and affection, she preens herself and the orchestra softly play the opening bars of Les Patineurs Waltz [Estudiantina actually] which the Sirens take up in the background, and comb their hair. Slow curtain.


Like Cupid and Psyche before the War, the ballet was not a success, and was not revived after its initial nineteen performances. Ashton and Beaton were deerned to have been out of touch with the times. Berners' music has lasted sornewhat better and shows hirn very adept at writing music for dance and to evoke atmospRere. As usual he cannot resist allusions to other composers and pieces, frorn Debussy's La mer in the opening scene to the frequent 'versions' of Waldteufel's Spanish waltz Estudiantina.


Caprice peruvien


Bemers' one and only operatic excursion came in 1923 with the production at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees of the one-acter Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement on a tripIe bill with stravinsky and Henri sauguet.


The story by Prosper Merimee is set in Lima, Peru, in the eighteenth century and involves the goings-on between the Viceroy and a local comedienne, La Perichole, the character who gives her name to Offenbach's operetta on the same subject. Ever the cosmopolitan, Berners sets the original French text, dedicates it 'to my travelling companions in Italy, Perugia - Rome, Summer 1920' and uses the south American setting as an excuse to indulge himself in . quasi-spanish rhythms and melodies as he had in Fantaisie espagnole four years earlier, and was to do again in the subsequent ballets.


These particular elements are very much to the fore in Constant Lambert’s Caprice which was put together with Berners' assistance in 1938 between, productions of A Wedding Bouquet and Cupid and Psyche.


Cupid and Psyche


As with a A Wedding Bouquet, Bemers again devised the ballet's scenario this time basing it on Apuleius' version of the Greek legend of Cupid's love for the mortal, Psyche. However, the costumes and sets were not designed by the composer, but by Sir Francis Rose.


As with Les Sirenes, there were elements in the work that showed Ashton and his team somewhat out of touch with the times. For example the character of Jupiter is depicted as a goose-stepping Fascist leader giving a Mussolini salute. To the audience at sadler's Wells Theatre on the opening night - 27th April 1939 - it was too late for such humour. Again, although the first half of the ballet is lyrical, the final scene is treated as a ballet-bouffe mirroring Berners' quasi-Offenbach music, and as if the story were not sufficiently clear, members of the Old Vic Dramatic School declaimed the plot at the opening of each scene. Even though the Daily Telegraph critic declared it to be 'a charming ballet and the audience appreciated it to the full' , other reports suggest it was booed frorn the gallery. The latter might be the more accurate since it ran für just four performances.


The music of the suite follows the plot chronologically and represents some three-quarters of the full score. Berners himself provided the following synopsis.


Scene I


In a certain city in Greece there lived a king who had three daughters. The two eIder sisters were fair to behold, but such was the loveliness of Psyche, the youngest, that the townsfolk carried her in triumph through the streets. The altars of Venus were neglected and the people worshipped Psyche in her stead.


Now this aroused the anger of the Goddess. She sent for her son Cupid and said to him 'Go, seek out this presumptuous maid and let her become the slave of an unworthy love. Thus shall your mother be avenged.'


Cupid hastened to obey his mother's commands. Putting on the mask of invisibility, he set forth on his mission of vengeance. But the beauty of Psyche was proof even against the wrath of the Gods, and the God of Love himself fell a victim to his own weapons.


Casting aside his bow and arrows, he bore her swiftly through the air, over the high mountain tops and set her down among the flowers of a valley in his own domain.


Scene II


Cupid has built a fair palace for Psyche and here, attended by the Zephyrs, she lives happily awhile. Yet Cupid himself remains invisible and comes to her only under cover of the night. Such, he teIls her, are the conditions imposed on the union of Gods and mortals. And he warns her that she must not seek to look upon his face or to discover what manner of being he is, for undue curiosity would surely bring disaster in its train.

After a time Psyche begins to long for the company of her sisters. She begs of Cupid so earnestly that she may be allowed to see them that he at last consents, and they are transported by the Zephyrs to Psyche's palace.


At first they greet their sister tenderly, but when they hear of her good fortune and see the magnificence of her habitation, envy turns their hearts to evil and they seek how they may best destroy her happiness. They discover, by cunning questions, that Psyche has never looked upon the visible form of her lover.


‘Alas' they cry, 'this is hardly a satisfactory situation for a young girl. This vaunted God of yours is without doubt some monster so hideous that he dare not show his face. And when his lust is satisfied he will in the end devour you.'


Scene III


Distracted by doubt and fear, Psyche listens to the evil counsels of her sisters and, taking with her a lighted lamp, she draws aside the curtain of the bed-chamber. But lo! instead of some fearful monster there is revealed to her the sweetest and most gentle of all creatures, the God of Love himself lying asleep on the couch. As the gazes upon him in rapture a drop of burning oil falls on his shoulder. At the touch of fire the God starts up. Reproaching her bitterly for her want of faith, he rises upon his wings and takes fight into the sky.


After wandering through many countries in search of Cupid, Psyche returns once more to her native land. Meanwhile Venus, as punishment for his disobedience, holds Cupid captive in her palace, and she pursues the luckless Psyche with her vengeance, subjecting her to many trials and persecutions.


At last, driven to despair, Psyche determines to put an end to her sufferings. As she makes her way to cast herself from a high rock into the sea, the God Pan appears to her. Touched by her misery, he calls upon the Gods to help her. Ceres, Minerva, Apollo, Diana, Jupiter and Juno all plead in turn with Venus, and by their powers of persuasion induce the angry Goddess to relent. Cupid is restored to Psyche, and all the Gods join in the marriage feast. Apollo sings to the lyre, Pan plays on his reeds, Ceres scatters her flowers, even Venus herself dances to the music. Thus, with due rites, does Psyche pass into the power of Cupid.


Philip Lane


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