About this Recording
8.225155 - BERNERS: Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement (Le)

Lord Berners (1883-1950)
Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement (Le)


The Right Honourable Sir Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt Wilson, 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 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. This, however, was only on the surface. He 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 avantgarde 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, Gerald Tyrwhitt. In 1926 his first ballet, The Triumph of Neptune, to a scenario by Sacheverell Sitwell, was produced by Dyagilev’s Ballets Russes. He was one of only two British composers, the other being Constant Lambert with Romeo and Juliet, to be commissioned by the great impresario. From 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, A Wedding Bouquet, Cupid and Psyche and Les Sirènes, were written in collaboration with Frederick Ashton as choreographer and Constant Lambert as musical director. 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. Both Walton and Lambert probably helped with the orchestration of Triumph of Neptune, and 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, and it was Berners who had the idea of composing a musical illustration 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 and comprising, otherwise, 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) which 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 work of quality 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 and 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—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 woman 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 woman 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 from the arts, he would have produced more. This is debatable. Less in doubt is that his 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 seldom was bored.

The Fanfare of 1931 is Berners’ shortest piece at around thirty seconds’ duration, and takes the fear of his music outstaying its welcome to the ultimate. It was written as one of a number of such heraldic outbursts for the annual St. Cecilia’s Day concert in the Royal Albert Hall in aid of the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund, and recorded at the time by the Kneller Hall Musicians under Captain H.E. Adkins. Prosper Mérimée’s play, Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement had been a flop since its conception, and when revived in 1848, received more hisses than applause during its six performances. However, in 1917, Yvonne Arnaud staged it with considerably more success in New York, London and Paris, where Berners saw it. “I was at once fascinated by the grace, the spirit and the character of this little work… It is true that a piece whose charm lies almost entirely in word and dialogue, where the action, materially speaking, is reduced to the very simplest expression, did not seem to me particularly suitable for musical treatment… Although this is a comic opera, or if you prefer it, a comedie musicale, I have laid aside the traditional overture or prelude, the utility of which I fail to see… As regards style you will see that I have not adhered to the old tradition of different airs and scenes following each other, and bound together by the different turns of the intrigue; Mérimée’s comedy unfolds itself in too continuous and concise a manner not to induce me to follow its line by a musical development that is held together in the style of a symphonic poem.”

The play is set in the Peruvian capital, Lima, and has some foundation in fact—Sir Frederick Ashton, as a boy, brought up in Peru, met a man who had actually seen the coach of the title. Berners set the French text, cutting some of the earlier scenes, and completed the work in 1920.

The work was discussed with Dyagilev as early as December 1922 but it was not until the evening of the 4th April 1924 that the opera, conducted by Ernest Ansermet, was finally seen—at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in a triple bill with Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat and Henri Sauguet’s La Chatte. The latter was about to be cut when Berners stepped in to save it. He had misgivings of his own, not musical but scenic. He was spotted a day before the première walking up and down the foyer of the Ritz Hotel waving his arms in despair. “Mais le décor. It will spoil everything… Last night after rehearsal I had dinner with the chéf d’orchestre, M. Ansermet, and we simply sat and wept. We did really… Those awful red curtains. Oh I wish tomorrow night were weeks off”.

The Times liked it, calling it “…an unqualified success… Lord Berners’ music makes the work an unalloyed enjoyment. Only the fact that it leaves no opening for applause, that it flows on, sustaining, illustrating, emphasising the text with unflagging wit and varying sentiment, prevented the work from being interrupted several times by appreciative cheers”. The French critics were less generous, although the public enjoyed the evening—Berners appeared on stage and acknowledged the applause for some minutes—but plans to transfer the production to London came to nothing. This is probably the reason Berners never wrote for the medium again. The mixture of so much work for relatively little artistic reward, the backstage battles—all combined to push him into other theatrical areas, principally ballet. However, he thought some of the music worth saving, and devised an orchestral work, Caprice Péruvien, from some of the more immediately engaging moments in the score, with help from Constant Lambert. Despite his own thoughts on the purpose of an operatic overture or prelude, this piece, in retrospect, acts as an arresting curtain-raiser to the opera, which itself starts rather too abruptly for some tastes. The opera is cast in eight scenes that follow each other without a break, all set in the office of the Viceroy.

Scene 1
The Viceroy is seated in a large armchair at a table covered in papers and converses with his private secretary, Martinez. One of his legs is bandaged and resting on a cushion—he has gout, and is not in the best of spirits despite the imminent arrival of a brand new carriage, of which he is immensely proud.

Scene 2
His valet, Balthazar, enters to attend on him. The Viceroy is keen to attend the service in the cathedral but his gout (which he constantly denies as such, preferring to call it “fatigue”) is aggravated when he tries on a shoe.

Scene 3
The Viceroy is resigned to staying at home and attending to affairs of State. These include an Indian uprising in a remote region of the country, a complaint about La Périchole’s parrot which utters dubious language at passers-by, in particular, a marquise, and the lady herself, Senora Camilla Pericola, who stands accused of parodying a member of polite society in a recent play at the theatre in Lima. The Viceroy and Camilla have an “understanding” so he is obviously annoyed and chastises Martinez for regaling him with stories of her alleged affair with Ramon, the bullfighter.

Scene 4
La Périchole enters and gets into an argument with the Viceroy about the bullfighter and his carriages. She wants his new carriage as a present. The Viceroy refuses, brings up the subject of the matador and then threatens to ban her from appearing at the theatre. They row further and she returns his present of a necklace—all this aggravates the gout even more. To placate the situation (and reduce the pain in his leg) the Viceroy tries to convince himself that all the rumours about Camilla and the bullfighter are false. She is not so keen to go along with this but finally “forgives” him, and claims she gave a gift to the matador only because she had no cash on her person at the time of a particularly fine “kill”. In return the Viceroy gives her the carriage as much to annoy his rivals for her affection as anything else and orders it to be brought round. They part with a kiss.

Scene 5
The Viceroy watches through a telescope La Périchole’s journey all the way to the cathedral, but is annoyed further when she is greeted along the route as if it were him in the coach. The carriage then collides with another—albeit not too seriously.

Scene 6
This is almost an orchestral entr’acte (and source for much of Caprice Péruvien) and accompanies the Viceroy’s taking coffee and cigars before the town clerk arrives.

Scene 7
He tells the Viceroy of the “scene” at the cathedral—the colliding carriages, some fisticuffs involving the matador, the carriage nearly driving thought the door of the cathedral and halting the service for a while.

Scene 8
The Bishop arrives with La Périchole. The Viceroy learns that she has donated her new carriage to the Church, after a “revelation” by the Virgin Mary to bring communion to the sick and dying—hence the title of the opera. Suddenly the Viceroy’s leg is much better—a miracle? Even the Bishop agrees to dine with La Périchole and the opera ends with a solemn incantation by the Bishop’s canon assuring the actress of eternal life for her charitable gesture.

Philip Lane

Close the window