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ClassicsOnline Home » BERNERS: Triumph of Neptune / L'uomo dai baffi
Lord Berners (1883-1950)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
lies Lord Berners,
great love of learning
him a burning.
Praise the Lord!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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BERNERS: Triumph of Neptune / L'uomo dai baffi