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ClassicsOnline Home » BERNERS: Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement (Le)
Fanfare - Caprice Péruvien
- Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement (Comic Opera in One Act)
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 Hemmers 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 Hemmers
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, 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
Lamben as musical director. Lamben 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 HoIst. Both Walton and Lamben 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 Algemon, to the 1944 Baling 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
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 torn, 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
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.
One of the
love of learning
him a burning.
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 uuder Captain H.E.
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 word. 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 comédie 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
24th 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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 carnage then collides with another - albeit not too seriously.
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
He tells the Viceroy
of the “scene” at the cathedral - the colliding carriages, some fisticuffs
involving the matador, the carnage nearly driving thought the door of the
cathedral and halting the service for a while.
The Bishop arrives
with La Périchole. The Viceroy learns that she has donated her new carnage
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.
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